It’s not often that I come across a movie balancing its story skilfully on the crosspoint of cinematic symbolism, realistic dramas and powerful messages. Rarely ever does that movie come from my home country, Egypt, so let me take a moment to savor this achievement .. and let’s start.
In their 3rd joint screenplay, brothers Mohamed and Khaled Diab are telling us a story of a group of random people in one of the chaotic days following the sacking of Egyptian former president Mohamed Morsi. Everything starts with an empty riot van, which doesn’t remain that way for too long, as it’s quickly filled up with 20 persons; Some of them are Muslim Brotherhood members, others are just Morsi supporters, while on the other hand we also have representatives of the opposition and in the middle we have 2 members of the press.
After a violent start for the confrontation, our group settles down and realizes the truth of the situation; They’re actually locked up together in van that is continuously, and viciously, under attack. They don’t have enough faith in the authorities detaining them, given that half of the people in the van are actually on the same side and thought that this will be their ticket out of the van, but how wrong they were. They have women and children in the van and they’re frightened by the idea of facing the same fate as a similar group of people, in a similar van, as one of the members of the group reminds everybody.
In the full length of the movie we never leave the van. We’re either witnessing how the detainees are interacting with each other, or following the events that take place outside the van through the eyes of our characters looking, in their turn, through the windows and the open door. Our story is progressing with every new location the van heads for, with every conversation and story told inside the van, and with every medical challenge that emerges either by the attacks or by the inhumane conditions they’re all in.
“Eshtebak” is a claustrophobic, blood boiling, experience that is, surprisingly, very easy to follow and be engaged with. In his second project as a director, Mohamed Diab gracefully faced, and capitalized on, all the technical and artistic challenges involved with capturing sophisticated emotions in the tight space, and through the limited angles, he had. Powered by mind blowing performances from all 20 members of the core cast, and top class action sequences taking place outside the van, Diab focused on capturing the magic he engineered rather than casting a spell or two on the frames he’s chosen; A maturely correct decision.
The formula enabled for the level of realism that I pointed. Usually a similar project would succumb to surrealism and fantasies being convinced that symbolism and messages are the top priorities, but not “Eshtebak”. It is important to clarify that an average movie, liberated from any technical or artistic challenges in Egypt nowadays, will face extreme difficulties in finding a point where it can portray the two sides of the political conflict without taking sides. Actually, it’s just the one side that you can ever be allowed to take, so seeing this project all the way through to the theatres screen is an astonishing achievement, let alone convincing the audience with the pictures it’s portraying. That perfect balance was slightly broken in the end sequence where it leaned more towards symbolism, maybe to further clarify the message, maybe to encourage the audience to disregard their own vision to the facts and focus on the moral, that I cannot tell for sure, but what I can tell is that it felt uneven in comparison with the rest of the movie.
Although “Eshtebak” is a story of conflict between two, politically biased, groups of people, the real anticipation was after the depiction of police on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. The movie had to offer a few compromises in favor of the police forces, adding reasonable motives to the cruelest of their practices and always putting the Muslim Brotherhood gangs in the kick off position of any violations. However, at this cost, the movie also offered the widely condemned organization the most humanized, arguably, in their history of their appearances in cinema.
“Eshtebak” stars Hany Adel, Ahmed Malek and Nelly Kareem in addition to several less known names in Egyptian cinemas. Among the many achievements of the movie is giving a sensible presence to every single person in the van in addition to a few other characters outside the van. Those were mainly members of the police force and they carried the biggest burden of convincing the audience that whichever extent of kindness that they’re showing can actually come from Egyptian police. In my opinion, they succeeded in doing so, and that is also a great achievement.
Probably the weakest link in the characters’ chain is the background stories phase most of them had to go through. It felt irrelevant and added an unneeded layer of particularity to those characters as opposed to the anonymity which was a great tool for relating to those characters.
Technically the movie is mostly shot using handheld cameras offering a shaky effect that I rarely ever welcome, but it was very well utilized in “Eshtebak” to reflect the sense of chaos and discomfort. The shaky shots were successfully deployed in sophisticated long takes with minimal lighting complications during the daytime segment of the movie. At night however, the movie utilized the infamous green laser beams, shining the inside of the van through the windows in mesmerizing shots, beautifully captured by cinematographer Ahmed Gabr.
“Eshtebak” is a well crafted piece of artistic cinema that sends a straightforward wake up call to the Egyptian community. It brings the largest idiotic classifications of large groups of people through layers and layers of details to their human core, and it places those people in a situation that in not far more miserable than the conflicts we’re facing in our daily lives. The formula is wrapped into well tuned comedy, heartwarming moments and realistic reminders to heart wrenching incidents that we became extremely talented in denying.