Director Takes on Sexual Harassment in Provocative Film
In case you didn't know, the San Francisco Film Society does a great deal more than organize a world-class film festival every spring. Their Artist-in-Residence program, which has been importing filmmakers doing important work twice a year since Spring 2011, deserves attention and affection from dedicated cinephiles and anyone in the mood to engage with socially relevant cinema on a deeper level.
This October it's Mohamed Diab's turn. If somewhat of a newcomer to the US (though not completely, as he is a graduate of the New York Film Academy), he is well-known in his adopted homeland of Egypt where he has scripted four commercially successful films. Now Diab, who emigrated from Mecca to Ismailia to study, is on to directing; and considering his debut, "Cairo 678," which screens on October 10 at New People Cinema as part of the program, it is easy to see how SFFS arrived at the conclusion that he should be their next guest. It's hard to imagine a more timely selection, as the world's eyes are on Egypt now. Mr. Diab was awarded for the social media activism that he contributed to the revolution in 2011, and his debut is a deft call to action on behalf of the countless women who are sexually assaulted in Egypt (as around the world).
"Cairo 678" follows the interconnected plights of three Cairo women from very different segments of society as they defy the expectation of passivity that has allowed this endemic problem to persist, risking the ruination of their own relationships and the condemnation of their peers. In addition to the screening and Q/A, Diab will be the center of an intimate artist talk on October 14 at FilmHouse, when he'll discuss his transition from writing to directing and how his personal style relates to others in Egyptian and American cinema.
A realistic look
EDGE: As someone interested in class differences and in feminist struggles, especially in how these play out in societies other than the one in which I grew up, I found your directorial debut quite compelling. First of all, how was it for you making the transition from handing your script over when completed to being the director yourself? Did you have a primary reference for the visual style you wanted to achieve?
Mohamed Diab: Going from scriptwriter to director was a challenge. Like most writers, the films I had written often developed into something completely different once on screen. Of course it drove me nuts like any writer, so I decided I would either quit and author novels or venture into directing. ’Cairo 678’ seemed like the perfect project for many reasons. When I first pitched it, originally it was a short film, but Bushra (producer/actress) liked it so much that she suggested I make it a feature. I agreed only if I could direct the film. I also wanted to make it myself was because I knew how sensitive the subject matter was that I didn’t want to risk it being made without that sensibility. My primary goal was to make a film that would make Egyptians acknowledge that sexual harassment is a huge problem that affects everyone in society and that we should be proactive against it. A month after the film’s release, cases being reported tripled and a law punishing participants of group sexual harassment was passed.
EDGE: The film has a very realistic look...
Mohamed Diab: It does. I knew I wanted to make the film look as realistic as possible-I was going for verisimilitude. I’m also very influenced by Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores perros,""Babel") and the Mexican new wave.
EDGE: Can you say something about how you went about crafting the female characters? There is no mention of feminism per se as there likely would be in an American context, but two of the three protagonists possess what could be considered a feminist consciousness, while the third is more traditional. What did you have in mind while writing these distinct females?
Mohamed Diab: I spent two years researching sexual harassment in Egypt before I wrote this film which helped tremendously in crafting these characters. This issue affects all women across socio-economic borders and that needed to come clear. It also affects women who are veiled and who aren’t. Most Egyptians assume that women who dress in figure forming clothes are often the subjects of such vile acts, and some would even go so far to say that a woman who dresses in such a way is ’asking for it.’ Ironically, this happens to women in burkas just as it occurs with Westernized women. One of the most poignant things I discovered in my research was how women were victims, yet blaming one another.
Callous and crude?
EDGE: I would like to ask the same regarding the male characters. Each female protagonist, save one, has a male partner who is flawed but sympathetic. What did you feel was important to convey in the three male characters? Were you worried about demonizing men or creating an impression that men in Cairo are callous and crude?
Mohamed Diab: I definitely did not want to portray the subject nor characters as black and white contrasting figures. I wanted them to be believable; people have good intentions but they also make mistakes. In many ways, life has a circular rhythm-one thing leads to another which leads to the first thing. To understand the victim, we need to understand the offender. Vile actions are not justifiable, but we must examine them to be able to resolve the problem.
EDGE: To what extent were you concerned about the perceptions of Western audiences during the writing of the film? This strikes me as an issue film - there is never any mistake that this is a narrative crafted to illuminate and comment on this societal problem. How did you deal with the need to comment on this troubling state of affairs while not feeding into stereotypes that exist in the more conservative crevices (and beyond) of the West?
Mohamed Diab: Yes this is an issue film. Is that a good thing? Well, my intention was to make it so that Egyptians could acknowledge this huge problem that is often swept under the rug in every household. Thankfully the response was greater than what I had imagined-it’s not everyday a film can change the law. Is the fact that it’s an issue film a bad thing? Maybe for some in the art scene.
Nonetheless I was more interested in making an actual difference for women in Egypt. Before the film came out, 3 people filed lawsuits against it, including one claiming I was being ’unpatriotic’ by making a film that exposed a bad side of Egypt. The sad thing is that people really think this is a third world problem; it exists in everywhere, even in Switzerland. I’ve screened this film in many countries. I never came across a screening where audiences unanimously dismissed it as a strictly third world problem-sexual harassment has no passport.
EDGE: One male character’s coldness to his female partner following her violation is particularly chilling. In her time of need, he is so caught up in his own shame and horror that he cannot comfort, or even look at, her. Is this based on accounts you have heard of how men cope with harassment that their wives endure? Can you say something about the research you did for the script?
Mohamed Diab: Unfortunately, most men in Egypt would react as Sherif did. Mothers, sisters, cousins-women never mention incidents of sexual harassment to the men in their households. Hence the men never hear about it and assume it seldom occurs.
EDGE: And what about the Egyptian audience? What sort of reception did you anticipate, and what have you found so far? You have mentioned that it was important for a man to make this film so that it wouldn’t be discredited. It seems like a film that is poised to make people reflect and consider their attitudes towards women, as well as men, in Egyptian society. What role do you see your film playing in bringing about change?
Mohamed Diab: When the film screened in Cairo, there were interesting patterns with audiences. Men would laugh or not take the film seriously in the beginning and then by the end they’d be silenced. They’d leave the movie theatres self-consciously leaving extra space for female audience members to leave. The film did have an impact in creating a national discussion about the subject. A law penalizing group sexual harassers was passed in response to the film, and the number of reports filed tripled the month after the release.
EDGE: As the world is witnessing, Egypt is at a critical moment now. What is your feeling about the near future in Cairo now? What is your sense about how the changes underway are going to impact creative output?
Mohamed Diab: It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in Egypt. I definitely had issues with the Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived regime and inability to integrate the goals of the revolution and the rest of the country into a democratic state, however I didn’t think it was right for them to be killed in mass numbers last month. I really can’t tell what’s going to happen but no doubt this will impact the art community.
EDGE: What are you looking forward to doing in San Francisco?
Mohamed Diab: Not having political nightmares ? I look forward to seeing the US audiences of ’Cairo 678’ and to meeting people from the film community. My next project is based in the US.
Cairo 678 screens Thursday, October 10, 7:00pm, @ the New People Cinema. 1746 Post Street (Webster/Buchanan), San Francisco, CA. Artist Talk: Mohamed Diab takes place Monday, October 14, , 5:00 pm @ FilmHouse, 1426 Fillmore, ), San Francisco, CA. For more information visit the San Francisco Film Society website.