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Remembering Mohamad Diab’s 678 and The Fight Against Sexual Harassment

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Perfectly aligned with the time the January 25th Revolution takes place in Egypt, Mohamad Diab’s 678 is an unsharpened powerful portrait of three Egyptian women of different social backgrounds rebelling against the epidemic that is Sexual Harassment that has recently, apparently become more of a rule than an exception in Egyptian culture. 678 shows resistance against the constantly spreading disease through exposing the reality of what happens on the streets of Egypt through our three main characters: Hend, Seba and Fayza, who meet as victims of sexual harassment and struggle to awaken the society that ignores this issue. Other than the harassment, what these three women have in common is that the three of them refuse to stay silent and they take action. Seba starts a self-defense course for other women, Nelly files a
lawsuit against her attacker, and Fayza takes on a more aggressive approach; as she resolves to stabbing harassers in the groin with a pen. The film acted as a game changer in the Egyptian society and it is also on the short list of Egyptian films with lead female roles wearing the hijab. Seven years after the film’s been released, We women still find ourselves preys to the claws of sexual harassers from every social class and in all environments; at work, in the street, at social events, and sometimes, even at home. But we can never forget the ray of hope that was unveiled to us when 678 was released.

In an article by Egypt Independent’s Noha El Hinnawy, she writes “With bitterness and finesse, the movie explores the psyche of a harassed woman, emphasizing the level of emotional harm inflicted on her when the privacy of her own body is violated by cold-blooded strangers. A plethora of negative emotions is explored. Torn by frustration, self-hatred and a resilient revenge impulse, she remains disoriented about how to react to such an affront in a society that still blames the victim for “failing to protect her body””.

The film was released in December 22nd , 2010 and is known abroad as Cairo 678 but also has so many other titles. Like, for example: In France, the film is known by the name Les Femmes Du Bus 678.

Title:

The film’s title is indeed unique, as so many people didn’t understand what 678 meant when the film came out. Besides being the plate number of the bus that the main character rides to work everyday, the title 678 is shorthand for the continuation and the speedy spreading of the social epidemic that is sexual harassment. The film could just as well be called 345 in a nation of 96 million human beings that are in mass denial.

Director:

Mohamad Diab was the kind of guy who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life back in his late teens just like the majority of us, that’s why he went into business school, which in his own words, is considered “The college for the lost” in
Egypt aka the place for those who have no idea what their interests are. A few years later, Diab graduated and started working in a fancy bank. Using his position as a banker, Diab started trying to pitch film ideas to the celebrity clients of the bank. Diab continued to do so until one day; an anonymous person told him that his ideas are good and have the potential to become great. Diab didn’t think twice. He immediately quit his job and left the country to go study film in the US at the New York Film Academy

According to Diab, he always knew that he had an artistic streak as he really enjoyed writing songs and telling stories as a teenager but he could never really place his finger on precisely what it is that he wants to do. So, during his stay in the US, he started writing again. Then, after graduating, he came back to Egypt and wrote four films. Within two years, he was involved in the production of Al Gezira (2007), a huge blockbuster that caused Diab to become one of the most successful screenwriters in the Egyptian industry. Al Gezira is considered “The Godfather of Egyptian cinema” according to Diab. He wrote many successful films for the screen: Al Gezira parts 1 and 2 (2007-2014), Badal Faqed (2009), Décor (2014), Alf Mabrook (2009), which he co-wrote with his brother Khaled Diab who’s also a prominent Egyptian screenwriter/Director, and finally, 678 (2010).

All this success with commercial films and yet, Diab still felt like something was missing. He didn’t feel like his stories were his because he wasn’t directing them. He suddenly started craving control over his own works of writing. Consequently, Diab decided to study directing. He did so by reading a lot of books and asking everyone around him that is of experience for guidance. He was also lucky to have friends who worked as directors and so; he received a lot of help and support. Finally, Diab decided to jump in and direct his first film 678.

Motivation:

In 2008, after the first sexual harassment case was filed in Egypt, Diab started feeling guilty as a man, not that he’s a harasser but he felt like it was time for him to take action and try to make a change through making 678. He stated, “When the problem is silence, the solution is to talk about it”. Diab felt it wrong for women to be blamed for being harassed.

The film is about true stories that Diab has found out about after talking to a lot of the women who’ve been exposed to such filth. He says that these women are his inspiration for making 678 and are what pushed him to move forward with the project. He adds, “The percentage of Sexual Harassment in Egypt is 83%. So far, out of ten women you meet, eight of them have been sexually roughed up. The problem is silence. We didn’t know. Before directing the film, I didn’t know the magnitude of the problem. So, I started talking to the circle around me and then to more women. To my surprise, it was like a different world. Egyptian men live in one world, and Egyptian women live in a completely different one. And that is what I try to portray in the film.”

Preparation:

It took Diab two years and a half in order to research the subject of the film. He was highly aware that as a first time director, if he fails, then he would lose a lot of people in the industry, including everyone who once helped him. It was indeed very scary. Even the people who believed in him as an artist were completely against the idea of him directing a whole film on his own. However, Diab took this as a challenge and he took all the time he could to prepare for the film so that there wouldn’t be a chance of messing a project this important up.

Cast and Crew:

It wasn’t at all a smooth process finding a cast for this particular film. First, Diab won over the famous actress/singer Bushra Rosa, as she’s a strong advocate of women’s rights. But from there on, it was so hard to find other women who wanted to be involved in a film about sexual harassment because they thought that being part of 678 would shatter their image as respectful artists. To be in a film about sexual harassment is a disaster to them. At the time, Diab almost offered the roles to everyone there is to offer them to. But suddenly, the actress/ballerina Nelly Karim,  along with the talented actress Nahid El Sebai, popped out of nowhere and jumped onboard.

In the end, Diab ended up with a spectacular trio of incredible women who believed so much in the cause and who understood exactly what they were up against. On the other hand, there was the casting of the men, which wasn’t a walk in the park either. According to the director, it wasn’t at all easy getting Maged El Kedwany in but it was a successful mission in the end. Basically, the majority of the actors who didn’t end up taking part in the film just thought they’d try Diab out first as a director and see if he succeeds. Then, and only then, that they would consider working with him.

When it came to the recruitment of the rest of the film’s crew, the process was way less complicated. Actor/Singer Hany Adel was recruited to compose the film’s musical score. Amr Salah Al Din (Asmaa) is the film’s editor and lastly, there’s
Ahmad Gabr, (Asmaa, Eshtebak) the film’s Director of photography.

Characters:

Our first and main character is Fayza, played by the multi-talented Bushra Rosa as mentioned before, who is also the film’s Executive Director. Fayza is a veiled, conservative, working class mother whose economic situation dictates that she ride the crowded buses daily and expose herself to what men call “The Lemon Test”: pocket-size foreplay to test a woman’s receptivity to further molestation. Fayza’s appearance, body movement and bland facial expressions only work to express the frustration and the depression that the character experiences. Unlike all other Egyptian actresses who look ravishing on the screen even if they’ve been hit by a train, Rosa chose to rid herself of makeup in the film because of how much she wanted her character to reach through to her audience. In my opinion, Rosa’s performance in the film is exquisite. It is real, it is raw and it is striking. It is exactly the way it is supposed to be.

Our second character is Seba, played by the outstanding actress Nelly Karim, whose rise to cinematic success started with 678 after years of playing light, romantic roles. Seba is an upper-class jewelry designer who has been roughed up sexually during celebrations of a football match. Seba then decides to host a seminar for women who have been assaulted (though none will own up to it), not even Fayza. Seba is impulsive, aggressive and full of rage that is ready to burst out in the faces of all those who did wrong by her. For the first time, we see Nelly Karim the way we should’ve seen her so long ago.

Our third character and the last of the trio is Nelly, played by none other than the impeccable Nahid Al Sebai in a role that truly does shed new light on her as an actress. Nelly is the youngest of the three women. She’s a spirited, engaged twenty something year old, who aspires to become a stand-up comedian, but whose life changes dramatically after a man, from his moving car; grabs her. Nelly’s character is based on the courageous, badass woman who, in 2008, filed the first sexual harassment lawsuit in Egypt. Egypt Independent states, “Nelly’s episode resonates with the true story of a young documentary filmmaker who made headlines in 2008 when she filed a sexual harassment complaint. The case stirred the outrage of many nationalists who alleged that the plaintiff was incited by foreign countries to harm Egypt’s image.
Nevertheless, in a historic verdict, the defendant was sentenced to three years of hard labor.Nelly is strong, stubborn and a fighter who doesn’t stand down even when the closest people to her are the ones who encourage her to let go of the whole thing because it is not worth it and because it will only work to ruin her reputation as a good girl.

The Fourth star of the film is actor Maged Al Kidwany who plays the role of Essam in the film, a sympathetic police detective investigating the stabbings, who eventually gets involved, bringing all three women in for questioning. However, Essam wasn’t always sympathetic to the women’s cases. His character changed from a patriarchal bully to a decent encouraging individual. Al Kidwany’s role is one of his best ones as he truly shines in it with his sarcastic nature and witty comebacks.

Also there’s Fayza’s financially struggling husband played by Bassem Samra, who becomes irate when she refuses to sleep with him (Which of course is rooted in what she experiences everyday on the bus). There’s Sherif, Seba’s husband played by Ahmad Al Fishawy, who abandons his wife after the harassment incident stating that it’s too hard for him to deal with it at the moment. Lastly, there’s Omar, Nelly’s fiancé, played by Omar El Saeed, who is the only decent male character in the film but who also only becomes supportive of Nelly’s decision after his parents threaten to end the couple’s marriage plans if Nelly doesn’t give up the lawsuit.

Production:

Regarding the film’s budget and how the film was made, when asked during a 2011 interview, director Mohamad Diab said “It is not easy to get a budget for a film like this. I wrote four films before, I can easily get my films funded because I have a good history and the company I’m working with (New Century) is very generous, they just want to make good films. They are the first company that gave me a chance as a screenwriter and they are the first to give me a chance as a director. But for everyone else, it is not easy. Especially these days after the revolution, the industry has collapsed. To get funded now, I’m looking everywhere.”

Also, in an interview with the film’s main character and executive producer Bushra Rosa, Rosa was asked if she really did help with the production of the film. The actress replied saying that from the very beginning of the process, she considered the film her own baby. When Diab first came to her with the film, he had a script for a short fiction film but Rosa succeeded at convincing him into turning it into a feature length one. The second step for them was to take the film to the production company. New Century was the company of choice, simply because it’s the first company that gave Diab a chance as a screenwriter. When Rosa and Diab pitched their film idea to the company, the company immediately agreed to produce the film because of the enthusiasm and excitement that Rosa and Diab were in. And so, the company gave Rosa the mission of the film’s Executive Director.

The film also got funding from Global Film Initiative; a non-profit film organization that supports cinematic works from developing nations and promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use of film and non-traditional learning
resources. One of its most notable programs is the Global Lens Film Series, which 678 was featured in.

678’s budget is Two Million US Dollars.

Shooting:

On the first day of shooting, Diab didn’t know anything to the extent that when they started shooting the first scene in the film, Diab would yell out “Let’s Go” instead of “Action”. However, the crew was very helpful; it assisted Diab through it all. Diab felt confident, it felt to him like the first day of school. He knew what he wanted to do; all he needed was just a little guidance, which was granted to him by the cast and crew of the film.

A lot of truly terrifying incidents happened on the set of 678, some of which would’ve normally prevented the shooting process from continuing. However, whatever happened during the shooting of the film only worked to encourage the cast of the film to work harder and faster to finish up the project and show it to the rest of the world.

The first incident that happened on set is; there’s supposed to be a scene where Nelly Karim’s character Seba is gang raped during the celebration of the Egyptian national football team’s victory on the streets. And so, the filmmakers brought in a stunt double to take Nelly‘s place. The decision was made that the gang rape scene would take place in a studio but the actual celebration scenes of the match would be shot on the streets during the celebration of a real Egypt vs. Algeria match. When Nelly Karim’s stunt double set foot in the streets to shoot the scene, she was gang-harassed. The savages ripped off her clothes and she eventually passed out.

Another incident that happened on set; five hundred extras were brought in. Four fifty were men and fifty were women. They were used to shoot a scene in an Egyptian stadium where their only job was to act as football fans and cheer on for the football teams. However, every few minutes, a woman’s voice would be heard screaming because she was harassed in some sort. And this is exactly why the shooting of this film couldn’t have stopped, because every Egyptian woman and man should know and hear about this.

Cinematography:

When asked if he has a certain style in shooting his films, Diab answered that he couldn’t say that he had a certain style yet. However, what he had is a style in mind for this film, 678. He wanted the film to look like a docudrama. He wanted it to feel real, especially when the issue of sexual harassment is not being taken seriously in Egypt. However, Diab said that in order for a director to develop his own style in filmmaking, he has to spend years and years making films, as this requires a lot of experience.

From what I’ve seen, the film used the intentional “Shaky cam” technique, which is supposed to make a film seem real and raw. For some people, this might give them the feeling of watching a news report, but for me, the cinematography works. It
definitely works in conveying the feeling of being there, watching something that is really happening without trying to beautify or adorn it in any way. This is Diab showing the audience reality untouched.

Reception:

According to Diab, everyone in Egypt was talking about the film just after seeing the trailer, whether they liked it or hated it or thought that its content is mere fiction just because sexual harassment is such a taboo that no one dares talk about. Three lawsuit cases were filed against the film, which Diab only saw as more publicity for the film, it didn’t bother him one bit. Diab continued, “During watching the film, the men inside the theaters would laugh at the beginning of it but when the film would end, they’d stop and stay seated to let the women get out, whether it be out of respect or fear, we don’t know. But the film had that kind of immediate effect on people.” He added “The month the film came out, which was one month before the January 25th revolution, also marks the month that the number of sexual harassment lawsuits filed by women against men became triple the amount of cases filed the year before. Some laws regarding sexual harassment were even
changed a month after the film came out. Also, a lot of Egyptians changed their profile pictures to pictures that read the number 678 in support of the film.”

When the film came out, protests were lodged against it by singer Tamer Hosny, who objected to one of his songs being used in the film. There was also an attempt by an attorney to stop the film from being included in the Dubai Film Festival because it portrayed Egypt in an unfavorable light. Claims were made as well by the Association for Human rights and Social Justice that the film would encourage women to attack their harassers as shown in the film, but Diab and his team managed to withstand the controversy and the film became a success in the Egyptian cinemas according to Daily News Egypt.

The film grossed more money its second week of screening than in its first, according to Diab. After the making of 678, Diab admitted that it was going to be so hard to write a film again and not direct it.

In 2011, Directors Mohamad Diab and Amr Salama won the Webby Award for Special Recognition because of how effective their work’s been online and for urging positive social change, receiving a standing ovation by everyone in the room bringing Salama to tears.

The film participated in Seven film festivals. It was nominated fourteen times and won 10 times.

Egyptian films are doing well abroad and this trend, which started the last few years, seems to have reached higher momentum since the uprising on 25 January, 2011. According to Daily News Egypt “One of the local Indianapolis websites,
indystar.com, quotes the organizers of the Heartland Festival as having suspended the rules for Diab’s film, allowing it to compete even if it is older than the rules stipulate. The reason that was given is that Diab was involved in the revolution and therefore, could not have taken part in the festival in October 2011.”

Diab said once about the film to Egypt Independent “Some people will think I am humiliating Egyptian men, but this is not true; I am humiliating those who commit sexual harassment” said Diab. “This film will stir a debate, I am sure that I will be severely criticized for it and some people are already sharpening their teeth to attack me with the rhetorical accusation of distorting Egypt’s image.”

In the end, as a woman; I thank everyone who was involved in the making of 678 for their effort, because I know how hard it must have been for them to fight the commercial atmosphere and take the financial and career risk to make this film, which
only proves how much they really do believe in the cause. This film is of great importance and significance, not just for Egyptian cinema, but also for all cultures, and audiences of both genders worldwide.

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