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Breaking All Stereotypes: An Interview with Egyptian Director Mohamed Diab at Cannes

Clash (2016)

Clash (2016)

By Neila Driss.

The Egyptian screenwriter and director Mohamed Diab is a bold filmmaker, unafraid of tackling subjects that are often taboo in the Arab-Muslim world. In his first film, Cairo 678 (2010), he addresses sexual harassment in the Egyptian capital, while in Clash (2016), his second film as director, he portrays Islamist characters with a human face, which is contrary to the general tendency in Egypt of demonising them.  Clash opened the section Un Certain Regard during the 69th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in May 2016, and the film, which takes place wholly inside a police van, went on to win several awards at international film festivals and the praise of American actor Tom Hanks, who found it ‘magnificent’ and both heartbreaking and enlightening.

During the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017, Mohamed Diab not only won two Critics Awards (best screenplay and best director) for Clash, but he was also a member of the jury for Un Certain Regard. When I met up with him, he was happy and proud to be at the festival and considered himself lucky to have had the honor of being chosen a jury member. In the following interview, Mohamed Diab shares his impressions of the Cannes Film Festival, the work of his peers in Arab cinema and where he finds inspiration for his own films and screenplays.

What are your impressions of this year’s Cannes Film Festival? 

Well, this year is an exceptional year because it’s the 70th anniversary. For me, last year, though exhausting, was a wonderful edition because I had a film in competition and, thank God, I received good reviews. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the ability to see films, while this year, on the contrary, I was able to watch a ton.  Not only was I able to see the eighteen films in competition in Un Certain Regard, but I also tried my best to see other films.

This edition was for me like a crash course in cinema, a learning experience.  And this year has been an extraordinary year because of the 70th anniversary and there’s tons and tons of idols of mine here. I also had the honor of being in the family photo for the 70th anniversary.

What have you learned from your experience as a jury member at Cannes? 

What I learned the most was watching films with other artists and people who understand art and evaluating them and seeing them and disagreeing about them.  That really taught me a lot and I was listening to everyone’s point of view with an open mind to learn.  And definitely watching the whole selection of a programme, eighteen films that made me understand more how films are being selected, being on the flip side, seeing how films are being evaluated all together from the festival, from a jury, it really opened my eyes.

Could you tell us something about the Tunisian film The Beauty and the Dogs, which was in competition? What did the jury say about it?

Mohamed-DiabI’m a fan of [director] Kaouther Ben Hania. We loved her film, just so you know.  Last year I was at Cannes with my own film, Clash.  It was the opening film in Un Certain Regard.  I didn’t win anything, but every time I meet somebody from last year’s jury they tell me they loved the film. So, what I’ve learned this years is there’s lots of films and sometimes you give awards to the films that we all don’t disagree about.  Sometimes I’m more passionate about a film, or sometimes one or two members of the jury are passionate for another, while a third doesn’t like it at all.  If a single member of the jury doesn’t like a film, we can’t give it a prize. Eventually, awards are about compromise. Kaouther’s film was really moving. I cried in the film. I personally told her how much I enjoyed it. So, I think this is the beginning of something great, and Kaouther is a great filmmaker.

Where do you find inspiration for your scenarios? 

Most of my inspiration for my scenarios comes from my surroundings and from my observations of real people.  And the news.  I follow the news very closely.  I read all the newspapers.

Could you tell us more about the movie Décor (2014), for which you wrote the screenplay?  How could a man, write all that Maha, a woman, felt?

Décor, especially, was written first by my sister Sherine.   I co-wrote it with her.  So actually I would have to give credit for the feelings about a woman to Sherine.  But, I’d tried before in writing about women in Cairo 678, and I always had great feedback from women telling me that they felt that this film was made by a woman. 

What are your future plans?

I’m developing a big budget Hollywood movie. And I’m making a film in Palestine, which I wish to bring to Cannes next year or the year after.

This film, Deja, is inspired by real stories of Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences in Israeli prisons.  It is going to follow a 17-year old Palestinian, conceived by artificial insemination, who sets out to find her biological father living in Israel and pursues a tumultuous love story with a prisoner of the same age.  Just like Cairo 678 and Clash, Deja will be characterized by a strong female protagonist.  I like portraying Arab women and breaking all stereotypes. In western films, Arab women are often portrayed as submissive while in real life they are often tougher than men.

A few days ago, Mohamed Diab was elected member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in the section screenplay writers, which will allow him to vote for the Oscar for Best Screenplay and the Oscar for Best Film.   

Neila Driss is a Tunisian lawyer, blogger, and cinéphile. In 2006, she won the Most Promising Blog Prize at the Tunisia Blog Awards and in the following year, she won the first place jury prize. In 2010, her blog MonMassir, whose title translates as My Destiny and is inspired by Youssef Chahine’s film Al Massir, was censored by the Tunisian government. In more recent years, she has been writing about cinema, in particular Arab cinema, and she has published on the subject in Tunisian and Egyptian newspapers (Tunis Hebdo, Al Akhbar and Al Ahram) and in online magazines and websites, including Webdo.tn, Tourismag.com and Za2ed.com. Breaking All Stereotypes is her second article for Film International.

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