Canadian Syrian-Palestinian director is one in a small Coterie of Arab women filmmakers
7 Sept., 2010 | Levantine Review | Jordan Elgrably
We are happy to report that these days not all films that feature Arab characters or take place in an Arab country per force include explosions, violent bearded males, or helpless women covered from head to toe. Have these stereotypes worn out their welcome at long last? Cairo Time instead focuses its lens on Juliette, an American woman in Egypt, and Tareq, a very reasonable, logical and otherwise charming Arab who becomes her willy-nilly tour guide. Juliette has come to Cairo to meet up with her husband Mark, whom she still loves after decades of marriage; but Mark's work with the United Nations in nearby Gaza is holding him over there for days, perhaps weeks.
If you haven't seen the film, there is still time to catch it—Nadda's second feature is enjoying a good run at the American box office. (Cairo Time is better appreciated on the large screen, in my view, although I look forward to seeing it again on DVD a few months hence.)
When we conversed for this interview, Cairo Time was about to open in American theatres across the country. The advance buzz was glowing, and this would be only the second movie made by an Arab American woman with Arab characters to be released in U.S. theaters (the first having been Cherien Dabis' Amreeka last year). Nadda—a tall, slender, charismatic figure who practices a kind of thoughtful empathy in conversation with virtual strangers—was in an ebullient mood, understandably, after fourteen years in the trenches. She had worked full-time jobs and self-financed a whole battery of short films, with titles like Laila and Black September (both made in 2000) Unsettled (2001) and Aadan (2004), until she got her first feature financed with the help of her mentor, Canadian director Atom Egoyan. Sabah, released in 2005, told the story of a traditional Muslim woman living in Canada who falls in love with a non-Muslim Canadian man.
With her new film, Ruba Nadda wanted to create a portrait of the real Cairo, and share a sense of how people in the Middle East experience life and times. She'd seen enough war-torn stories, and thought that no one in recent memory had managed to capture Cairo's chaotic beauty.
Levantine Review: In Cairo Time, we see an intimate portrait of Cairo, but the Mukhabarat [secret police] and Hosni Mubarak are missing. Did you consciously want to avoid politicizing the story—even though Juliette's husband Mark works for the U.N., and is in Gaza throughout most of the film?
Ruba Nadda: The irony is, I've lived in Damascus, and the Mukhabarat are a lot more prevalent and scary, whereas in Cairo, I remember the first day being there for the movie, someone was slamming the Egyptian government, and my sister and I were like Oh my God, don't do that, you're going to get arrested. The person said, this is Cairo, we can complain about the government all we want.
Here's the thing. My mother is Palestinian, so I grew up feeling the heat of that, understanding that very well. I think with this movie I sort of kept my political opinions and views held back, because at the heart of it, this is a romance set in Cairo... The film itself is sort of a love letter to Cairo and the tone of it was light. My next movie, ramping up to start shooting in the new year, is a little more political because it's a thriller.
Levantine Review What was it like having to work with the Egyptian censors? What were the other obstacles while shooting in Cairo?
First of all, at least we were allowed to shoot in Cairo. The biggest obstacle was no North American film had ever shot there entirely, so our insurance bond, it was dicey for them, because they were worried about us physically pulling it off. What the censors are concerned about—they don't care if you've got a sex scene in the movie, what the censor is concerned about is how I portrayed Cairo to a North American audience, because for them it's all about tourism.
Levantine Review They didn't like The Yacoubian Building for that reason.
Right. At the same time, when we were shooting in Juliette's hotel room for example, I liked having her balcony doors open all the time, and the censor wanted us to close the doors and have the air-conditioning on, because you couldn't show the west that Egyptians don't have air-conditioning. So it was as silly as that. Cairo is beautiful but it has a lot of problems—child poverty, poverty in general, and garbage. It was very difficult trying to battle the censor; we had to be careful of how we shot it. We were shooting in June and July, it was so hot, and we didn't have any control over our locations because it's just so busy, it's like 18 million people, so we were never able to have physical complete control over any of our locations. We had to go with the flow, which was a nightmare for sound and the actors and the cameras. Luckily, because I'm fluent in Arabic, I could become like a non-Canadian and almost come off like a local, which was very helpful for me.
Levantine Review Are Egyptians going to see this movie?
Yes, it's been sold, we have a Middle Eastern distributor. It was shown at film festivals in Cairo and Doha, Qatar. At the festival in Doha, because of popular demand, we ended up closing the festival, showing the film outside in front of 3,000 people. It was terrific; it was a really magical experience.
Levantine Review So your impression is that Arab audiences like the movie?
Here's the thing, in North America (this is a Canadian film, after all, and even though I'm Arab, I'm Canadian at the same time), they are used to seeing Middle Eastern cities as these kind of war-torn places...This is the first time you see it as it is. We just pointed the camera and shot, we didn't really cheat anything. Arabs were very happy with that, and proud of that. Cairo is a beautiful city and it was portrayed that way, so Cairenes were happy with it. It's not a war picture, it's a romance.
Levantine Review When you were writing Cairo Time, was it always about creating a slow romance, something not completely western in style?
For me, having grown up in Canada, I was starting to feel that romance in North America was starting to be kind of dead, with all that immediate gratification, and I was yearning to make a movie that was about restraint. I'd been to Cairo about six times, and one of the things I noticed was that something happens to you when you enter that time zone. It's hot, it's kind of its own language, it forces you to slow down.
Levantine Review From reading about your other films, you seem to want to try to help Westerners better understand the Middle East. Is that true?
It's a 1,000 percent true. I came to have this obsession I think when I was 16. I adore my father, my father is very Arab, he looks very Arab, he's very macho, he's Syrian, yet he's like a teddy bear. He's such a good man. From a very young age I started seeing how people judged him based on his looks, based on his ethnicity, and it deeply hurt me. I remember thinking, I have to change the West's perception of how they view Arabs. I mean, even me, when people meet me, they say oh you can't be Arab, you don't look Arab, and that always insults me, because I'm like "what the hell do you think we look like?" And so that's why I think secretly that's my goal, to try to break down this horrible stereotype that's been glued to us, based on a few people who are despicable, that the rest of the Arabs have to suffer over.
Levantine Review I can relate and it's why we set up the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. It's pretty much what we do, 24/7, whether through films, or presenting writers, just to convey a different perspective to share with Americans. And I think there's a hunger for this—I think there are a lot more people who want to see Arabs and Muslims and people from the Middle East as people just like us.
Absolutely. Cairo Time, it's crazy, people want to see this movie. For me it's fascinating because when I did my first feature,<em> Sabah</em>, I remember the financiers were like who cares? Who wants to see Arabs on the screen? I was like look, it's an untapped culture, it is time that people saw a different point of view about us. It started off being an uphill battle, but now I feel there's just more interest in wanting to get to know these people and this culture, which is so exciting actually.
Levantine Review What do you hope North American audiences will take away from this film, and what do you hope Arab audiences will take away from it?
I wanted to make a love story that was set in Cairo and have it feel real, and be real, but also have that restraint, because everything was becoming about immediate gratification, and that was beginning to drive me crazy... I feel I portrayed an Arab man accurately, because I based Tareq off my father, and so it was nice to see a depiction of an Arab man, where there were no surprises at the end, there were no twists. He's a very ordinary, simple Arab man. With Arab audiences it's just nice to see a story that's based in the Middle East, in modern-time Cairo.
Levantine Review And there's no terrorism in it!
No! I remember there was this one financier who was like, you have to have a twist at the end. And I was like no, over my dead body.
Levantine Review...Tareq turns out to be a messenger for Al Qaeda?<
Exactly. Can you imagine? Oh god. In my first movie, Sabah, with Sabah's brother, I would get comments that he had to be the antagonist, he had to be evil, and so he has to kill her at the end, and I was like are you kidding me? That's bad storytelling actually.
Levantine Review That's true. There is some honor killing that goes on, of course, but...
Absolutely, but that's just not the movie I wanted to make. That's not the point of view I want to tell. As an Arab filmmaker, why do I need to concentrate on the negative? I try to make an effort to concentrate on the positive, to focus on the culture, because I find that the negative is what gets reported on, and not the positive.
Levantine Review Can you talk a bit about your natural progression as a filmmaker?
With my shorts I was literally working fulltime and then financing them. With Sabah I got this idea, and my mentor, Atom Egoyan, decided to help me by becoming my executive producer. That sort of validated me, because before then I'd been making these really gritty, guerrilla films, and I just needed some validation, which he immensely provided by becoming my executive producer. It was really great to go from these short films that were made with nothing (that did very well around the world) to then to make a real feature, with a real budget and cast—though it was low budget.
Levantine Review Your film isn't the typical American movie with a happy ending.
The thing about Cairo Time is that I think it's got a bittersweet ending. I am of the mind that you should please your audience, but not at all costs, and so I don't really think I have to have a happy ending. The story comes to me the way it does and I try to honor it that way. It's my disposition. Even though I was born in Canada, we lived in Damascus for a time when I was a child. My life could have turned out very differently had my parents decided to stay, just as a woman. I would have been married with children; there's no way I would have pursued my dream. There's no way this could have happened, had I been forced to live in Damascus for the rest of my life. And so I just personally feel very happy and grateful about how my life has turned out. I think it's my disposition to be a little more optimistic, and I think that optimism translates to my writing.