Mohamed Diab, the San Francisco Film Society’s Fall 2013 Artist-in-Residence, is a writer, filmmaker, and social activist. Four films developed from his screenplays – Real Dreams, The Island, The Replacement, and Congratulations – enjoyed commercial success in Egypt. His first feature as director, the feminist drama Cairo 678, weaves together the lives of three Cairene women who come to protest individual and widespread societal sexual harassment. Its release in 2010, concurrent with tumultuous protests in Egypt, was greeted with significant international acclaim and accolades. Cairo 678, which the filmmaker also wrote, will screen during his residency in San Francisco on October 10 at the New People Cinema, and Mr. Diab will participate in an artist talk on October 14th at FilmHouse. Mr. Diab spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary to discuss the ever-shifting relationship to sexual harassment in Egypt, what inspires him to keep going against the tides of controversy, and how he came to be involved with SFFS. This interview has been edited and compressed from an e-mail exchange for publication.
Sean Malin: Cairo 678 follows three major characters who experience different levels of sexual harassment in Egypt. One of them, Nelly, played by Nahed El Sebai, mirrors a real person – so who are Seba and Fayza, the other two, based on?
Mohamed Diab: Seba and Fayza are inspired by several women within my circles that were kind enough to open up about this very sensitive aspect of their lives. Fayza stabbing men in the groin was completely fictional – I wanted to explore what it would be like if a woman went about retaliating in an extreme way. Ironically, years after the release of the film, I came across an article in CNN about a real Fayza in Mexico called “Diana,” who killed bus drivers that sexually abused passengers.
SM: How involved was Noha Rushdie Selah in the making of your film?
MD: Noha wasn’t involved in the making [of Cairo 678,] although I did attend her court hearing when her incident occurred. I really wanted her to see the film, and I was able to reach her and got her to see it. She liked the film, but unfortunately her ending is much different. Noha left Egypt because people were very critical of her. Rather than support, there was this conspiracy theory that she was a spy trying to ruin Egypt’s reputation and people fed into it.
SM: Was finding actresses to play these women difficult because of the troubling subject or because they expected controversy? Did any of them get cold feet making the movie?
MD: This script was turned down by practically every other actress in Egypt. No one wanted to be associated with the stigma of sexual harassment in any way, shape, or form. None of my actresses got cold-feet; however, the film did force them to dig into deep, dark places that they had never been. The roles were very demanding, especially that of Fayza [played by executive producer Boshra.]
SM: By contrast, many of the men in the film are crude and disgusting. Did the male actors feel discomfort portraying harassers and abusers?
MD: No, I think the male actors knew very well that the kinds of characters they were portraying existed and furthermore recognized the importance of making this film for [such men] to realize there are major repercussions for their behavior.
SM: Four movies had been made of your scripts before Cairo 678. When did the subject of sexual harassment become interesting to you as the subject of a film?
MD: When I heard about the first woman to file a lawsuit against a sexual harasser in Egypt. At the time, I could not believe that no one else had done that. It sparked my curiosity, and when I started asking the women around me about it, I was shocked by how much they go through that most men, like myself, never know about.
SM: By making a film about sexual harassment in Egypt, you must have expected the film to be difficult to watch for most people and a “hard sell” to theaters.
MD: The controversy was predictable. The success of the film was not predictable. My production company had very low expectations for the film in terms of tickets selling.
SM: In an interview with the New Yorker, you mentioned that the revolutionary spirit in 2011 was keeping sexual harassment from being as significant a problem because people were caught up in that spirit. Has that feeling of change lasted in your view? Or do you still see sexual harassment as the same problem or worse than when you made your movie?
MD: The problem isn’t gone: it’s a still existent byproduct of a concatenation of major problems in Egypt. Is it better or worse? It’s the same – now it’s just easier to acknowledge as a problem and to discuss it. That’s a good place to start if we want to revolutionize the way society deals with women.
SM: Who are your social influences in Egypt and around the world? Who do you look to for your stories?
MD: I am inspired by everything and everyone. I’m a big fan of the internet. [As a filmmaker,] I’m inspired by the universality of the works of the Mexican New Wave: [Alejandro Gonzalez] Inarritu, [Alfonso] Cuaron, [Guillermo] Del Toro; the powerful simplicity of Iranian cinema; Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson; and writers Charlie Kaufman, Aaron Sorkin, Guillermo Arriaga, and William Monahan…
SM: You are a filmmaker and a screenwriter, but you’ve also expressed a huge interest in social activism and have said that you helped lead the revolutions. In which field have your messages had more success?
MD: I’ve been trying to figure that out myself for the past three years. I’m far more influential and productive in the film industry.
SM: In that case, what do you consider your priority? You’ve had a lot of success as a blockbuster screenwriter.
MD: It’s important to make films that are both effective and seen by many people. I want to continue making films that have a social impact, but hopefully on a more universal scale, not just for Egypt.
SM: In Egypt, the evolution of the government in the last few years must also have impacted the film industry in a significant way. How have things become easier or more difficult for you as a movie director?
MD: I was so unproductive [in the industry] the last few years. I think many colleagues would agree with me that it is hard to focus on making art when the world around you is changing dramatically. Nonetheless, it has made me more ambitious to want to make films for a wider audience, and my next project is actually based in the U.S.
SM: How did the Film Society get in touch with you about their Artist-in-Residence program?
MD: I was informed through the U.S. distributor of Cairo 678, the Global Film Initiative, about the interest for the residency.
SM: Your residency will give you an opportunity to show your film to students in San Francisco and to wider audiences on the October 10 screening. How do you expect them to react?
MD: The film screened for American audiences before and their reception was rather good. I don’t know how high school students will perceive it, but I hope it will put things they may have heard about the region into perspective.
SM: What will you be working on following your time in San Francisco? Can we expect you to return to productivity as a screenwriter, filmmaker or activist?
MD: My next project is a feature based on the true story of a woman in Michigan who, through a series of unfortunate events, lost custody of her children to the state and spent her whole life fighting to get them back. When she couldn’t get them back, she made a law to prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else. Now that law is a Federal bill. When you hear the entire story in detail, it makes you wonder how what happened to her could happen in a country like the United States.