Soft spoken, with a low key and modest demeanour, Mohamed Diab, may not look the part of an internationally acclaimed film director whose films have been commercially screened in over 80 countries. Yet, despite his young age, Diab has already established an international reputation as a brilliant director who does not shy away from difficult subjects. Starting out as a scriptwriter, his two forays into directing to date, 678 and Eshtebak (Clash), gained him much acclaim, not only in Egypt, but internationally as well. eniGma’s Chairman, Samia Farid Shihata, caught up with Diab to find out more about this young director who is quietly, but forcefully, making a significant impact on Egypt’s movie industry.
ohamed Diab graduated from business school and liked to write poetry in his spare time. It never crossed his mind to work in cinema. That is, until he began working in a bank in Cairo after graduation. Though soft spoken, Diab is definitely not shy, and he enjoyed chatting with celebrity customers who came his way at the bank, sharing ideas and story lines he felt would make great films! Time after time, he was told that his ideas were really good. At first he didn’t take these remarks seriously. But, gradually as the positive feedback kept coming his way, the dream of becoming a scriptwriter began to crystallise in his head and he eventually decided he had to pursue it. So, he resigned from the bank and headed to the US to study script writing for a year at the prestigious New York Film Academy in Los Angeles.
When he returned to Egypt in 2005, armed with his diploma in scriptwriting, Diab’s social skills helped him again, this time at making new friends in the industry he wanted to be part of. “Ahmed El Fishawy and Ahmed Mekki, helped me a lot,” he says. “Through them I got to know directors, Mohamed Gomaa and Sherif Arafa who gave me the opportunity to write my first scripts. I did Ahlaam Hakikiya (Real Dreams) with Gomaa and El Guezira (The Island) with Arafa,” Diab recalls. The third and fourth scripts he wrote were for the films, Badal Faked (Replacement) and Alf Mabrouk (Congratulations).
Although Diab initially had no ambition to direct, when he started scriptwriting this began to change. “I discovered that for every script I wrote, I had a vision of how it should be implemented. When I saw my scripts being done in a different way than what I would have done, it was very difficult for me. Even if it was better than what I envisioned, it just wasn’t what I imagined. So, I decided I should either write novels or direct my next screenplay,” he recalls.
Diab is quick to add that as a special exception to his new rule, his very close friend Amr Salama will be directing the script for a TV series he wrote with Khaled and Shereen Diab. Diab just wasn’t ready now to invest the time and effort needed to direct a TV series. So he chose the next best thing, to give it to his dear friend, Salama whose directing style is close to his own. “I still feel occasional pangs of jealousy about my script, however,” he says with a smile.
Diab’s first directing project was the film, 678, produced with his friend Bushra, who also played a lead role. “I had an idea for a short film about sexual harassment. Bushra encouraged me to make it a long film and she joined me in the project. I will never forget the opportunity she gave me,” he explains. The film won first prize in the 20I0 Dubai film Festival, and went on to achieve phenomenal success in Egypt and internationally, especially in France, catapulting him into the spotlight in ways that he had not imagined.
Unbeknownst to many, France is the biggest market in the world for foreign films, making success there especially important. When 678 was released in France, its distribution numbers surpassed all expectations. That amazing success meant that Diab became a well-known and highly respected figure in the French cinema industry. This popularity proved to be very valuable when he started looking for partners for his next project, Eshtebak.
Buoyed by his first directing success, Diab took his time thinking of his next project. Eventually, his brother, Khaled, came to him with an idea that he thought was brilliant and they began writing the script together. The plot is set entirely in an eight meter police van, where a number of detainees from different political and social backgrounds find themselves stuck together during the turmoil that followed the July 2013 events in Egypt. “It was a perfect way to show the points of view of all the different groups,” says Diab, adding, “The film is not as much about the revolution, as it is about hysteria and coexistence. We tried as much as possible to remove politics from the film. We wanted people to see the humanity of the other. I felt it could help the whole country get through a difficult part of its history.”
Remembering the challenges he faced, Diab says, “We approached all possible producers, but no one wanted to touch the script. Only two agreed to take the risk. The first was Mohamed Hefzy, who was excited when he saw the script. He could see its vision and the direction it would take. The other was Moez Masoud. But we got the bulk of the financing, 60 percent, actually, from France, through a competition. This was possible largely because they already knew me in France from the success of 678 there.”
While the film received much acclaim internationally and was nominated at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, the reception to Eshtebak by the Egyptian public was complicated. As Diab recalls, “The film tries to humanise all sides, so every side attacked me. But I am proud that I humanised everyone, even though I may not agree with them politically. Even when Tom Hanks wrote this amazingly supportive message on my Facebook page saying how much he admired the film, and how human it was, the heated comments that people wrote in reaction to his post, from different political sides, made it look like there was a civil war happening on facebook!”
“I had a different kind of problem with the censor,” Diab goes on to say. “The censor insisted that we add a sentence at the beginning of the film that said that the Ikhwan are devils and are responsible for everything bad that was happening. I didn’t want to do that because it negates the meaning we are conveying in the film. We are not talking about politics, so this spoils the meaning of the film. Despite that, thankfully, a large part of the audience still saw the film in the right way we intended. I am very proud of Eshtebak and don’t want to change anything about it.”
The challenge Diab faced trying to find financing for Eshtebak is not unique to him, of course. Film projects outside the mainstream have a hard time finding financing. “It’s very rare that you can do a film like 678 and Eshtebak,” says Diab. “Anyone doing a film outside the thinking of the commercial market is trying to perform a miracle. Despite that, several Egyptian films reached important festivals in the past few years. Frankly, I thank God for the producer, Mohamed Hefzy. He is the most important person in Egypt today who produces films that are different. Hefzy has made a huge difference to the Egyptian cinema industry. Three of Hefzy’s films were competing to go to the Oscars this year, Sheikh Jackson, Akhdar Yabes (Withered Green) and Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim. We need more examples like Hefzy in Egypt,” says Diab, adding, “I also hope our Ministry of Culture would do like France and support films that are different to allow us to reach international levels.”
Diab is now working on his next directing project, and it’s taking him in a totally different, and unexpected, direction. “I like to take risks, says Diab. “I’ve been writing a science fiction film in English with my wife Sarah Gohar. We have been thinking about this story for five years, and its time has come. We’ve finished the script and we are marketing it now.”
That project fits well with Diab’s big dreams for himself. “My dream is to make Egyptian films that would cross borders,” he says. “Thank God, I have achieved that to a certain extent with 678 and Eshtebak, which were both screened commercially in about 80 countries.” Diab’s ambitions don’t stop there, however. He is quick to add, “But being international doesn’t just mean that your films are shown abroad. I want to do films abroad in their language and I want to win prizes like the Oscars. That’s why I am writing a film in English for myself. My dream is to be successful like the Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu, who won the Oscars two years in a row, for Birdman and The Revenant. He is my role model. I wish that one day I can do the same thing like him, do my own films in America.”
There are other ways Mohamed Diab is going international, and in the process giving increased visibility to Egypt’s cinema industry globally. This year, Diab together with actor Ramy Malek, became the first Egyptians ever to be chosen as members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. They joined the exclusive group of 5000 lifetime members who vote for the Oscars every year. This honour came on the heels of Diab’s participation as a member of the five-member jury, headed by Uma Thurman, for the “Un Certain Regard” prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
As Diab continues to work to achieve his big dreams, he is making Egypt proud along the way. Thankfully, he is one of several brilliant young Egyptians in today’s cinema industry producing exciting works of art that are being acclaimed by audiences and juries all over the world. As long as this new generation of filmmakers continues to explore new ideas and take risks, the future of Egyptian cinema will be bright.