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“Thank God, I hit the jackpot!” says Mohamed Diab, speaking excitedly about the big-budget miniseries he’s six months into shooting in Budapest.
Coming from Marvel Studios and landing on Disney+ next year, Moon Knight sees Oscar Isaac debut his superhero skills as Marc Spector, a former Marine turned mercenary who uses his multiple personalities to fight crime. Also starring Ethan Hawke, the show forms part of the MCU’s Phase Four and, like Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Ms. Marvel, propels another comic book character into the fray.
Moon Knight also pushes Diab, the Egyptian writer-director known for his hard-hitting dramas, into uncharted territory — marking not just his English-language debut but his first major brush with Hollywood. As lead director of the series (he’s helming four of the six episodes) and executive producer, Diab also becomes the first Middle Eastern filmmaker to be given the keys to a major Marvel project.
“Definitely, when you see this you will not recognize that it’s me directing it,” he says. “But I’m so proud of it. I always love to have a new challenge.”
Once the Moon Knight shoot finishes in Hungary in about a month, Diab will head to Atlanta to wrap the series. But before all that, he’s taking a brief detour to Venice, where his Palestinian drama Amira — shot in 2019 before the life-changing call from Marvel came though — is having its world premiere Sept. 3.
It was, however, a very different story in 2017.
Having made a name for himself as writer of 2007’s The Island, one of the highest-grossing Egyptian films of all time, followed three years later by his directorial debut, Cairo 678, Diab hit new heights in 2016 when he opened Cannes’ Un Certain Regard with Clash.
Set during the Egyptian revolution of 2013 and featuring a story that unfolds entirely in the back of a police van as deadly protests rage outside, the film was widely praised throughout the world (including from Tom Hanks, no less) for its efforts to humanize all sides of the conflict.
But following the success, its deeply sensitive subject matter would lead to a coordinated pushback in Egypt against both the film and filmmaker, who would be accused of being a spy and a supporter of terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Zionism — all on national TV.
This situation in late 2016 coincided with a growing ambition by Diab and his writer- producer wife, Sarah Goher, a collaborator across all of his projects (both are repped by CAA), to expand their filmmaking and storytelling skills outside of Egypt. So they took a chance and relocated to the U.S., setting up in Michigan, where he already had family and could reduce costs — “the move was expensive,” he says.
Now with a focus on the American market, Diab and Goher wrote a couple of sci-fi scripts — “both international but at the same time say something about us and our culture,” he says — that they sold, one to Blumhouse, the other to Thunder Road. But it was still proving difficult to get the actual wheels moving enough to make a living.
“For three years, every week it would be, ‘OK, next week we’re shooting,’ ” he says. “And your money’s attached to that. So every week, it was: Next week, next week, next week. And then the pandemic hit, and all the doors closed.”
But just when every U.S. option appeared to have evaporated, “out of the blue” Marvel got in touch, inviting him to apply for Moon Knight, which had been announced by Kevin Feige in August 2019 at the D23 Expo among a wide range of major MCU reveals. So Diab and Gohar took this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and gave it everything they could, putting their heads down and coming up with a 200- page pitch.
“Honestly, it was a great pitch. The moment we finished it I told Sarah that if we didn’t get this job, something was wrong,” he says.
But they did get the job, with Diab officially joining the Marvel family in October 2020.
“It’s been such a great experience — I’m learning a lot,” he says. “I’m appreciating things more about my independent movies, and I’m appreciating things about the big machine. I can’t compare Marvel to anything else, but it’s a great machine. Those guys are geniuses.”
Well outside this machine, Amira, bowing in Venice’s Orizzonti section, was a feature developed and shot in 2019 as a “passion project” Diab devised with Gohar to “revive our careers” when hope was beginning to fade.
“We always said we should have a backup plan, and that was it,” he says. “But to be honest, it’s such a special project, I would have done it for free.”
The film follows 17-year-old Amira, a Palestinian girl who has spent her life believing she was conceived via the smuggled sperm of her father imprisoned in an Israeli jail, a method of artificial insemination that has been used in occupied territories for decades. But when the father is revealed to be infertile, Amira’s world turns upside down as she searches for the truth in a story that explores deep social divisions and xenophobia.
“We wanted to ask what the life is like for people who are born this way, and what the life is like for the wives in these situations,” says Diab. “As an Arab, the Palestinian cause is something big for me, but like with Clash, I wanted it to take on bigger themes. So when Sarah and I came up with the plot, we really wanted people to question: Is it nature or nurture? Who are you?”
Alongside a phenomenal breakout lead performance from Palestinian-Jordanian newcomer Tara Abboud (who already has been snapped up for Rebel, the next project from Bad Boys for Life directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah), Amira stars a sizable chunk of Palestinian acting royalty, including Ali Suliman (Paradise Now), Waleed Zuaiter (Omar) and Saleh Bakri (The Time That Remains).
Diab credits two-time Oscar-nominated director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, Omar) for helping attract these big names, having turned to his “dear friend and mentor” for help when he began plotting his first feature outside Egypt (which actually was shot in Jordan). Abu-Assad and his filmmaker wife, Amira Diab, loved the idea so much they boarded as producers.
“Hany’s name on any project means it’s a good project,” says Mohamed Diab. “He’s like one of the godfathers.”
Diab says there were elements of Amira that helped land him the Moon Knight gig, while at the same time there are definitely major aspects of his independent filmmaking that will find a place in the Marvel series.
“My movies are hard, serious and about big topics, and I feel strongly that Moon Knight is going to be like that — it’s going to be entertainment but also heavy,” he says. “At the same time, we’re being so creative with the jokes and with the action. As I keep saying to my wife: I can’t believe I’m funny in another language!”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 3 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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