The camera can look at the world like the human eye. Moving images resemble reality and can stake a unique claim to representing the experience of the real. Yet, how do you point the camera at savagery? How do we see images that attempt to represent a most harrowing, unspeakable truth?
In Mohammed Diab’s “Clash”, we see the reality of post-Arab Spring Egypt. The fiery resistance that culminated into the resignation of three decade old ruler Hosni Mubarak left the country in the hands of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. In July 2013, after great opposition from thousands of citizens voicing the danger posed to the notion of secularism, Mohammed Morsi was ousted with help from the military.
Egypt experiences a series of tremendous, violent protests again. The Muslim Brotherhood protests against the military. On the other hand, the secular forces believing the Muslim Brotherhood to have defeated the ideals of the Arab Spring voice their support for the military. Shot entirely within a police truck, Diab weaves a tender narrative in the day of one such Clash.
Two journalists capturing images of the police interacting with protestors are in return captured by the police and locked inside a truck. In an attempt to attract help, the journalists end up speaking to a group of pro-military protestors. Filled with a deep mistrust of the media, the protestors shower the police truck with stones. The action is however seen by the police (who this group is in support of) and the protestors are locked inside the same truck even as they eagerly attempt to express their support and admiration for the military. Upon realizing that her fourteen year old son and husband have been placed inside the truck, a woman desperately raises a stone at the police in a bid to get arrested too. Soon, a group of protestors supporting the Muslim Brotherhood are also placed inside the same truck. Within moments of their entrance, there is a violent but awkward battle between the opposing protestors. The police respond by spraying the truck with a strong gush of water.
And so begins a strange day inside the strange space of a police truck filled with a group of people who perhaps, otherwise would be out for each other’s lives but must now find a way to co-exist. We see glimpses of Egypt immersed in a kind of madness from a tainted window. We see protestors attacking the police and the police attacking the protestors and yet, Diab’s camera instills the strange sight of people attacking people. What would make so many people turn towards guns, towards stones, towards beating each other up, killing each other in cold blood? The soldier, the assassin, the protestors all of them dying, all deaths just as painful, just as human.
The truck although filled with an uncertain tension almost feels safe as compared to the ferocity outside. There are many gentle, amusing moments between the otherwise clashing protestors. One of the protestors from the Muslim Brotherhood shares his great ambition to become a singer and sings for the truck with his croaky voice. As the protestors attempt to hold their laughter, he explains that his throat is acting up but that he was famously known as the Tear Gas Singer during the days of the Tahir Square rising. Another protestor is able to recall him, she thought the protest had ended because there were so few people at the Square that day. Later she learns that people were simply leaving because they could not bear to hear the Tear Gas Singer. The entire truck breaks into laughter. She sweetly smiles as she says “those were the days”. Perhaps, these fragile moments in between hurt the most, where the clashing protestors can laugh with each other, at each other, and at themselves.
While Diab does not shy away from showing blood on screen, he evokes a more disturbing representation of violence through suggestion. The truck is not moving and the heat inside has become unbearable. The protestors have been refused water and food. The police also look visibly exhausted from walking under the sun. Unable to see her son’s thirst, the mother walks out of the truck, (she can be shot for doing so) and madly screams at the police, asking them to at least move the truck. A tired, angry officer tells her that he has nowhere to take them for the prisons are full. But he offers her a bottle of water, she rushes back into the truck, towards her son. The protestors all take a sip one by one, passing the bottle to each other.
There is another police truck nearby, filled with more protestors. Yet, this truck’s door has been shut and the protestors cannot breathe. They ferociously cry for help, asking the police to open the window but their wallowing falls seemingly falls on indifferent, callous ears. One of the protestors cannot bear to hear the cries coming in from the other truck, knowing well that these people are on the verge of suffocating to death. He sits in a corner hugging himself as he presses his phone to his ear with great force, his other hand covering the other ear so that he can only hear the sound of a catchy pop song, so he can drown out the voices of the inmates from the other truck begging the police to open the door so that they can breathe, so they don’t die from suffocation.
Diab uses a momentary blackout here before moving towards the next sequence. He uses momentary blackouts as a form of transition at multiple instances, putting before the viewer pitch darkness, a tender pause. The viewer is left with a soul-crushing silence. One that is not empty but that can still not be filled with any words, any images. Perhaps, this darkness is all that can claim to sufficiently represent the experience of the real.
The Consolations of Poetry
How consoling poetry
And singing are
At times of hardship.
How consoling words and love are
In troubled times.
We have wandered far from each other,
And we were dispersed,
Now we are together,
-Ahmed Fouad Negm