Meet the producer behind one of the most urgent films at Cannes this year.
Mohamed Hefzy didn't believe Egypt could ever change. But in 2011, as people began gathering in Tahrir Square, idealism was in the air. "I started to believe at some point that something could really happen," Hefzy told No Film School. Of course—as history's most hopeful moments often are—it was a chimera. Hosni Mubarak, who had presided over Egypt for over thirty years in a de facto dictatorship, stepped down, but it didn't pave the golden road to democracy. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood replaced him, only to be overthrown by millions of Egyptians in protests in 2013.
Hefzy, who produced Cannes 2016 premiere Clash (Estebak), told No Film School: "There are a lot of young Egyptians now that have lost hope."
This is where Clash begins. The film, which premiered as the Un Certain Regard opener at this year's festival, places us in the back of a 20-foot Egyptian police truck during a violent protest. Civilians are being arrested indiscriminately; the army is anti-Muslim Brotherhood and suspects anyone out on the street of being a member. First to be thrown in the truck are two journalists for the Associated Press. Next, it's a grab bag of Muslim Brotherhood members, their sympathizers, and their adversaries, the revolutionaries—including a mother, a child, a teenager, and a very old man.
"The fact that we had a good line producer on the team made it easier. We survived it, but it wasn't easy."
The van is a cadre of roiling tensions. Remarkably, director Mohamed Diab never takes a side; he represents each ideology as humanly as possible. "I think the film is balanced," Hefzy said. "It doesn't defend or condone or attack anybody. It just says it like it is. I hope that people will feel that we're being honest as far as we can see."
As the van makes its way across a war zone barely recognizable as Cairo, it's nearly impossible to tell which side each passing horde of violent protesters is on. Like the arrests, the violence is chaotic and random. The presence of the army is a pretense. This is anarchy. Frenetic editing and claustrophobic cinematography—we never get the reprieve of a wide shot—imbue the film with a constant heart-thumping suspense. Between snipers, unbearable heat, lack of oxygen, and crowds threatening to storm the van, the prisoners must come together in order to survive.
"It would have been impossible to get some of the film's best shots with a bigger camera."
Unsurprisingly, this is an unpopular sentiment in a divided contemporary Egypt. That's why Hefzy looked beyond the borders of his country to raise money for Clash. "We knew that financing inside of Egypt would have been really tough," he said. "It's not the kind of film that would necessarily do well in the Egyptian box office and market. It's too political." Ultimately, he and his co-producers were able to secure 40% of the budget from France. They engineered the film as a co-production between at least five different companies, including Hefzy's own, in order to have better support in surmounting the shoot's inevitable obstacles.
Then, there was the not-so-small matter of censorship. Before they could shoot, Hefzy, Diab, and the rest of the team had to get a stamp of approval from censors. "We finally got the script approved," Hefzy said, "but they have to see the film again after it's shot to make sure it's comparable to the script. We haven't yet gotten our [final] censorship approval."
For the entirety of the film, we're trapped inside the claustrophobic truck with the characters. "That's how [Diab] wanted to shoot the film," said Hefzy. "That feeling of constraint, tightness, crowded inside a small space."
One year before the shoot, Diab, the actors, and the DP began rehearsing inside a wooden replica of the truck. Simultaneously, the production design team started building the truck itself. "We built [it] so that it could be opened up from all sides with hydraulic systems," said Hefzy. "It was a very sophisticated construction."
But they ended up hardly using the hydraulic system. Instead, Hefzy and team were able to get their hands on a newly-released Alexa Mini smuggled in from Germany. "The Alexa Mini was key to making the film successfully, because without it, we would have had to use a bigger camera," Hefzy said. "It would have been impossible to get some of the film's best shots with a bigger camera."
Even though the camera remained inside the 20-foot truck, the production itself was immense in scope. "It was tough being able to control some of the action scenes shot on real streets in busy neighborhoods, where there a lot of locals and a lot of traffic," said Hefzy. One scene involved 500 extras and fireworks, tear gas, bullets, fighting, and water cannons. According to Diab, there is no stunt culture in Egypt; while shooting a particularly chaotic clash, a stunt coordinator said to the director, "This looks real because it is real."
"The fact that we had a good line producer on the team made it easier," Hefzy said. "We survived it, but it wasn't easy."
Hefzy is fighting the good fight for Arab cinema at large. In 2006, he founded the Film Clinic; under its umbrella, he has produced over 20 films from mostly first-time directors. "I've always tried to keep the company a hub for emerging talent," he said.
Through movies, Hefzy hopes to foster understanding across borders both ideological and national. "I think [cinema] helps people to self-reflect on where we are and where we are headed," Hefzy said. "Not just in a political sense, but on a basic human level of tolerance and acceptance of one another. We've forgotten how to accept differences in our world. This film is all about acceptance. I hope we can learn to do what these characters did at the end: to try to survive by being together and working together."