The 2017 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival’s spotlight program is “Passages,” which will highlight “the global reality of shifting populations and politics, identity and social change.”
Today’s turbulent world offers an expansive stage to explore these themes, but in one riveting film they’re concentrated in a claustrophobic paddy wagon, where individuals indiscriminately swept up by Egyptian police reflect that country’s traumatic, and ongoing, political passage.
“Clash” takes place during Cairo’s chaos amid the 2013 military coup that ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been democratically elected after an Arab Spring uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak, who cruelly ruled Egypt for almost 30 years.
The film is fictional but depicts all-too-real divisions still splitting Egyptian society. “Clash” begins with a reporter and photographer being beaten and then locked up, just like the many real-life journalists in jails who make Egypt “the fourth-largest prison for journalists in the world,” according to Reporters Without Borders.
Soon the cinematic paddy wagon is packed with supporters of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. While each detainee seems to represent a certain segment of Egyptian society, “Clash” resists turning characters into caricatures by showing divisions within the Muslim Brotherhood and amid the secularists. Even the militarists aren’t monolithic, as depicted by a Coptic cop who conceals his Christian identity after getting locked up because he humanely intervened on behalf of the prisoners.
The prisoners alternately have each other’s backs and are at each other’s throats as their clashes reflect the chronic conflict in Egypt, which like most other Arab Spring nations has turned into an enduring winter of reactionary repression. This is especially true in Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s violent reprisals have included the use of chemical weapons, sparking the U.S. missile strike on Thursday.
In “Clash,” while the film’s detainees are desperate to escape the suffocating hold as well as an uncertain fate in Egypt’s brutal prisons, at times the paddy wagon actually seems safer than the streets’ violent riots, which are the backdrop to the film’s ambiguous end.
The events inspiring “Clash” continue. Egypt’s elliptical political passage was in evidence last month when Mubarak was freed from detention, and again this week at the White House, where the coup leader turned president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was warmly greeted by President Trump. The U.S. president made no mention of Egypt’s heinous human rights record, which includes “unlawful killings and torture,” according to the State Department’s 2016 Report on Human Rights Practices.
“Clash” humanizes Egypt’s chaotic politics. That’s part of the goal of the film festival, said Susan Smoluchowski, executive director of the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul. The society organizes the film festival, which runs from April 13-29. Over the fortnight the festival will screen 350 new films (170 feature length and 180 shorts) from more than 70 countries, and “Clash” runs April 15 and April 20 at the St. Anthony Main Theatre in Minneapolis. (The Star Tribune is the presenting sponsor of the festival.)
“The stories we bring in are always universal because they are about humans,” Smoluchowski said.
“They’re stories about the human condition, and I don’t think that the human condition changes a whole lot whether you’re living in the states or living in the bombings in Syria,” she said. “That is the universality of seeing films from other cultures; you realize you are very much like that person you thought you were nothing like.”
Seeing other cultures can mean seeing ours in a different light, too, particularly in a time when walls seem more salient than bridges to many Americans.
“All of these restrictions on movement and expression seemed to be popping up, and we thought that there are ways that we can begin conversations about that through film,” Smoluchowski said.
But, she added, “I want to be realistic. I don’t think we’re going to change any of these policies right now through these films, but I think what we are going to do is to make it possible through these stories that are told in these films for people to better understand those cultures that are being dismissed or about which there is an awful lot of expression of hatred in this country sometimes, and what I think we can do through these films is bring a reality check to the community.”
This community has undergone a passage of its own in recent generations with an influx of immigrants and refugees. So the international films won’t seem foreign to some more recent arrivals. In fact, they may be a cinematic escape back home while concurrently serving as a window on the world for those raised or rooted in Minnesota.
“It really is a demonstration to this community that we are not an isolated place,” Smoluchowski said. “The festival is a demonstration of what most Minnesotans feel is a richness that is here in their community. We’re reaching out to the rest of the world and I think the festival is a demonstration of that, one of the best demonstrations around.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.