Dual BA Alumna Works to Bring Diversity and Authenticity to Popular Cinema
Hayat Aljowaily ‘20GS is no stranger to unexpected transitions. Growing up, she traveled the world because of her parents’ work, spending time in the U.S., Switzerland, and Egypt. Her journey to the Dual BA Program between Columbia and Sciences Po was also sparked by something like luck—a chance visit from a Columbia GS admissions representative to her high school whose description of the Dual BA Program’s flexibility, allowing her to live in two countries and follow joint passions for film and social sciences, set her on the path to Menton and New York City in 2016. Like many who graduated in 2020, Aljowaily’s senior year at Columbia was upended by the pandemic, but perhaps the most unexpected, out-of-the-blue opportunity came about a year post-graduation, when Aljowaily was interning in the film industry in France and saw an unusual Facebook post.
“The post said ‘we’re looking for someone who speaks Arabic and English, can live in Europe, the U.S., and Egypt, must be Egyptian, and must like superheroes’,” Aljowaily recalled. “I screenshotted the post because it was almost like someone wrote ‘we’re looking for Hayat.’ It was so on-point! But I also thought it was probably a scam, so I didn’t apply.”
That same week, she picked up a job working as an assistant to Egyptian director Mohamed Diab who also happened to be in France working on a project. One day, Diab accidentally mentioned that he was working on something called “the Marvel project” and, as Aljowaily put it, “All the dots started connecting: he said the Marvel project, the post said you had to like superheroes, his wife’s name is Sarah, the person who made the post is named Sarah…it was just like in the movies, a lightbulb moment!”
The post was indeed for the Marvel project Diab was helming and the role they were seeking to fill was that of his assistant—the exact position Aljowaily was in at that moment! The rest, as they say, was history. Aljowaily officially applied to the position and a few months later, packed her bags and moved from Paris to Budapest to work on Marvel’s latest streaming venture, Moon Knight.
Working on Moon Knight was “like being in University all over again,” Aljowaily shared. “Being around top creatives, we were so lucky—we as in all the younger people in the production—we had all these people to look up to and learn from. Everyone was so kind, there was no hierarchy on set; someone could be a cast assistant and go stand next to the Director of Photography and ask ‘What’s that?' and everyone would take the time to explain. That was incredible.”
As Diab’s assistant, Aljowaily had the opportunity to be involved in every aspect of production, from writers’ rooms and shooting on set, to post-production, making for endless opportunities to observe and learn while working on the show. And of course, there was the Marvel factor: “Working for a company like Marvel, the biggest entertainment company in the world, is like working for a chocolate factory. Anything we wanted to have come true just came true,” she said. “We unfortunately weren’t able to shoot in Egypt and so Marvel was like, ‘okay, we’ll build Egypt in Budapest!’ In literally three weeks, our backlot was Cairo. There were cafes and everything and we would just sit there, on set, and it felt like being back home. It was crazy, just being at that level of creativity and innovation was so cool.”
“I feel like if that’s something I had seen when I was 15 or 16 it would have had such a big impact on how I view myself. To have such a positive representation of an Arab and Egyptian woman is so refreshing and cool.”
Besides the incredible professional opportunities of the position, working on Moon Knight was also personally fulfilling for Aljowaily. “I grew up loving Marvel, I did my end-of-year school project about superheroes, but I never even dreamt of something like this being made. An Egyptian Marvel Project!”
Aljowaily recalled watching Egyptian actress May Calamawy, who plays Layla El-Faouly/Scarlet Scarab in the series, doing her screen test: “She walked in front of the camera and she just looked so cool, and she looks like me and people I know. I feel like if that’s something I had seen when I was 15 or 16 it would have had such a big impact on how I view myself. To have such a positive representation of an Arab and Egyptian woman is so refreshing and cool.”
Aljowaily also pointed out how important the many Egyptian creatives working on Moon Knight’s team were in bringing the show to life. “You can’t reach the level of authenticity that I think we reached without having people who were actually there, bringing that authenticity. Having that amount of Egyptian creatives behind the scenes is what brought that extra bit of flavor to Moon Knight.”
While Moon Knight represents a landmark in diversity both in front of and behind the camera for Marvel, Aljowaily noted that there are always more opportunities to expand perspectives. In many production meetings, she was the only woman. “I think we were really, really lucky that despite a lot of the top creatives being men, everyone was really willing to listen. With Layla’s character, a lot of people were advocating for her. And there were a lot of women on the production team, like Stefania Cella who was our production designer and Megan Kasperlik who was the costume designer. But there is always room to grow and do better. It would be great to have more women!”
“The world is so rich with stories, and we’ve unfortunately been recycling the same stories over and over again…I think people are excited to just see something different.”
As a burgeoning young filmmaker and aspiring producer, Aljowaily is part of the push to increase both racial and gender diversity in Hollywood. For her, the future creative and economic success of cinema is inherently tied to an increase in representation. “The world is so rich with stories, and we’ve unfortunately been recycling the same stories over and over again,” she shared. “I think people are excited to just see something different, so I really hope, especially because Moon Knight did really well, that this is going to encourage Disney and Marvel and other studios to see that this works. Not just in terms of the meaningful impact you are having, but even business-wise. You have so many markets that you can tap into that you are not tapping into, so it’s a win-win for everyone.”
Next up, Aljowaily is keeping her fingers crossed for the next installment of the Moon Knight story, and working on a short film called Last Call which she wrote and is co-directing with fellow Dual BA graduate Kaja Grujic ‘20GS. “Identity and migration, I think those are the themes I naturally gravitate towards,” Aljowaily shared. Last Call encapsulates these interests, following two friends and refugees in Belgrade who have 24 hours to decide whether to stay in Serbia and risk being stuck there indefinitely, or take a repatriation flight back home and have their long journey go to waste. Aljowaily said “In a way, it’s the perfect Dual BA graduation project, because I’m Egyptian, Kaja’s Serbian, the actors are going to be from the Arab world, but we’re shooting in Serbia, so that’s a great combination. But also, it’s a movie, but it is still about politics. So it really feels like the culmination of our Dual BA journey.”
Aljowaily was reflecting a lot on that Dual BA journey when we met, which was during the Columbia graduation celebrations for the Classes of 2020, 2021, and 2022 that filled campus this spring. Reflecting on her graduation experience, Aljowaily said “Graduating in a pandemic was insane. After four years in a nontraditional program, you bond really strongly with the people around you and I think the most difficult thing was not having a moment to celebrate with all the people you’d gone through these things with.” Coming back two years later to finally have that celebration was “very emotional, in a positive way, finally getting the moment we’ve been waiting for for a long, long time,” Aljowaily said.
Aljowaily’s passion for cinema has been a guiding light in her life, and continues to lead her toward new and exciting career ventures. Asked why film occupies this special place in her life, Aljowaily said “I think I was always just mesmerized by how magical cinema is. You can create anything and you can make people believe in anything.” Where Aljowaily’s passion takes her next is anyone’s guess, but no doubt, it is sure to be Marvelous!