SIFF 2010: An interview with Ruba Nadda, director of the lovely, languid romance Cairo Time

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During the Seattle International Film Festival, I always enjoy asking random people what films they’ve enjoyed at the fest so far. Sometimes answers are all over the map, but more than one person has gushed about the film Cairo Time (one friend loved it so much she went to BOTH screenings). Writer/Director Ruba Nadda’s film is about a Western woman named Juliette (the always fabulous Patricia Clarkson) who travels to Cairo, Egypt to meet up with her UN-worker husband for a holiday. But her husband is delayed, so he sends in his place his friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to serve as a local guide while she waits. What unfolds is a leisurely-paced friendship-building-into-romance between Juliette and Tareq, quite literally under the shadows of the pyramids. Ruba Nadda kindly gave us some of her time to answer some email questions about Cairo Time.

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig star in Cairo Time, directed by Ruba Nadda.

MOVIEPIE: The city of Cairo is as much a character in the film as Juliette and Tareq. Could you tell us about your personal relationship with the city that inspired the story?

DIRECTOR RUBA NADDA: When I was 16, my parents took my sisters and I on a visit to Cairo and the city left this visual imprint on me that I have never been able to shake. I found the city overwhelming, beautiful and seething with humanity. There is something in the air, in that time zone that sort of chips away at your guard and forces you to slow down. And I loved how old Cairo felt and that while it was a stunning city, it was not a gentle one.

Juliette, as an independent married career woman from the West, was balanced by the local characters of Yasmeen (the widow, still pining for her first love) and Kathryn (the free spirited woman not tied down by marriage), as well as peripheral characters like the hotel maid, and the young girls working in a weaving factory. Was it important to you to portray a variety of types of women living in a modern Arab region?

The story just came to me and as a writer I didn’t think about how I surrounded Juliette. I feel that if you’re heavy handed as a director, audiences will get turned off. Also, I think for me, it’s definitely unconscious. I’m a woman and I’m the writer and I’ve always seen women as complicated, interesting, different and I try to depict them in original yet realistic ways.

There are scenes where differences in culture are presented, yet not judged. For instance, Tareq runs a cafe that is for male patrons only, and at one point Juliette is invited into the home for a meal where only women are present. Another time, Juliette toys with the idea of writing a magazine article about the plight of Egyptian street urchins, but Tareq shoots her down, saying things are more complicated than they seem on the surface. Did you purposely avoid delving deeper into cultural differences that some Westerners might find hard to understand?

As a person, I am quite un-judgmental and I try to use that approach to my stories. My first goal always is to tell a great story—I just feel if I try to get political and preachy, I feel it will be insincere and forced—my job isn’t to try and lecture about the Middle East because I think I will definitely turn people off. My goal is to tell the best story possible and be true to Juliette and this unexpected love story. I’m always careful as a writer because as the daughter of a Palestinian, sometimes, people expect me to drum out my political opinions but my opinions are irrelevant to the story I am telling. I find that if I just write and try to be subtle, things will still sneak in and audiences will still catch those moments and not be irritated.

The cinematography in the film was absolutely gorgeous. Could you talk about working with Luc Montpellier to create your vision?

I love working with Luc. I’ve been working with him for years now and we have a short hand that quite possibly saved us in the grueling film conditions in Cairo. We spent a solid month shot listing the movie. We knew Cairo would be chaotic and crazy and so we had to be ready. We were careful not to be swept away by the beauty and make it a postcard travelogue. We always knew this film was Juliette’s and we never lost sight of that.

Who is the female Egyptian singer that recurs so prominently throughout the film? I’m sure many people will be curious to hear more of her work.

Her name is Um Khalthoum and she is a legend – and she’s also known as the mother of Egypt . It’s very difficult getting, let alone finding, the rights to her music so I wasn’t going to leave Cairo without getting that song!

Will we ever find out if Juliette and Tareq meet again? Are you toying with revisiting these characters?

Audiences keep asking if there is a sequel. I really love when characters becomes real like that. So many times, people ask me questions about the future of Juliette and Tareq—who knows, if the movie does well in the US , I’d love to do a sequel. I even have a great idea. A woman asked me at a screening Seattle if Juliette ever writes Tareq afterwards and I said no. But I do have something simmering in my head!


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