Over the course of a single day, individuals from across Egypt’s political, religious, economical and social spectrums collide inside a police van in a series of chaotic and eye-opening episodes that construct Mohamed Diab’s daring feature Clash, set in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution.

Location-based gimmicks as storytelling devices are always a risky gamble in cinema, but in this audacious masterpiece the interactions between the myriad of characters are enhanced by the limited space.

Clash‘s claustrophobic setting acts like a microcosm that makes ideological enemies impossible to ignore each other, and its experimental light sources capture the chaos happening inside the van, a sort of mobile pressure cooker. The result is a film that’s astonishing in both its narrative depth and technical boldness, one that appeals to unity and looks beyond divisive world views.

Actively involved in his homeland’s political sphere, Diab’s aim was to humanize each faction, those supporting the traditional Islamic group known as Muslim Brotherhood and those on the side of the army and a more secular state. By putting a face to both parties and confronting them without escape, their collective need to collaborate and share in the responsibility of the country’s future becomes evident. MovieMaker talked to the Egyptian director about the logistics of shooting Clash and Tom Hanks’ love for it.

A scene from Clash. Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I understand that you were very active during the recent revolution in Egypt. As a filmmaker, why did you choose to explore that experience and your country’s political situation with these specific technical constraints? 

Mohamed Diab (MD): I was part of the Egyptian revolution and I wanted to make a film about the Egyptian revolution. It took me three years, until my brother came up with this idea. At the time, the revolution turned into a [near] civil war, and I loved the idea of putting people who are different, who ideologically want to kill each other, in a very tight place. I wanted people to have the experience of those people stuck in that place. To me, it was about Egypt, all of us feeling like it’s a prison, in a way. We’re all locked in that place and we have to find a way out together. I think it helped the drama of the film, and helped communicate it to everyone.

MM: What sort of technical problems did you face during the production of Clash, because of the small space where the action takes place, and also shooting in the streets of Cairo? 

MD: First of all, the writing: We had a big problem, which is to have 25 main characters in that small space. We had to keep the pace dynamic, and the film interesting and not too claustrophobic, as that’s such a scary thing. Because of that, we built a wooden replica a year before shooting the film, and we rehearsed for a whole year. That helped the film a lot, helped the writing of the film a lot and made us practice a lot before shooting the film. So we shot it in our heads, and in actuality, more than once. But the hardest thing was to coordinate inside of the car and outside of the car, with these huge, massive crowds inside and outside. In Egypt, the way we shot the film was that the camera was inside the car, so everything we staged was outside felt so real. We were so scared that people would take part in the protests we were creating and think it’s real, and really shoot us or throw rocks, so we needed to do everything so fast and so professionally. Although we did that, in one of the biggest scenes, the bridge scene, we got attacked by the crowds. The police stormed the place, one guy got stabbed, my line producer got kidnapped, and it was just crazy. That’s why I think everything looks so real, because it was in fact chaotic and real.

MM: Were you concerned about people not being OK with you making this film in Egypt, about something so recent and still raw? 

MD: I was so concerned about that, but I thought the benefits were way more important. For me, [making] a film that can humanize people, especially in times when people are actually killing each other in the streets, meant we might save someone’s life. But I knew it was too soon, and I knew the film was going to polarize people, and that’s exactly what happened when the film was released.

What happened to us, the makers of the film, was exactly like what happened to the first people who got inside the car, the photographer and the journalist, because they tried to show the human side of each side. And because of that, they got attacked by everyone: the police, the Muslim Brotherhood and the supporters of the Army. That’s exactly what happened to us. It was so chaotic and crazy. When the film was released, if I searched my name on Twitter, I was just the enemy of anyone during the time of the release.

I remember Tom Hanks sent me a letter about how much he loved the film, and I posted that on social media, and because people were so polarized, they started attacking me and calling me a liar. They bombarded Tom Hanks’ social media asking him to denounce the “liar,” which was me. Tom Hanks actually wrote another tweet saying, “Please go see the film,” and he supported the film. If you read that post, the comments are just a mini-war, with everyone accusing me and the film of fabricating the truth, and even accusing Tom Hanks himself of being part of a conspiracy against Egypt because of the post. [The comments thread] was like a mini-film. Everything that Clash was talking about was in that post.

A scene from Clash

MM: What was the reception like in Egypt? Did people from the two different sides see it, or were they only talking about what they thought about it without actually watching the film?

MD: The film lasted in cinemas for almost three weeks. The first week, it was the number 1 film in Egypt, and the second week too, but after the third week, the negative feedback from both sides hurt the film. Every one of them saw the way we humanized the other as us siding with the others. I got accused of being part of government’s propaganda because I humanized the police, and I got accused of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood because I humanized the Muslim Brotherhood, so that affected the film negatively at the end.

MM: That’s interesting, because I feel like the film doesn’t take sides. There are multiple perspectives represented in it. 

MD: Anyone who is outside the struggle sees that the film doesn’t take any side, and that’s something I’m proud of. It’s just like humanizing the Germans and the British in a film made during World War II. The Germans and the British would hate the film. You can’t humanize “the other.” No one thinks about how I presented them, they cared about how I humanized “the other,” the enemy, the devil, so that’s what pissed them off. That’s the intention of the film. I wanted to humanize “the other.” We’re living in the same country; they’re not the enemy.

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