Interview: Filmmaker Ruba Nadda Captures Beauty Amid Chaos in ‘Cairo Time’

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CHICAGO – “Cairo Time” may be a serene and intricately nuanced romance between an American woman (Patricia Clarkson) and an Arab man (Alexander Siddig) in Cairo. But behind the cameras, the atmosphere felt more like an action movie, as filmmakers outwitted government censors by finding endless creative ways to capture their desired footage, in the midst of a bustling city that was largely out of their control. spoke with “Cairo Time” writer/director Ruba Nadda about her passion for exploring her Arab heritage, her mind-boggling production hurdles, and why filmmaking has become a family affair for her. Your first feature, “Sabah,” was about an Arab immigrant in Toronto, whereas “Cairo Time” is about an American in Cairo. What draws you to exploring these cultural juxtapositions?

Ruba Nadda: It’s funny because it only dawned on me afterwards when I was like, “Oh this is kind of the opposite of my first movie.” It was a subconscious thing, I guess. I’m drawn to the Middle East because I’m Canadian but I have an Arab heritage, and I just find the Middle East to be so rich and teeming with history and politics. It intrigues me and I feel that movies haven’t investigated it as thoroughly as they should. … I’m very North American but I’m also very Arab, and I just want to give to the West a little bit more of a clear understanding of how the Middle East operates, but do it in an entertaining way because it is cinema. Watching your work, I was reminded of Mira Nair, and the way in which she explores her own cultural heritage.

Nadda: I love her work. Even before I was a filmmaker, I admired her work and the stories she told. The thing is, every story has been told before, so as a filmmaker, I’m always trying to find new [ideas] and new points of view that I can share with an audience. It’s gotten really tough to make a movie and get it out there and have it be seen in a theater. That doesn’t exist anymore. So what I’m trying to do is find stories that I’m deeply passionate about that I feel can be universal but also fresh and new.

Arab Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda’s romantic drama Cairo Time was released Nov. 30 on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Arab Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda’s romantic drama Cairo Time was released Nov. 30 on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Photo credit: MPI Home Video You’ve said in interviews that you became a filmmaker to shed light on common misconceptions the West has had about the Middle East. What are some of those misconceptions?

Nadda: My father is an Arab man, and he looks very Arab. When I was a child, I remember people staring at my father all the time, so I kind of grew up with that resentment. My father is Canadian and has embraced North American values. He’s a feminist, and has three daughters. He raised us to be very much like feminists, so when I would see and hear people making judgments about my father because of his accent or because of the way he looked, it just enraged me. So from a very young age, I was like, “I just have to slowly show the West that Arabs are very much like everyone else in the world. They get up in the morning, they have their cereal, they take their children to school.” It was really important for me to show that Arab men are not all terrorists. Yes, there has been a lot of really horrible stuff coming out of the Middle East, and the problem is that a majority of Arabs do not condone that. So I was just trying to break stereotypes in an educational kind of way. I’m not a documentary filmmaker, and my goal is not to educate people, but if I can a little bit [laughs], I can still try. Yet your film is entirely devoid of preachiness.

Nadda: You don’t need that monologue from an Arab character saying their pains and their hopes. I’ve traveled a lot for this movie particularly, and audiences are really smart. They can tell if you’re being preachy and heavy-handed. You have to be authentic and just tell your story, and honestly, that’s all I really want to do. The irony is that I’ve had some Arab audiences attack me because they’re like, “You have to show the West this,” and “Why didn’t you show that neighborhood in Cairo?” I’m like, “Listen, I’m not making documentaries. This is fiction, it’s a story, and above all, it’s only my point of view.” They want me to be a spokesperson, and I’m like, “The opinions [in the film] are that of the characters, they’re not even my own opinions.” I’m not making this huge statement of what I think the Middle East is or the direction I think it’s going. It’s not an educational tool, it’s a movie. Many audiences may feel tempted to buy a ticket to Cairo after seeing this film.

Nadda: It’s so gorgeous and I feel kind of guilty because so many people want to visit [the city]. Cairo is beautiful and intoxicating, but it’s seriously one of the craziest cities in the world. It was a nightmare to shoot there. How so?

Nadda: The movie has a very languid, hypnotizing, smooth tone, but to try shooting that in the context of [the city] was crazy. It’s a city that does not sleep. At three o’ clock in the morning, we’d be trying to shoot, and the city is hopping. The traffic is nuts. We could never control our locations, and had to basically throw ourselves into the thick of the city and stop being North American. No matter how much I like to go on and on and on about how Arab I am, I was still so North American. I was like, “Where are the street lights, where are the sidewalks, where are the rules?” There are 17 million people in that city and it’s all about survival. You have to literally point to a car to stop it from driving so you can cross the road. It was such a nightmare, but it was just fantastic. I felt alive every single day.

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig star in Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time.
Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig star in Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time.
Photo credit: MPI Home Video Why did you specifically choose to avoid shooting the film in the style of a handheld documentary?

Nadda: I had to honor the story, and the story was about this woman who is forced to slow down in this beautiful chaotic city. I couldn’t have the camera be jittery because that wouldn’t [reflect] my character’s experience. I had to make the film calm and calculated, but it was a nightmare to be able to control the camera. How did government censorship affect the film, if at all?

Nadda: I was not going to let it affect production. No North American film had ever been shot entirely in Cairo. Many films had tried and would leave because it’s very difficult to navigate the censorship board and the “minders” that they put on the set. I felt that since I had gotten as far as I did, we were going to shoot in Cairo. I was not going to let the board, the government, this woman—who was lovely—tell me what to shoot and what not to shoot. So by making the decision not to appease [the minder], I had to figure out how to shoot my scenes and get away with it. Every single day, I would give myself fifteen minute increments to figure out if I could shoot in these insane locations where variables are always constantly moving, and if I could fool the censorship woman. For example, we would be shooting a scene, and all of a sudden I would turn to my sister, who is my right-hand person, and say, “Fadia, what the hell is the censorship woman doing in my shot?” As we’re shooting, she’s in the background kicking people out of the scene. My sister and I look a lot like each other, so we’d have two cameras going at once, and just try to fool her. It was the art of deception for basically the whole movie. And yet your film is elegantly shot the entire way through. Did you work with your cinematographer, Luc Montpellier, to storyboard the film before production?

Nadda: Yes we had to. I’m really good at shooting off the seat of my pants, but my cinematographer and I needed to have a plan. We shot-listed the whole movie three months before we got to Cairo, so we had a plan if things didn’t go well. The sun in Cairo rises and sets within thirty seconds, so when we’re running out of light, we had the option of being spontaneous because we had a plan. I worked with him before, and we were like cowboys. It was a lot of fun. No one said no to us. In North America we have rules, whereas in Cairo, we can stop traffic and shoot on a bridge for thirty seconds. What are they going to do, arrest us? One of the most memorable stories you recount on the DVD commentary is your experience shooting in a carpet factory where you witnessed child labor. Is it true that you nearly punched the factory owner?

Nadda: I came very close. My cinematographer held me back. This [factory owner] was so arrogant and so rude. It was a real carpet factory. They had three year old kids making carpets. I had to suck it up and force myself to be nice to this man even though I wanted to kill him, because we really needed that scene. So it was a real lesson in swallowing my pride, though at the end, I told him off in front of all of his buddies. He didn’t know I was an Arab or that I spoke the language. He thought I was stupid westerner. We were trying to pay the kids there, and he was taking their money. It was so despicable, but in the end, we got our shots. We had two cameras, and as he watched what I was shooting, my real crew was shooting the young girls making their carpets. … We could’ve easily gone to a warehouse location and just dressed it, but I felt like I had to be authentic. I visited that carpet factory the first time I was in Egypt with my sister and I just had to go back. Those girls were so excited to be on camera, and it made their whole month. Oftentimes, they just want to talk to you, to feel validated, and know that their story will be heard. That’s why I had to really suck it up and be nice in the end because I wanted to do it for them.

Cairo Time was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Nov. 30, 2010.
Cairo Time was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Nov. 30, 2010.
Photo credit: MPI Home Video Were you able to predict the strength of the chemistry between your two leads?

Nadda: You can’t. My mentor is Atom Egoyan, and he says, “Ruba, whatever you do, you can’t cast chemistry. They either have it or they don’t.” My heart was really set on Patricia. She’s a national treasure for the U.S. Her ability to be vulnerable and tough and feminine—she’s just such a good actress, and I really wanted her in this role. And I had my heart set on Alexander. Honestly, sometimes in film you need a little bit of luck and stuff like that always scares me because some people have it and some people don’t. You can’t control luck. The script was intentionally subtle and very simple, and I knew for it to be successful, it needed the right cast. They really saved me by saying, “yes.” I was so happy, and I’m working with Alexander again in my next movie. I’m praying that it goes in February. It’s a thriller set in the Middle East and it stars Alexander. It’s a really complicated, emotional thriller, and my whole heart is so invested in it. You’ve worked with your sisters Fadia and Laila on most of your pictures. What has your collaboration been like with Fadia, who worked as both a co-star and director trainee on “Cairo Time”?

Nadda: With Fadia, [the collaboration] started out of necessity. I learned filmmaking at NYU for six weeks and then came back to Toronto and started making short films. I wasn’t part of the filmmaking community, so I basically trained my sister, Fadia, and friends to be my crew. During my earlier shorts, I realized that my sister had so much depth in her face, and so I made her act. Then with “Sabah” and “Cairo Time,” she’s been like a mini-me. There’s a shorthand between us that you can’t buy. She also speaks fluent Arabic. I was constantly swamped on the set, and I would say to her, “I need you to direct a group of fifty extras.” My first A.D. was Canadian and he didn’t speak the language, which was a problem since all the extras and a lot of the crew didn’t speak English. So I had to have someone who could just read me and know exactly what I wanted. She’s like my secret luck charm. She also shot the behind the scenes footage, and I’m encouraging her to go into documentaries. She can walk into any room, any household, and put anybody at ease. She’s got that kind of skill. I watched her and I relied heavily on her for that. She would walk into very tricky situations, and be a lot more diplomatic than I. I was heated, and sometimes would have a bad temper, whereas she could just be really smooth. She’s been there with me since the start, so it was really nice to look at each other in the middle of Cairo and go, “Damn, I don’t have to cook for my crew anymore, we have caterers!” [Laughs].

‘Cairo Time’ stars Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus and Amina Annabi. It was written and directed by Ruba Nadda. It was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Nov. 30th, 2010. It is rated PG. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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