It is hard enough negotiating a festival whirlwind at normal times – even if it’s on the Lido in Venice where the sea cruelly beckons – but factor in a hectic upcoming production schedule on top of promoting your latest movie, and it’s remarkable how the energies of Mohamed Diab and his producer-wife Sara Goher don’t seem to flag. His third feature film Amira just premiered here, marking a major shift for the Egyptian director best known for his critically acclaimed debut Cairo 678 and the buzzy 2016 feature Clash. For starters, Amira is his first film made outside his native land and tells the surprising story of a young woman in Palestine who discovers that her imprisoned freedom fighter father (expertly embodied by Ali Suliman) isn’t really her biological dad. But Diab and Goher’s stop in Venice is brief because they’re off to Budapest for production work on their next project, a six-episode series in the Marvel franchise starring Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke called Moon Knight that will be wrapping in Atlanta later this fall.
“It’s like playing in a chocolate factory,” muses Diab, whose enthusiasm for the project is infectious (he’s directing four of the six episodes and also acting as executive producer). Yet he’s not giving up on what some may think of as smaller films. “We’re always chasing after stories that are meaningful to us” offers Goher. “Mohamed’s way of directing brings an intimacy even to a massive production like Marvel.” That sense of intimacy is certainly noticeable in Amira, shot in Jordan but set in an unidentified locale in the Occupied Territories. The film’s inspiration comes from newspaper accounts of prisoners who had their sperm smuggled out of jail so their wives could have children, and it was the story rather than the locale which gripped the couple. “I love to learn about different cultures, to understand different people” says Diab, “but I’m not doing it as a favor. Even for Arabs, what we know about Palestinians comes from the news, which is always about fighting, death, struggles. They’re human beings, and it’s very important to see that. I think I’m definitely not the same person I was before making Amira.”
This ability to transcend cultures and plunge themselves in another world was a major part of the excitement for both Diab and Goher when they sent a 200-page pitch packet to Marvel for their projected miniseries based on the franchise’s Moon Knight character, an avenger under the protection of the Egyptian moon good Khonsu. It was a gamble that paid off in spades, propelling them into the Hollywood big-time. Goher described the feeling: “this was our first time doing something with a big studio, and it can be quite overwhelming. But we were so lucky because they were really receptive to our vision, and they’re such collaborative people. I cannot emphasize how great it’s been.”
I asked whether the series can be a catalyst for shifting often negative Arab representations in U.S. cinema, and the couple talked animatedly about their vision in this regard. “That’s why Ramy the show is very important, in the way it normalises Egyptians,” says Diab.“Hollywood is way behind, but I see steps.” Both pinpoint the Trump presidency and the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements for the industry’s wake-up call, when overt racism started finally to be countered by people standing up to the bigoted rhetoric. “A big portion of the American people have never seen themselves as heroes, like in [Jordan Peele's] Get Out, and that was revolutionary,” suggests the director. “And I think the last people in line are Arabs. We are still dehumanised.” Goher chimes in, “Hollywood definitely got the message, and hopefully we are working towards becoming a more United States of America, culturally speaking.”
This led to a lively discussion of Spider-Man: Far from Home, especially about the hijabi girl actress who’s often strategically positioned in the back of a number of scenes. Goher mentions blogs created by Muslim girls who felt validated by seeing her in the frame: “Just having her be, not seen in a different light, is very refreshing." They’re doing their own part to expand Muslim representation on American screens large and small, starting with Moon Knight: “We have a very important strong Arab character who’s completely normalized,” says Diab. Future projects go even further, starting with a work in development that Goher came up with featuring a hijabi superhero living in America’s Midwest. “I really want to share this with the world,” says Diab. “It’s going to create bridges.This is what changes the world.”
Top photo of producer Mohamed Hefzy, Goher and Diab by Giorgio Zucchiatti courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia