Here's something you really don't see all that often: a B-movie that never feels like one. For ninety-odd minutes, Clash corrals us inside a single setting (a police van parked up at the 2013 protests where representatives of Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood clashed with members of the public), a framing typically deployed by inventive young tyros to disguise certain budgetary restrictions. Yet the glimpses we get out of the van's grilled windows - revealing hundreds of extras charging hither and thither, massed ranks of police wielding batons and water cannons, sudden eruptions of chaos and violence - suggest there's a much bigger picture going on out there. Staying inside the van, then, represents a choice on co-writer/director Mohamed Diab's part: he's determined to stake out this revealing corner of a far more expensive and expansive undertaking. The immediate effect is to focus the viewer's gaze. Rather than splash Egypt's social and political woes across an IMAX-sized screen, Diab slides them under a microscope, the better to see what might be understood about an especially fractious period in his homeland's history. It's synecdochic filmmaking: a handful of increasingly crowded square feet come to stand for an entire disputed territory.
The people who come into view present almost as molecules: charged up and restless, they bounce around, sometimes off one another. (If the film is anything to go by, the police strategy at these protests wasn't the most considered, tossing Brotherhood and non-Brotherhood Muslims, members of the wider public, and card-carrying journalists into the same van. The volatile atmosphere on the streets is hardly neutralised by the transfer to a greatly more confined space.) The situation is serious - deadly serious, in certain places - but Diab finds moments of levity and absurdity amid the general back-and-forth. One firebrand member of the Muslim Brotherhood somewhat undermines the ferocity and severity of his political pointmaking by insisting on wearing an upturned colander as protective headgear. The debate is further inflamed, at one point, by an accusation of farting. And after a sniper attack, the officer in the driver's seat slumps over the handbrake, causing the van to edge slowly forward into the brouhaha, as good an image as any for a country going out of control.
You could see this done as a stageplay, but the material develops cinematically, with especially smart use of interior/exterior space. If ever the tensions within the van start to simmer down, Diab can have them react to some new kerfuffle unfolding outside. Understandably, you might find the sustained tension exhausting, as does one of the van's junior occupants, who logs onto iTunes and throws his hands over his ears in a bid to drown all the shouting out. I'm also not so sure that Diab quite nails the ending as he might: we're provided with an asterisk rather than a full stop, possibly reflective of ongoing political struggles. Yet scuffle by scuffle, well-observed anecdote by well-observed anecdote, Clash succeeds in building up a far more rounded picture of a protest and a people than you might have taken away from the closing moments of 2017's The Nile Hilton Incident, which exploited the first wave of Egyptian protests as a backdrop. It has been a lot calmer in this territory since the events depicted, as if these characters came to realise that, for better or worse, they were all in the same boat (or van); or perhaps any residual unrest has been drowned out by the noise the rest of the world has been making. Some bright spark might like to film a variant describing just what happened to the formerly United Kingdom in the wake of May 2016.
Clash is streaming on All4, and available to rent via the BFI and Amazon Prime.