In Mohamed Diab's film Cairo 678, a woman who rides crowded Egyptian buses is sexually harassed in the buses' aisles -- not just once but repeatedly, on different days, by different men who think they can grope her with impunity. Eventually, the woman (portrayed by Egyptian actress Bushra Rozza) reaches her limit and begins stabbing harassers in the groin. "You expect me to be sane?" her character asks another woman. "They deserve what they get."
Diab's 2010 drama, which centers on three female characters who are attacked, was a box-office hit in Egypt and started a national dialogue there about sexual harassment. The film also delved into issues of oppression that were at the heart of Egypt's 2011 uprising, presaging the revolution with its dramatization of a society on the edge of chaos. Cairo 678 screens Thursday, Oct. 10 at New People Cinema (1746 Post Street) as part of Diab's Artist in Residency with the San Francisco Film Society. Diab will also talk about Cairo 678 and his career at FilmHouse (1426 Fillmore Street) on Monday, Oct. 14. Each year, the society picks a filmmaker of note for its Artist in Residence program, and Diab was an ideal choice given his experience at shepherding a movie that is still having an impact in Egypt and is still reaching new audiences around the world.
Diab based one of Cairo 678's three major characters, a woman named Nelly, on the real life of Noha Roushdy, who in 2008 sued a man who sexually attacked her -- the first such suit in Egypt. Roushdy won her case, which led to her attacker's imprisonment, and new laws that criminalize sexual aggression. Before making Cairo 678, which is his directorial debut, Diab, 35, was the screenwriter for four big Egyptian films: Real Dreams, The Island, The Replacement, and Congratulations.
"All four films were blockbusters that had the biggest stars in Egypt," says Diab in an interview in San Francisco. "When I started making films, I wanted to make big blockbusters with the biggest stars. And then I discovered that's not what I really needed. I needed to make something that was close to my heart, something that had a big message. I'd heard about harassment, and as a man in Egypt, you cannot know about those things, because women didn't speak about it. I'd heard of it, and then came the trial of Noha Roushdy. I went to the trial, and one of the cameramen covering the trial was making fun of her. I was sitting next to him. And an attorney walked by who also made fun of her, saying, 'Oh, women, they just exaggerate.' I never try to see black and white, so even those people, I didn't see them as bad people. I just saw them people who were not well-informed, who needed to see the world through Noha's eyes. So I decided to make a film about her story."
Cairo 678 has scenes that are highly political. One of the characters is a soccer fan who paints her face in the colors of Egypt's flag. After she's attacked at a crowded celebration, she removes the paint in disgust. The film also has scenes that are darkly farcical (even humorous), as when the victim's family worries more about its own reputation than the health and reputation of its attacked family member. The film has cinematic twists and turns that intertwine the lives of the different characters. And the film has thriller elements of vigilantism and mystery. Will Egyptian authorities figure out who's responsible for the sudden increase in attacks on Cairo's harassers?
Director Mohamed Diab
"I learned English from Hollywood films, and I learned that Hollywood formula," Diab says. "I want to make good films that people see. I don't want to make those European films -- I respect them -- that are boring." The fact that Diab is male gave Cairo 678 more credibility in Egypt, he says. His wife, Sarah Goher, with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter, produced the film.
"I thought it needed a man to make the film," he says. "If it was a woman, then people are going to her lightly because it would be considered a feminist film."
"My wife was with me from the beginning," he adds. "Me and my wife did every single thing. After the film was finished, I got a small camera, and we made the credits in our own bathroom -- she shot it. We were partners in this."
The film was controversial from the beginning, which helped draw even more Egyptian movie-goers. An official with an Egypt organization called the Association for Human Rights and Social Justice urged Egypt's attorney general to ban Cairo 678 on the grounds that it encouraged women to hit men in the genitals. And Tamer Hosny, a major Egyptian pop star, complained that Diab used one of his songs to highlight one of the film's crucial scenes. In the scene, a man listens to Hosny's lyrics (which can be interpreted as misogynistic) before attacking Rozza's character, whose name is Fayza.
Cairo 678 is Egypt's most successful film by international sales, Diab says. "It made 2 million dollars in France alone," he says. "It's played in Brazil and Spain and India and many other countries. The only place it didn't have big distribution was here in America."
During his San Francisco residency, Diab is speaking to college and high school students about his career in film. Diab studied at New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. He moved to L.A. when he was 26, quitting a job at an international bank in Cairo. By Egyptian standards, that bank job was lucrative and prestigious, a stable position in an unstable country.
"It was a big deal to leave everything," he says. "I come from a small city, Ismaïlia, and it's very hard to make it in Cairo. It was hard for me to leave that bank. My fiancée left me. It was crazy. I did every crazy job you can imagine. I couldn't find myself. It's very hard in the Egyptian educational system to find your artistic self. The first time that I knew I could draw was when I was in college. So I never dreamt as a kid of being a screenwriter or a director. I discovered that when I was 25. But I jump in when I'm sure of it."
"More and more women are speaking about harassment" in Egypt, Diab adds. "The film affected society, definitely, but I think the Revolution had more of an effect. The number of harassers is small, but they keep doing it all the time."
Cairo 678 will screen Thursday, Oct. 10, 7pm, at New People Cinema in San Francisco, followed by a Q&A with the director. Diab will talk about his career on Monday, Oct. 14, 5pm at FilmHouse in San Francisco. To reserve a seat to that free event, email email@example.com. For more information, visit sffs.org.
All images courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.