Ruba Nadda’s TIFF ‘09 film “Cairo Time” starts its U.S. theatrical run this Friday, August 6. Nadda provided indieWIRE with an exclusive clip and commentary from her feature that played at this year’s Tribeca, and stars Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig.
This love story focuses on Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), a long-married magazine editor who travels to Cairo to meet her husband, a UN official working in Gaza, for a much-needed vacation together. When work delays his arrival, he asks his friend and former security officer Tareq to show Juliette around the unfamiliar metropolis. At first overwhelmed, Juliette finds herself gradually falling under the city’s spell–and, unexpectedly, under Tareq’s as well. [Synopsis courtesy of IFC Films]
Five years ago, I got this idea. It was very simple. A woman – her name was Juliette and she was about 50 – arrives in Cairo for a vacation with her husband, whom she hasn’t seen in two months. She finds herself stood up at the airport and is instead met by an old friend of her husband – a handsome, Arab man named Tareq. Unable to navigate Cairo on her own, she is forced back to this man, and slowly, an unexpected love affair starts to emerge between them as they discover Cairo together.
Juliette appeared to me as feeling out of sorts in her life, not exactly unhappy in her marriage but sort of settled into the state of her life. She had believed for so long that one day, she’d have a certain kind of ‘life’ with her husband. But it was always put off for one reason or another. The trip to Cairo and the Pyramids is meant to be a kind of start of this ‘life’ but once again, he stands her up.
Cairo is an amazing city but the heat is unbearable (we were there from April to mid-July), it is densely populated, there are no sidewalks, no streetlights, people don’t drive with their lights on at night, you have to point and demand drivers to stop the cars and let you cross the street. We never had control over our locations, we had a censorship minder from the government watching over us. I has to make sure there were no scripts, shot lists on my set to make it more difficult for her to follow the narrative. Often I would have to send my sister, Fadia, to go take our ‘minder’ shopping, or for a coffee or to a different location where we were not shooting, to lose her for an afternoon if I had a difficult scene. This woman had to sign the reels before they were allowed to be shipped back home. I was going to be damned if I were to let her change my film. And as it turns out, I didn’t alter one single word. There were three times where my camera crew and I were almost arrested – yet everyone, from my amazing Canadian and Arab crew to both Patricia and Alexander handled everything with such grace and patience. We survived Cairo and we had a blast. “Cairo Time” is a very simple story. It’s about unexpected love between two very ordinary people. I would have gone to the ends of the earth to get have this movie made. I still can’t believe it happened.
I had a very specific vision for the film. Together with my DP, Luc Montpellier, we designed every single frame of this movie. We wanted something classic – with an almost liquid pace. We insisted on shooting on widescreen 35mm film. We were very specific about lenses and framing – we knew Cairo was mad and chaotic but we wanted the camera to be steady and calm to reflect the way the city washes over you. Something happens to you as a Westerner when you enter this place and we wanted that reflected on the screen. So many people have asked me about how stunning Cairo is, and whether I did any tricks. We didn’t. We pointed the camera and shot. Nothing was CGI’d. The only green screen in the movie is the sequence shot in the train. We had only 25 days to shoot this movie. We did our second unit shooting on our two days off every single week out on the streets of Cairo without permits. That was when we came very close to being arrested.
Even though I was pretty clear and focused about the film looking classic and polished, I was also committed to showing Cairo in all of its glory. And even though it’s a gorgeous city, it has a lot of problems. One of them being rampant child poverty and the blatant neglect of this issue by the government. On previous trips, I was stunned when I discovered ‘carpet academies.’ There, I saw girls as little as four-years-old weaving, working 16 hours a day, making less than one dollar a day. Clearly, these children are being taken advantage of and the worst of it was that these were tourist destinations. Tourists would go and take a look at how these Arab/Persian rugs are made and buy a rug for thousands of dollars while each rug is made for less than 20 American dollars. Because I speak Arabic, I was able to talk to these young kids and hear their very sad stories and how they needed these jobs to support their families, while the owners of these factories tried to insist this was a school. So even though on the surface, “Cairo Time” is clearly a love story, I needed to set it in Cairo as it really is. Though Juliette, as a Western tourist, only gets a superficial look at Cairo’s more troubling aspects, they are impossible to miss if you look. So basically this scene is about Juliette delivering a letter from a girl she met on a bus to this girl’s lover who works at one of these carpet academies.
SHOOTING THE SCENE
Shooting this scene was an absolute nightmare. It was by far was the worst day of the shoot.
My crew entered the carpet factory and we started setting up the shot – a dolly shot that reveals the children working. Five minutes into the set up, the owner realizes he is going to look bad, so he pulls all the kids who are working there (they ranged from 4 to about 12 years old) and shuts us down. As anyone can tell you, on an independent film, you can’t afford to lose half an hour let alone a whole day of filming. I didn’t know what to do at first. We couldn’t simply just find another location and I didn’t want to. I wanted authenticity – those girls you see weaving in the scene – actually work there. We paid them for the day, but even that we had to do so on the sly. My DP and Charles Pugliese (my executive producer) quickly went into action. They said, ignore the owner, lets continue setting up the shot. So we did that. An hour went by – the owner grabbed all the young kids and brings in a new batch – who are all about 12 to 15 – thinking that will look better on screen. So we shoot the scene with the older kids. As the camera is rolling, the Egyptian censorship woman interrupts, chastising a child for her shabby clothing. I cut and tell her she makes a great actress. She takes the child out of my shot and we go back to get a second take. Again, she interrupts it because she’s angry with this young man who is in the background of the shot folding carpets on the ground. She thought it looked low class to do this on the floor. So while we’re shooting, she is yelling at him and bringing him a table so he can fold on that. The owner of the factory then starts yelling at us, telling us to stop. He had it with us, he wanted us out.
Patricia and Alexander were unbelievable that day. As Luc, my first AD, Charles and were trying to figure it out, Patricia called out to me. I started to apologize because it’s pretty difficult for actors to be trying to stay in character through all this. But Patricia wanted to help. She asked me what she and Alexander could do. I said, woo the censorship woman, distract her, make her fall in love with you. Well Patricia is amazing – she did exactly that.
I have never come so close to punching someone in the face. I wanted to kill the factory owner because he kept cursing me in Arabic thinking I couldn’t understand him. I had to keep my cool because they kept threatening to throw us out, but we kept refusing to go. The trick was, we just kept ignoring him. So we called lunch and slowly, he and his colleagues became lazy. Slowly, they brought back in the little kids – the four and six-year-olds. I wanted this footage. I was not leaving without it. Charles saved the day. He suggested we put our two cameras to use. So I set up a shot with my DP and Patricia in one corner behind a carpet. Of course our censorship woman and the owner were right at my side. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Charles and our steadicam operator got the extra footage of the young girls that you see in the scene.
I got my satisfaction at the end of the day. As I was walking out with my crew, the owner, laughing at me, asked in English if I got enough footage of his kids. I turned back and told him off in Arabic in front of his friends. I got my scene and I was able to unload on this jerk.