In Egypt, the Arab Spring of 2011 brought an end to a 30-year regime and resulted in democratically elected change the following year. By 2013, however, the new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, had been removed from office by the country’s military, triggering massive protests. Director Mohamed Diab’s tense sociopolitical drama “Clash” goes inside a packed police van in the days following that event.
Initially, we only see the inside of the empty metal vehicle. The prisons are full and the van is quickly populated by arrests: an Egyptian American reporter (Hani Adel) and his Egyptian photographer (Mohamed El Sebaey); a small group of bystanders who pelted the van with rocks and claim to support the military; members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although distrust of the journalists is shared by both sides, divisions among the detainees are quickly established. The MB choose a leader/spokesman and separate their dues-paying members from the mere supporters. Two females, a nurse (Nelly Karim) accompanying her husband and young son, and a teenage girl (May El Ghaity), complicate matters for the more fundamentalist prisoners.
The heat of the day turns the van into an oven. Assaulted with a fire hose and tear gas by the police, bullets from a sniper and rocks and bottles from an angry mob, the van’s inhabitants quarrel and brawl with one another and plead with their largely unsympathetic captors for water. They shout to other vans for news of family and friends. Eventually — stripped to their humanity — decency and small kindnesses are shared. Nightfall may bring relief from the sun, but a laser-lit nightmare awaits in the darkness.
For Diab and his co-writer, Khaled Diab, the dramatic device of remaining in and around the police van is no gimmick. It is a portal through which we witness the hundreds of protesters surge and recede as the van moves through the city. Within this roiling Petri dish, the filmmakers cultivate a dynamic portrait of Egypt, with its dense social, political and religious layers.
This is not a monolithic Islam on display, but a complex culture wherein the potential seeds of radicalism are subtly sowed. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival more than a year ago, but in its depiction of contested democracy and unyielding partisanship it is not hard to see parallels with the divided U.S. of 2017. Ultimately, when the mob rules, you lose no matter what side you’re on.
In Arabic with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills