I walked in the Chapter Arts theatre with no prior expectations, my knowledge of the ‘Arab Spring’ being limited simply to the date it began, 2011. Needless to say, I was blown away by the spectacle of film-making that subsequently followed.
The premise of the movie rests on the riots that took hold of Egypt following July 3rd 2013, in response to the military removal of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. What follows is a depiction of one of the day’s events, taken from the point of view of a number of people squashed into the back of a police riot van. Though the film itself is fictional, it is likened to a similar incident that took place during this time (which is interestingly mentioned by one of the characters), whereupon a group of 45 men were shoved into a 25-man capacity riot van, and 37 of these were gassed to death. This over-arching feeling of dread is captured throughout the narrative, even during some of the more optimistic scenes it remains.
Without question, this film utilises the most unbiased portrayal of Islamic characters in fiction. Through the stories told by each character, we are given an intimate tour of their humanity. Two friends captured by the police are themselves advocates of military intervention, but their friendship is interrupted upon the discovery that one of them loves the other’s sister. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood regales a tale of his doomed singing career to the other prisoners, much to their humorous response, as they come to dub him the ‘tear gas singer’. Stories like these and so many others are captured with such heart and emotional depth, that you connect to these characters regardless of which faction they follow. Not only this, but even the police themselves are shone in a mediated light (which has been argued to have been the driving force behind the films relatively problem free release in Egypt). During a Q&A session that was held after the film ended, Swansea University lecturer on Arabic Studies, Dr. Salwa El-Awa, claimed that the film was the most authentic representation of the divides in Islamic culture during the ‘Arab Spring’, and I’m inclined to agree with her.
However, I’m also inclined to assert that the strongest feature of this film was not it’s representation of each sub-section of Egyptian society, but the subtle symbolism dotted throughout the film. Many parts of the film are left intentionally vague and confusing for the audience, protests take place left and right, but it’s never clear which faction they vie for. Furthermore, a game of noughts and crosses is continuously alluded to in the van, with two children engaging in it. However, the game is left with neither player making the decisive, finishing move; almost a direct analogy of the Egyptian conflict itself, having never found it’s true conclusion. Consequently, the ending of the film is also left on an open note, not truly allowing us the pleasure of witnessing the fate of the denizens within the riot van. But the unclear nature plays to the strength of the film, allowing us only a small visual glance at a much larger and complicated clash of neighbours, friends and family.
Overall, I was blown away by the sheer effort, detail and authenticity brimming from every inch of this films playtime. If I were to note one slip-up, it would be the lack of a meaningful conclusion and a very black and white picture depicted of the protesters outside of the van. But neither of these factors were that crucial to my enjoyment of this film.
Review by Elis Doyle