PIFF 2017: Take 2


40th Portland International Film Festival/February 9-25, 2017

Clash (Egypt/France) dir. Mohamed Diab (97 mins) Trailer

Violent clashes between supporters of the military and members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) erupted in Cairo in the days following the military coup d'etat that removed President Mohamed Morsi and MB from power in July 2013. Most of this stark, intense film takes place in the back of a police van crammed with individuals more or less indiscriminately detained because the prima facie assumption made by the soldiers trying to restore order is that anyone they encounter in the streets is MB. Among the detainees are a journalist and his photographer, a teenage boy and his parents, and a teenage girl wearing a hijab and her father. Some are supporters of the army, some MB. At first they clash among themselves, with a near riot breaking out within the closed confines of the van until the officer in charge orders a water cannon fired in through the back door, which cools everyone down in a moment that is almost humorous.

The detainees cannot be taken to a prison because the prisons are already overflowing. Rioting mobs from both sides pelt the van with stones as it makes its way through narrow streets, bound for no discernible destination. The day is hot, the van sweltering. The tension is unrelieved. Those inside argue and quarrel, worry about the safety of family members elsewhere in the city, fear for their own safety. There is no water until a young soldier gives them a single bottle that they share. There is nowhere to pee. The soldiers are young, confused, and frightened. Many are conscripts not there by choice. They react angrily and violently in a chaotic situation where stones and bottles are hurled at them along with a stream of verbal abuse. From time to time they are subject to sniper fire.

A tense accommodation is reached inside the van. The MB contingent caucuses. A nurse tends to the wounds of people from both sides as best she can. A hip young fellow with bleached hair hands out cards promoting himself as a dj for parties. The girl in the hijab feels guilty because her elderly father, who is not faring well, is there only because she insisted on joining in the protests. The dj and his friend quarrel when the friend learns that the dj is seeing his sister. A blocky man as wide as he is tall, an MB member, wears a metal colander strapped to his head as a helmet and is a source of what little comic relief there is. It would be too much to say that they bond, but they do come together on some ground of a nebulous but common humanity.

Clash is an extraordinarily intense film not at all pleasant to watch. Yet I am glad I saw it through. We know these things happen, but our experience of them is for the most part abstract and detached even when we read graphic accounts or view video footage and photographs. Director Mohamed Diab's triumph is that he pulls us into that van for 97 claustrophobic minutes. He does not pick sides. There are hotheads among both groups, and there is on each side a mob, a rampaging, mad, many-headed beast. There is no concession to hope. I left the theater drained and thinking of recent events in our own country.

Nocturama (France) dir. Bertrand Bonello (130 mins) Trailer

Nothing light, no humor here. Très sérieux.

A group of young people carry out a terrorist operation in the heart of Paris. They are twelve in number if my count is correct, half by appearance of Middle Eastern or North African heritage, the others Caucasian. The film opens in the midst of the operation as they plant bombs that will detonate simultaneously in four locations. There is also the murder of some important personage, though why he is singled out is not made clear. This constitutes the first half. The second half is set in a mega-department store in downtown Paris, evacuated after the bombings, where the terrorists intend to lay low for twenty-four hours before making their way home. It seems an odd plan. A few flashbacks provide what little context and explication is to be had.

Some of the group are students. Two are security guards, one at a building targeted for attack, the other at the department store. How they come together and their motivation are not as clear as director Bertrand Bonello thinks:

[Interviewer] The plot centres around the ‘how’ of terrorist acts, and not on the ‘why’. Was that to deliberately avoid the question of ‘why’

[Bonello] No, it wasn’t a sidestep, because I also wanted to make a film full of tension to broach the subject of tension, to go straight for the acts themselves. I thought it would make the audience a lot more focused on the action, and keep them in the moment. I think the why is relatively clear in places, and it didn’t seem like something I needed to linger on.(interview conducted by Fabien Lemercier in Cineuropa)

Even that "relatively clear" seems a bit much. It would be nice if a clip of one particular flashback scene, or the script for it, were available for reference on this point. André (I think it is André), who seems to be the group's leader and instigator of the attack to the extent there is one, is ostensibly helping Sarah prep for an examination. At some point David, Sarah's boyfriend, joins them as André follows a certain logic to the end of the line. From the premise that present social structures and conditions are corrupt, unjust, and not amenable to reform from within, André concludes, or maybe presumes, that the replacement of the current system can arise only out of its destruction, with the assumption that the new system will represent progress, something better than what came before. Nineteenth-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin's maxim that the passion for destruction is a creative passion comes to mind. How immigrant and religious issues suggested by the group's demographic makeup play into it is up for speculation. The single allusion to Islam that I recall comes from one boy who says that he will go to heaven, they will all go to heaven for what they did. His voice is quiet, unsure, less the voice of unshakable faith than the voice of someone trying to convince himself that what they have done is okay and in the very long run everything will be okay.

For the most part these young people come across as likable kids. Yet they commit monstrous acts born of a terrible logic. The acts are carried out with grim determination in what is almost a dream state or trance. While the bombs are placed in locations chosen to minimize the likelihood that people will be harmed, there is a casual acceptance of the inevitability that deaths will occur. Their acts are justified and necessary. Everything will be changed. Nothing will be the same after this day.

The department store segment puts credulity to the test. There is anxiety and anxiousness but nothing of the sense of urgency that might be expected in these circumstances. They turn up the music on the store's sound system, watch news reports on TVs in the entertainment center, try on clothes, raid the store's grocery department for food and drink. Yacine lounges in an upscale bathtub with a bottle of cognac. Maybe this is a form of denial, another way of believing that it will turn out okay.

As the climax approaches a TV newscaster announces that the authorities have determined the perpetrators are not terrorists but enemies of the state. Negotiation is not obligatory. In a brutal conclusion those who make themselves enemies of the state receive no quarter from the state. Is this Bonello's message? Part of it?

Nocturama is a slick, taut, suspenseful thriller devoid of heroism or redemption. The actions of the protagonists are futile gestures that change nothing. The state is methodical and merciless. There is much to chew on here. I do not yet know what I make of it.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

This piece endured minor stylistic edits after it was initially published.

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