RELEASE DATE: August 18, 2017
DIRECTOR: Mohamed Diab
MPAA RATING: NR
RUNTIME: 98 minutes
Mohamed Diab pushes his camera inward all throughout Clash, angling for tight, shaky, handheld closeups of his actors. His goal is to emulate claustrophobia, and he succeeds.
The film is set during the 2013 protests in Egypt after the military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, an event which sparked a massive crackdown on the army’s part. All the action takes place in the back of a police van. A wide variety of detainees – from journalists to hardliners on both sides and men, women and children caught up in the maelstrom – are forced to fight for their survival due to the harsh police state and the skirmishes breaking out everywhere. The van is hot; the air is thick; and the mood outside grows more and more hostile.
It’s hard for them to get along. By the time the climax of the movie rolls around, there are around a dozen people in the cramped vehicle, and they have fought with great intensity, as they face those who object to their very way of life. The first two prisoners – a reporter and his photographer – observe it all with fascination and fear, recording some of the events with a smartwatch, which is quickly confiscated by the others, one of the first actions in which both the army loyalists and Muslim Brotherhood members truly collaborate.
They have put their differences aside because all their lives are at risk when bullets puncture the vehicle driving into a conflicted zone. Clash is good at creating individual scenes in which the action picks up and the stakes raise even higher, as it is able to sort a cast of largely nameless characters into distinguishable faces and personalities. But it’s too dependent on separate moments to succeed, and the structural minutia is much more scattered.
To further the manic mood of the protests and the chaos of the situations that the group finds themselves in, Diab’s fluid camera becomes unhinged. The film mixes those jerky shots with quick cuts, resulting in otherwise intense scenes that are devoid of proper space and timing. It takes a movie that exists almost exclusively in the confines of a tiny room and detaches it from its locked-down roots.
Clash works when it applies personal motives to all the sides of the 2013 events. Diab clears away ideological nitpicking in favor of a constrained, ensemble character study. Yet the mind wanders, as we realize that this template could be applied to any number of events by which differing characters are all put together in a similarly dangerous situation. By focusing so much on the fundamental violations that each prisoner is subject to – not being able to use the bathroom, being deprived of medical attention, and not even being told where they’re going – the movie is clear in its belief that these people more alike than different.
We can’t disagree. Diab is unsparing in harrowing depictions of the terror of the environment, and his actors are committed to being thrust into such dehumanizing situations. But that makes the movie more generic than it wants to be, with the specific references to contemporary political debates in the dialogue restricted to face-value instigators. By making such deliberate overtures at apolitical universality, Clash only teases at more stimulating possibilities as its characters and their diametrically opposed worldviews confront each other.
This film is directed and performed with all the urgency that its subject matter commands, and many sequences work all too well in planting themselves in our minds. But the stray elements around the edges, the roughness in filling in the details from both a narrative and technical point of view, detract from the other accomplishments therein.