Egypt Pulse

Why critically acclaimed Egyptian film faces backlash at home

Article Summary
Egyptian director Mohamed Diab's "Clash" won accolades at Cannes this year, but the movie is now facing criticism after its premiere in Egypt.

CAIRO — "Clash," a highly acclaimed film by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab, was finally released in cinemas around Egypt last week. The movie, which covers confrontations between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and state forces following the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, has been a topic of heated controversy among Egyptians since it first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

"'Clash' carries deep-seated humanistic meanings, without bias to any particular faction," said Rana al-Gami’i after viewing the movie on the first day of its Egyptian release at a cinema in the Giza governorate. The movie-goer in her 20s told Al-Monitor, "The film isn’t merely about an incident in a police transport vehicle, as some erroneously believe."

On Aug. 18, 2013, following the arrest of dozens during the dispersal of pro-Brotherhood protests at Rabia al-Adawiya and Nahda squares, 37 Egyptian protesters died inside a police vehicle outside the Abu-Zaabal prison. They died as a result of being suffocated by gas after being held for six hours inside the police transport vehicle.

Gami’i said "Clash" tried to express the crisis of political polarization that Egypt has experienced since the June 30 Revolution, adding that it gave voice to all the political orientations inside the police van, but it "wasn't biased in favor of any particular faction." At the same time, she believes that Diab succeeded in changing what she said was a stereotype in Egyptian cinema of depicting everything Islamic as being Muslim Brotherhood-related.

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The movie, which stars Nelly Karim and Hani Adil, is a joint production between Egypt, France, Germany and the United Arab Emirates.

Diab chose to focus the film around the events inside the police van, in a space no larger than eight square meters (86 square feet). It was patterned after a Greek tragedy, bound by unity of time and space. The producer explores the gaping contradictions within Egyptian society — the apparent divisions that conceal great complexities. Behind support and opposition there are tormented groups, exhausted by poverty and weakened by preconceived judgments and rejection of the "other."

Muhammad Abd al-Shakur, an Egyptian film critic, said "Clash" is "one of the finest cinematic works being shown this year." He described it as an artistic gamble "that will take people's breath away and invite them to think."

Diab said Egyptian authorities are pushing for a hiatus in showing the film; he said that blocking it would constitute an "international scandal" after it had gained the attention of international newspapers and was chosen as one of the top films at the Cannes Film Festival by the The Hollywood Reporter. "Clash" was the opening movie in the "Un Certain Regard" category at the film festival.

Diab said in a Facebook post July 25, "Egyptian authorities see a solution in showing the film without many noticing it is being screened, then removing it from screenings after a few days." He sarcastically described this potential move as a "brilliant trick."

The censorship body approved the film July 22 for general viewers over the age of 12, before putting it in cinemas July 27. Private showings of the film began July 24.

Diab criticized what he calls "systematic campaigns" to distort the film's image and that of its makers and producers, without naming particular organizations. One of the signs of these campaigns, according to him, is "delaying the issuing of a permit until 48 hours before showing the film, in addition to procrastinating on adopting a poster for the film."

Egyptian government television attacked the film on the May 15 episode of its main program "I am Egypt" in a report segment titled "Muhammad Diab's film 'Clash' and its political and revolutionary flavor," describing Diab as a "director who seeks to advance a distorted image of Egyptian society."

The official TV station's report described Diab as someone portraying Egypt as a moving prison, a state that oppressed personal liberties. It described him as someone who, through his works and personal social media accounts, promoted ideas hostile to state institutions, and especially the Ministry of the Interior.

"After the events of the June 30 Revolution, bloody clashes took place, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, seeking to stop the peaceful transition of power. … " The film begins with these phrases. Diab said the censors insisted they be placed in the introduction to the film even though he rejects the idea of instructing viewers and mobilizing them against a particular faction before they see the movie. Diab called on the public to watch the film in order to thwart what he described as a "plot against the film."

Mohamed Hefzy, one of the film's producers, told Al-Monitor that he rejects Diab's statements. He said that the censors "did not force them" into anything, and that he communicated with them on this formulation, which he described as "satisfactory" to him personally, even if it was not satisfactory to Diab.

Hefzy believes that "the Muslim Brotherhood really took violent actions in the wake of the June 30 Revolution," and that "the film viewer should set aside all political views." He pointed out that the film shows the human dimension, without leaning in favor of one political faction or another.

Hefzy contradicted Diab's remarks on the existence of a plot by Egyptian authorities to scuttle the film, saying that "perhaps some officials in an administrative or censorship agency within the state believe that they are serving the regime if they manage to prevent the film from being shown, but I don't believe that the state itself is against the film. And the best evidence for that is the fact that they agreed to show it. Still, we don't want to do wrong by them; ultimately, the public will be the judge."

Magidah Khayrallah, an Egyptian film critic, told Al-Monitor he believes the criticisms directed at the film are not fair in that they have been shrouded in a state of suspicion regarding the director. Khayrallah ascribed this to the film shedding light on political circumstances that might yield criticism of the present regime.

She said that the film was very good, and could be classified as political although its humanistic character overwhelms the circumstances, which she describes as "oppressive," following the June 30 Revolution.

Tariq al-Shinawi, an art critic who viewed the film twice — the first time in Cairo, and the second time after it was shown in Cannes — refused to characterize it as political, and said that it was a social product and should be classed as among the more influential films in the history of Egyptian cinema. Regarding the issue of the censors' consent to showing the film, Shinawi told Al-Monitor that it came about as a result of the film not including “propaganda for Muslim Brotherhood ideas … [that] state or hint that what happened on June 30 was not a popular revolution, or that it was undertaken by the army."

Concerning the criticisms directed at the film for promoting a reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been characterized as a "terrorist" group in Egypt, Shinawi said, "One cannot view [this] work as promoting the Brotherhood. It champions human beings as human beings, and opposes the credo of the Brotherhood. But it also stresses that difference [of views] does not [need to] mean exclusion."

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Found in: muslim brotherhood, freedom of speech, film, egyptian revolution, egyptian politics, cinema, censorship

Mohamed Saied is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo and a graduate of Cairo University's Faculty of Mass Communication. On Twitter: @MohamedSaiedF

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