Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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Mohamed Diab's intense microcosm of today's Egypt

Clash ( إشتباك Eshtebak), Egyptian writer-director Mohamed Diab's explosive new film, an instant classic that opened Cannes 2016's Un Certain Regard series, focuses - exclusively - on a day inside a police paddy wagon in Cairo in 2013 during the police-Muslim Brotherhood riots - the precise moment when Morsi's presidency had collapsed and al-Sissi's military regime was taking over. Following 678 (ND/NF 2010), Diab's powerful "issue" film about the sexual harassment of women in Egypt, particularly on busses, which permanently changed awarenesses in the country if it did not change male behavior, Diab became an intense participant in Egypt's 2011 revolution, in which Mubarak's 30-year regime was toppled and the country was full of hope.

Then, six years after 678, at the very moment when that revolutionary hope collapsed, not waiting for quiet contemplation but plunging into the hostility and conflict that were raging, Diab and his brother Khalid made another, even bolder, more powerful and ambitious film. Clash is a tour de force - a ambitious mix of technical virtuosity, socio-political commentary and basic drama. In this film, a group of today's Egyptians of all persuasions are forced together in a closed place and shaken to the core, physically and mentally, forcing them - perhaps - to find some universal humanity. The premise, aside from the technical challenge, appealed to Diab because it enables him to present all points of view. He does not take sides. With this movie, Mohamed Diab bids fair to take a place for himself on the map of world cinema.

At the outset of Clash, police who crowd the street capture Egyptian-American AP journalist Adam (Hany Adel) and his photographer Zein (Mohamed El Sebaey) and shut them in a paddy wagon, essentially a big empty, clangy metal rectangle, ringed by small windows. There is a big opening at the end, and a window overlooking the driver's booth in the front as well: and these outlooks will be important, because from here on, the camera will never leave the truck, but will look out in many directions, glimpsing tumultuous surrounding events as well as all the drama that happens inside.

The wagon soon fills up, and with a volatile mix, eventually 25 people. Impatient, unruly and poorly supervised cops start out, pointlessly, by throwing in a bunch of people who are technically on their owm anti-Morsi, pro-military side. Then as soon as some Morsi supporters nearby begin throwing stones, they too get rounded up and tossed in: so there they are, the two opposing sides in a tinder box. The initial anti-Moslem Brotherhood group includes the nurse Nagwa (Nelly Karim, also in 678) with her husband Hossam (Tarek Abdel Aziz) and adolescent son Fares (Ahmed Dash). There are a couple of young men, best mates who were perhaps just out for fun, one of them an aspiring rapper with tinted hair. And there is a posh kid from a gated community wearing a T shirt saying "F*CK THIS SH*T," who curiously bonds with a man who, to hide that he's homeless, initially claims to be ISIS. Striking a comical note, there's a very fat man with singing and thespian aspirations who's wearing a pot as a helmet. A'isha (Mai El Ghaity) is a kickass hijab-wearing teenager accompanying her elderly father, whose long white beard makes him look more religious than he is. Eventually they're joined by Awad (Ahmed Abdelhamid Hefny), a tyro cop whose officer deems him too lenient and, to punish him, throws him in with the prisoners.

Much will happen to unite the group in hardship, but most chilling in the line-drawing is the man who appoints himself in charge of the Moslem Brotherhood group, and separates out the mere supporters, making them stand to one side. Anger and paranoia focus on the journalist for continuing to use a wrist watch camera. Hostilities break out, then subside, ordinary unity restored by discussions of music and the traditional soccer rivalry between Ahli and Zamalek. There are endless quarrels over cell phones, pleas for help, and the humble issue of relieving themselves. The men are reluctantly given a plastic bottle. But what are the women to do?

Diab's writing and reported months of improvisation and honing of the action keep it nonstop, seamlessly introducing the characters and providing rich human drama, the warmth and connectedness of Cairo's vast population suggested by shouts back and forth between this paddy wagon and another one nearby (where the action is more dire), and the prisoners' appeals to the police. There are a few unconvincingly theatrical moments, like the forced breakout of violence between the two young men over the sister who emerges as the other's secret girlfriend. It may also be seen as a flaw that there is no beginning, middle, or end. But dreamy transitions, aided by the excellent, minimalist contemporary music score, add a redeeming layer of poetry to the whole film, which ebbs and flows, maintaining a high level of intensity but also taking breathers.

The fixed POW is used brilliantly, and in fact Diab has staged astonishing crowd sequences outside of demonstrators and police, another paddy wagon, even a high placed sniper on an expressway bridge, outside. These are so well done it's hard to believe at times they're not actual news footage.

This partly means Egyptians, perhaps the Arabs' most thespian nation, are very good at playing themselves, and had played epic street drama for two years by the time this film was made. But it also means besides the hardships the actors underwent, including being splashed by a water canon, the whole crew risked real danger on the volatile streets. Diab himself has said "Shooting action scenes in the Egyptian streets is suicidal, because people might mistake what they see into real protest and get involved" - and yet they did it.

The handheld camerawork of dp Ahmed Gabr, which occasionally seemed excessive in 678, feels lithe and invisible here; it never upstages the convulsive action. The sound design is powerful. The sparse modernistic music is consistently elegant. The whole thing pulses and explodes and beats with the heart of Egypt. In the end, this movie makes its own rules and signals Mohamed Diab, his brother, and his team as world class filmmakers, whose work is as universal as it is utterly Egyptian.

Clash (Eshtebak) is a violent, terrifying, grim movie: we see the polarization as well as the repression. Yet the film fills one with hope with its picture of Egyptian warmth and humanity of spirit because of the way the motley prisoners are changed by the day they spend together and become a kind of team - and no less because of Diab's masterful, virtuoso filmmaking, a near-seamless blend of writing, direction, acting, cinematography, editing - all the complex elements that make a great film. " What a dynamic piece of cinema," wrote the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw; and he got it right.

When Diab's 678 turned up in the 2010 New Directors/New Films in New York he came across as a lively young Egyptian director with an activist bent. Now we're aware of his importance as a writer (five films, including the drug lord sagas [iEl Gezeiraa[/i] and El Gezeira 2, directed by Sherif Arafa, box office dynamite in 2007 and 2014) and we've seen Clash, it's clear he's become a central figure of modern Egyptian cinema.

TRAILER

Clash / إشتباك (Eshtebak), 93 mins., debuted in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, opening film; over two dozen other international festivals, including Munich, Moscow, Melbourne, Vienna, London, Goteborg, Hong Kong. 14 May 2016 French theatrical release got moderate reviews (AlloCiné 3.3); UK release 21 Apr. 2017. The US theatrical release by Kino Lorber begins 25 Aug. 2017 in New York City at Village East Cinemas. Metacritic rating 80%.

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BFI Q&A with Mohamed Diab (English) and short BFI interview.
Interview with Mohamed Diab and trailer (French): : http://www.courrierinternational.com/ar ... sa-liberte.
Bassem Youssef, "the Egyptian Jon Stewart," chats with Diab on his show after release of 678 (Arabic), 678. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJV21kJF19A

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