Ruba Nadda’s childhood visit to Cairo inspired the first North American feature shot entirely in the city. The Syrian-Canadian director spoke with Kylie Boltin from her home in Toronto.
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17 Aug 2010 - 11:30 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

Ruba Nadda has been making films voraciously since she attended New York University film school in 1996. Cairo Time is her 18th film and second feature. She honed her craft while working full-time and self-financing her own short productions, and says this “rogue and gritty training” was excellent practice for making Cairo Time—a shoot that she calls “brutal”.

Cairo Time stars Patricia Clarkson as Juliette Grant, an American magazine editor who travels to Cairo to meet her husband, UN envoy Mark (Tom McCamus), for a three-week holiday. When Mark is detained in Gaza, he sends his trusted former colleague, Tareq Khalifa (played by Alexander Siddig) to meet Juliette at the airport.

The idea for Cairo Time was planted when Nadda was 16 and travelling in Cairo with her family. The city left such an imprint that she decided then and there to return and use it as the site for a story. Nadda revisited the idea years later when in post-production for her first feature film, Sabah. The filmmaker saw Juliette in her mind's eye. “She was arriving at the airport in Cairo, and in turn an Arab man was meeting her and they were supposed to fall in love,” she says now. “So I pocketed those images together and turned it into a movie.” Nadda, who started as a writer of short stories, says that she always approaches her films in this way—through their characters. “They are so real to me,” she says. “They've had their lives and then they just appear.”

As both a short story writer and as a filmmaker, Nadda identifies subtlety as a quality to which she is drawn. “With Cairo Time I was trying to say that this is a grand, epic romance. It's not a film about immediate gratification where the two heroes get together in the first 20 minutes. It's not a music video. I appreciate the subtlety of it because I feel like that kind of patience is lost in modern day cinema. It's why I went to Patricia Clarkson because I knew that she possessed that subtlety and 'regalness'. I just feel like audiences can relate to that, I really do.”

In the case of Juliette, Nadda wanted to create a character through which she could explore the city of Cairo for the first time. “It's funny, I've noticed this about tourists,” she begins. “When they go to a new city, a new country—especially when it's somewhere very alien to where they've come from—they have certain expectations. The irony is that I still had those expectations when I went to Cairo for the sixth time. I think it's a very western, North American mentality.”

Juliette allowed Nadda to explore this point of view and capture the process of a North American character whose guard is lowered by being in Cairo. This arc involved the fusion of multiple elements, the first being the city itself. “There's something that happens at the edge of that time zone. It watches over you,” she says, and states that she was very specific about representing this quality. Nadda was also intent on exploring what she sees as an intrinsic clash of values. “In the West it's become all about immediate gratification, whereas in the Middle East no one is in a rush” she says now. “I wanted to bring that to the screen and show people that you can enjoy your life and take a half an hour off and sit down and have an old fashioned conversation with someone rather than being rushed all the time.”

Nadda passionately recalls the frenetic, challenging and demanding Cairo shoot. “It still remains a Third World country,” she says. “There are no streetlights, no sidewalks and it's chaotic. There are 20 million people in the city. We were shooting in June and July and the heat was unbearable.” The filmmaker, who speaks fluent Arabic, was determined to incorporate specific locations despite having a government censor attached to the production at all time. “There were all these locations that no one had ever been allowed to shoot in. I was obsessed,” Nada says now. “I had to constantly play these games to lose her so she wouldn't tell me that I couldn't shoot something!”

Nadda's perseverance and determination pay off. The sense of beauty, energy, colour and sounds of the city are palpable in almost every frame, with the locations a true highlight of the film. These include the Pyramids, the iconic the Al-Fishawi Coffee Shop—a location that had never before hosted a film shoot—the Mena House and the historic Shepherd Hotel. Nadda also filmed in the White Desert, yet another location that is represented on screen for the first time. She admits that she used everything at her disposal to secure these sites. “When I was given a hard time I would always say, “Well, I'm an Arab. You have to let me shoot here.” I was saying that in Arabic and in the end they would!”