In Focus: Mohamed Diab on Clash

Filmmaker Mohamed Diab

Filmmaker Mohamed Diab

Egyptian writer/director Mohamed Diab shares the politically charged inspiration for his latest feature project Clash, and reflects on his current status as a "revolutionary" filmmaker. Diab's story follows a jaded, claustrophobic revolutionary stuck in an overcrowded truck with clashing brotherhood and military supporters. Engulfed in hatred and violence, he must learn to connect with his love for Egypt in order to survive.

Clash was a Spring 2014 SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant winner.


What was the inspiration for this story?

Clash is inspired by my comprehensive experience of the Egyptian revolution leading up to the present.  

My last film, Cairo 678, premiered a few weeks before the revolution began. The film might have been centered on the subject of sexual harassment, but in the bigger scope it examined the issues that could eventually culminate in revolution, and in retrospect, there was a great deal of verisimilitude. Because the film echoed the spirit of revolting against a societal wrong, and the timing of the release, I somehow became one of the few recognizable advocates of the revolution through the media. In fact, on the streets I was far more recognized for my opinions and activism rather than my film.   

Since the revolution began, I knew I wanted to make a film about it, but the context was changing dramatically.  Every time I started to work on an idea, events would occur and things would change faster than I could write. Last year the dream was shattered.  It only took less than 3 years for Egypt to get cornered in a ruthless battle between the military and the ruling Islamist party, eventually won by the military, and setting the country back to square one. Rather than let democracy run its course and possibly correct itself, the military stepped in and overnight the country regressed to the same military rule it revolted against just a few years back.  All the rights we got as a result of the revolution disappeared, while a great deal of the country bought into the military's new campaign against “terrorism”. They quickly gained popular support and began destroying Islamists, who unfortunately proved to fail miserably at the cost of the revolution. 

Now the naïve idealists who sparked the revolution are being targeted by both the Islamists and the military. Half of my friends are in jail,  meanwhile the rest are being accused of inciting (what once was glorified by the world) a treasonous revolution, by the pro-military media.  It's not so much oppression that's disconcerting, but how quickly society has become apathetic to it. The Muslim Brotherhood may be fundamentally flawed as an organization and a political entity, however it doesn't deem them worthy of death and torture by all means. They may not be the popular voice but they, along with their supporters, still constitute a substantial portion of society.  For the first time Egyptians are divided; people don't believe in coexistence.

That's why I chose coexistence as the topic of Clash. The film is about a police riot truck that detains Egyptians from all sides/opinions during a hellish day of protests.  The people with their spectrum of thoughts, whether pro-military or pro-Islamists or anti-everything, must regain their humanity in order to survive, much like Egypt today.  

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?

Usually it's financing but in my case it's much more… Making a film about politics these days in Egypt will make you the target of the extremists from both sides (the Islamist, the pro-military) and this could translate into prosecution, physical harm, defamation and a threat to your outright life.

And then there is the biggest obstacle...will the film be allowed to play in Egypt?

I wrote the highest grossing action film in Egyptian history (The Island), also known as the "Egyptian Godfather", and now they are shooting the sequel which I also co-wrote.  Production was denied permits for the film for a while simply because, as stated by the authorities: "That revolution guy wrote the film."   
What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?

Definitely film development programs, especially for someone like me who almost lives in a war zone and is well-connected in the U.S. This is the only way to have access to international distributors, production companies, mentors that I don’t normally have access to. It even allows me the chance to have access to an all star team, editors, sound designers, cinematographers, producers.

Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society support has had on your film.

Making a film like this back home is a big risk, especially when there is a possibility that a higher authority could stop the film. I needed this kind of support to kickstart the project and to show financiers that there will be international interest and support for this project.  There was a big chance the film would have been delayed if I didn't get the support of SFFS.  The support SFFS added was not just the grant, it was the passion I felt from everyone at the Film Society when I spoke about the film, my experience, my triumph and my loss.

I will never forget when Michele Turnure-Salleo, Director of Filmmaker360, called me to tell me I won the grant—it was a great day, but as much as I was excited and jumping around, I never thought I would hear Michele on the phone crying out of joy for me. At SFFS I feel I am among family.  It's filmmaking plus an extra ingredient … passion.

Filmmaker360 are now connecting me with all sorts of talents to be a part of my team, in pre-production, production, and post-production. They even connected me with agents, and I have no doubt they will do everything in their power to help the film see its full potential and more.

The SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant program has funded a total of 46 projects since its inception, including such success stories as Kat Candler’s Hellion and Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange, both of which premiered to strong reviews at Sundance 2014; Short Term 12, Destin Cretton’s sophomore feature which won both the Narrative Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at South by Southwest 2013; Ryan Coogler’s debut feature Fruitvale Station, which won the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, the Un Certain Regard Avenir Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the narrative category at Sundance 2013; and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s debut phenomenon which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and Cannes’ Camera d’Or in 2012 and earned four Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture).