Mohamed Diab: The Successful Path to Marvel
Currently shooting the Disney series Moon Knight, the acclaimed director and scriptwriter looks back at the road to Marvel and discusses his latest movie, Amira.
Renowned director Mohamed Diab has become the first Egyptian director to work with Marvel and is currently shooting the Disney series Moon Knight. Starring Oscar Isaac, Moon Knight revolves around Marc Spector, an ex-Marine turned mercenary whose multiple alter egos allow him to better fight crime.
Since bursting on the filmmaking scene in 2007, Diab has made a name for himself as a director and scriptwriter who is keen on emphasizing critical political and social issues in Egyptian society. His debut film, El Gezira (The Island, 2007) followed the life of a drug dealer and the lord of an island in Upper Egypt whose inhabitants cultivate drugs. The movie was based on a true story of an Upper Egyptian drug dealer named Ezzat Hanafy. The movie was a huge success and in 2014 he released a sequel.
One month before the January 25 revolution, Diab released his movie 678. This time it was named after a bus that witnessed the sexual harassment of several women. The breakthrough movie is one of the most award winning films in Egypt and was described by the New York Times as an unmistakably harbinger of the revolution. Famed Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho tweeted about the film, calling it brilliant, saying it should be mandatory for men, regardless of their religion or culture, to watch.
A prominent participant in the the January revolution, Diab went on to release Eshtebak (Clash) which took five years to make and was screened in 2016. Diab’s film discussed many issues that began with the revolution in January 2011. It won a number of awards and cemented Diab’s role as a distinguished filmmaker who presents new cinema from a different perspective. Clash participated in the Cannes Film Festival last year in the Un Certain Regard section and was highly praised not only by the panel members but also by the festival guests who saw the movie. Among those was Hollywood megastar Tom Hanks, who sent a letter to Diab, describing the film as magnificent.
In 2017 Diab participated as a panel member for the Un Certain Regard section in the 70th Cannes Film Festival. That same year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose Diab to be a member of its governing body.
Egypt Today spoke with the internationally acclaimed director about his journey with Marvel, his latest movie Amira and the most important stages in his career.
In a previous interview during the last edition of Venice International Film Festival you said there is no comparison between working with Marvel and anywhere else. What did you benefit from your work this year with one the largest film production companies in the world?
The biggest benefit from working with Marvel is that there is a well-defined system for work. A number of officials there asked about my previous work more than once because of this point specifically, to know the possibility of working within a system. The work of any director requires some dictatorship, no doubt, but the focus has been on the possibility of my work as a director within the Marvel system which is more influential than any individual working in Marvel. Everything is on a larger scale and I am working with a budget I have never worked with before. I also learned how to move from the drama that I used to work through to different types of comedy, action, horror and other genres.
You said you shoot daily for 120 days, tell us more about this experience.
We’ve been shooting continuously for six months now in Hungary. All in all, despite all its advantages, it is a very tiring experience, the shooting schedule continues on a daily basis over a period of 120 days. Professional Hollywood stars Oscar Isaacs and Ethan Hawke who are working with me said it is too stressful for them as well. After about fifteen years of working here in Egypt, I never reached the 100-day continuous filming. You become an employee, you wake up every day to start shooting.
After working at Marvel, what do you think the Egyptian industry needs?
What I am going to say you may find cliche but it is the mere truth, the real problem of the Egyptian cinema industry lies in the script. We have talents that can work globally, for example, the Egyptian cinema editor Ahmed Hafez who works with me, his technical level is no different from any editor working in Marvel, if not better without exaggeration. The music of my film is made by Hisham Nazih, whose music has been remarkably admired in Marvel. Also what we need above all is to have a cinema industry in every sense of the word, this will happen when there will be continuous production all the time, because until now any cinematic work in Egypt can be considered independent cinema, no matter how big or small, compared to Disney, which is a state not just a big company.
In one of the scenes of your movie 678, one of the heroes tells the story of his desire to quit his bank job and his ultimate wish to work as a stand-up comedian, to work in the field of art in general. I think you were telling your story. How did you start your acting career?
My story started like that of many Egyptian youths. I didn’t even know if I had a talent or not, because there was no way within our education that could tell us if we are talented. For example I discovered that I had a talent for drawing at university. For a long time I did not understand what I wanted, but I never thought of becoming a director or scriptwriter. I graduated from the Faculty of Commerce, then I worked in a bank, but I was not happy at that time. I understood that my character does not like restrictions. I had an idea for a movie, and I used my work in the bank to present my ideas to some clients who are actors, producers and filmmakers, until I once met producer Moez Masoud, who introduced me to Ahmed El Fishawy, and then I decided to write a movie after I finished reading my first book about writing the script.
To enhance my writing talent, I travelled to the US to study filmmaking for one year. After that I decided that there would be some films that I wanted to direct and then I started working on my first film 678.
Which veteran filmmakers have inspired you the most?
When I decided to travel to study, my plan at that time was to make films abroad. Then I thought that the films that I love and was trying to make were not similar to Hollywood movies so I decided to make local films but with international standards, hence the idea of making Al Jazira (The Island). The directors who truly inspire me all the time are the those who have managed to transcend their borders and transfer their art to the whole world, such as Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Akira Kurosawa, Iranian-born Abbas Kiarostami, and many others whose art has transcended the limits of their original language to the wider world.
There is an extreme movement in all your stories, even your series have a fast tempo. Why?
A very good note, you are right, all of my films have excessive movement. I think this comes from my character itself, I move a lot, I talk fast, I tried to slow the pace of my latest movies Amira, but I am a fast human being by nature and the rhythm of the movie comes from the character of its maker. Even writing series for me has to be fast, because when I watch some series and find their slow pace, I cannot stand them, I am a person who while writing thinks about the next line before writing the line he has to write.
You are keen to use means of transportation as a tool to highlight your ideas, this was clear in both 678 and Clash. Why?
I don’t have a personal relationship with means of transportation, but from my point of view harassment is an act that flourishes and finds its appropriate place in crowds in general. In Egypt, the most crowded places are means of transportation so it is the best place for any harasser. As a filmmaker I have to identify with the character I am writing and think exactly like him/her, I have to completely lose myself and melt into the character I wrote. Sexual harassment is an issue that is not limited to people in Egypt, there are countries that are similar to us in that, such as India with its different culture and religion and in Mexico they have the same thing. I read that in Mexico there was a woman who used to kill harassers on public transport, not just hurting them like Fayza used to do in 678 movie.
Tell us more about Amira
I usually get the ideas of my movies from the news. In 678 movie I was inspired by the girl who filed the first harassment case in Egypt, I went to the court and spoke to the girl. I was browsing websites and news when I read strange news about how some Palestinian prisoners have babies by smuggling sperm to their wives and I felt that this story could make a Greek Shakespearean drama that could raise big existential questions.
As an Egyptian filmmaker, what inspired you to make a movie about such an issue, one that you don’t have enough experience of?
I usually feel motivated to write about things I don’t know, of course I like to write about things I’ve experienced before, but in order to be a good filmmaker I have to dive into a world that doesn’t quite belong to me, expressing things that I am not familiar with to learn experiences I’ve never had before. For example during the three years of making Amira, I lived with the soul of a Palestinian, how he actually lives, it was a human experience that made me become more mature and learn things that I did not learn from anywhere else before. How does a girl live in Egypt? I couldn’t have known the answer to this question without making a movie like 678. I remember a friend of mine told me that someone left an apology letter to a girl he harassed before after watching 678, those were the things that affected me the most, how you can express the feelings of others.
What is the medium you most prefer working with?
Definitely cinema, if I have to choose I will not work on any non-cinematic project, I will devote myself to cinema only. I consider my real projects those that I have directed only. So far I have not directed any series, and I have no intention of doing so. I have participated in writing series, but sometimes the conditions are not suitable for working in cinema and when that happens I have to work outside cinema.
How do you distribute your non-commercial films?
Non-commercial films are distributed based on their participation at the festivals. The more successful the film, the higher its price. The film is sold to each country, and each country has a different distributor. The film can be distributed over a period of two years or more and its screening becomes subject to worldwide sale.