The morning of Saturday 8th April 2017 was a morning of firsts: I took my first Uber ride; made my first Instagram post. After a morning distributing flyers and boards around the Birmingham canals and SeaLife Centre, I prepared for an afternoon at Flatpack Film Festival with a great series of films lined up.
The Everyman Mailbox might take the record for the comfiest cinema in Birmingham. Hidden away inside a shopping centre, the Everyman is decked out with a bar and unreasonably comfy seats, enough space to chill out and relax with a few drinks.
Egypt’s image might be as a land of pyramids and pharaohs, trapped within its history and tourist industry. Egyptologists and adventurers seep through the sands, looking for the great mysteries of the ancient ages. But Egypt is far more complicated than we can be led to believe. As the Middle East is engulfed by conflict and the emergence of ISIS, Egypt’s existence is far from stable. The Arab Spring emerged throughout Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, becoming seen as emblematic of the participatory nature of the internet, alongside the Occupy movement: a powerful, leaderless force, manifesting mass protests through social media, with the power to topple governments. But the Arab Spring has not seen the birth of new democracies, but waves of extremism and oppression; Syria has collapsed to rubble, creating a mass refugee crisis and troubling use of chemical weapons by Assad. Tahrir Square stood as a symbol of revolution, but revolution dissipated. Clash situates us within the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in July 2013, retelling the military coup overthrowing Mohammed Morsi from power as president. Coproduced with French and German financiers, with assistance from studios like ARTE and Pyramide, Clash recreate protests through its use of contained space and assembling a group of extras to act as a mass of protestors, struggling with the difficulties of financing and distribution and limited budgets.
Much of what we understand about Egypt comes from journalism, not only in reportage but photojournalism. In an age where journalism is justifiably questioned more than ever, from clickbait to social media, to dubious online advertising to paywalls and fake news, we need more diligence than ever. Journalists need time and resources to cover stories in-depth, rather than throwaway headlines awash with speculation. All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) act as powerful defences of news journalism’s impact in exposing the truth. But often, film is unable to use journalism effectively. No Man’s Land (2001) and the re-edited Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) insert English-speaking journalists in a way that feels clumsy, explaining away events for international viewers outside the film’s native country, destroying narrative logic and authenticity. As AP journalists, Adam and photographer Zein could be presented as easy international audience conduits. But Adam’s heritage gives him narrative license: as an Egyptian-American, Adam buried his dad in Egypt; the future of his country is just as much of interest to him as it is to any other Egyptian. Adam is constantly treated like shit, but his presence is essential in drawing international attention to injustices and events.
Clash conveys immediacy through its use of handheld camera, creating a documentary quality. Released only 3 years after the events depicted within the film, Clash walks a line between historical events and contemporary politics. Clash’s documentary quality lacks narrative justification: there is no unseen cameraman within the van following events. Clash refuses to conform to the found footage element of films like Chronicle (2012) that often strain credibility, instead evoking the form to create a mood that feels raw and contemporaneous. Events are depicted that cannot be captured as documentary, transcending limitations. Though we live in an age where cellphones are everywhere: potentially, no event can go uncaptured, every minute of the day committed to film through multiple angles, there are still limitations. As journalists risk their lives in warzones, there are still blind spots: atrocities can still be suppressed. The camera on Zein’s smart watch feels like a Dan Dare-esque gadget: Zein acts as guerrilla filmmaker, depicting the people on the van. Later, the camera acts as a memento, depicting song and joy as a record of people assembled together. Adam and Zein must negotiate their positions between acting as journalists and as trustworthy friends and allies; the van’s occupants remain self-aware they are being watched.
Cinematographer Ahmed Gabr achieves a strong use of cinematography, looking out to the world outside, lit out in lights, lasers and fireworks and punishing purples. After A’isha’s father’s death, her face becomes engulfed by reds, conveying her internal emotions.
Enclosed within a van, the film creates a sense of suffocation. Clash might be best watched in the confinement of a shaking van on a miniature TV. Hitchcock used contained spaces in Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954) not only to focus upon the intensity of character performance but to focus upon location as a character within itself. Conflict arises with human emotion at its most tested, separating into tribalism instinctively as they are forcibly moved in a vehicle against their will. Though our characters begin as blank slates, we come to know them much more deeply. Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Journalists. Protestors. Everyday citizens. Mothers, fathers and children. A wannabe DJ, a film star, soccer fans. Rather than a homogenised mass, Diab grants each character subjectivity, with their own backgrounds and experiences.
Each character finds their own way of coping against the inevitable. Diab builds uneasy prescience around our characters’ doom: they remain aware that in the van before them, 40 people died, bound to be left for death. Characters negotiate with soldiers and police as captors, wanting at least basic human dignity, still with basic human needs: water, air, needing to piss. Clash has some gore: open wounds, stitches, blood, exploding bodies, but the film never becomes too gory, instead seeking realism. Some hold onto a faith in God, knowing a better day will come. A’isha removes her hijab to find a pin, in order to force the door open, contending against the systems of respect and oppression built into Islam. A’isha plays a game of noughts and crosses upon the wall, reflecting wider conflict within the rules of the game.