To be considered for TIFF Gala status, your movie has to have two things: major stars and major audience interest. Only two Canadian films are getting the Gala treatment this year, and both of them are directed by women.
Inescapable is the latest from Toronto-based director/writer Ruba Nadda, starring Alexander Siddig, Joshua Jackson and Marisa Tomei (movie stars, check). It’s a thriller about a man who must return to Damascus, Syria, a place he has avoided for three decades, in order to find his missing daughter (irresistible hook, check).
The film marks a genre-departure for Nadda, who to date is best known for Cairo Time, a romantic drama that received resounding critical acclaim since it premiered at TIFF in 2009.
I got the chance to talk to Ruba about the making of Inescapable, which was shot in 25 days in Johannesburg. It premieres tonight at Roy Thomson Hall.
Swailes: What compelled you to make a thriller?
Nadda: For me, I don’t look at it as a thriller; it’s always about a character that I become obsessed with and who refuses to leave me alone. I became obsessed with the character of Adib, this man whose daughter goes missing and he has this past that’s very secretive. That’s what drives me over the years and when movies are so difficult to make; it’s an obsession with the character and the predicament they find themselves in that keeps me going.
Swailes: What did you learn about yourself as a filmmaker through the process of making Inescapable?
Nadda: Last year when I was in preproduction, the movie completely fell apart. I’ve had movies almost fall apart before, but this time it looked like we were done. For the first time in my career, I almost gave up. Financiers weren’t sure about a woman making a thriller, you know, the usual story. At the end of the day what I learned is that I cannot give up. I have to be one hundred percent passionate and committed. People were looking at me with pity, like I was delusional because I refused to walk away; but because I refused to, that’s the reason the movie happened. The secret is you need a director who refuses to walk away and you need a director willing to put their whole career behind the project. That’s what this movie taught me.
Swailes: You shot Cairo Time in Egypt’s White Desert in 122-degree heat. What were the challenges of filming in South Africa?
Nadda: Because I have a Syrian passport I couldn’t shoot in Syria, it’s too dangerous. So we went to Johannesburg and I thought it was going to be easy, but at every turn someone was being hijacked. We couldn’t go anywhere without security. We only had 25 days to shoot it and I had to make Johannesburg look like Syria. I’m obsessed with details and accuracy, and in Johannesburg they drive on the wrong side of the road. And for extras… we found every single Arab living in Johannesburg, it was just crazy. When I came back, I thought the next movie was going to be fine—it’s a thriller set in Georgian Bay with action scenes on the lake. And my producer’s like, what are you thinking? I don’t know why I make it so difficult for myself.
Swailes: A lot has happened in Syria since you first conceived this story. How has the escalating conflict affected the movie creatively?
Nadda: I started writing the script in 2007 and it was funny because it was difficult trying to convince people how dangerous Syria is. I’m Syrian and I lived in Damascus in my childhood, but it was a constant struggle trying to convince people what it’s like—until last year when everything started happening in Syria. But I couldn’t keep up with everything happening today so I set the film at a very specific time, January 2011, and this is made known from the opening scene. I wanted to shine a spotlight on what the country is like, but at the same time it’s about Adib and his story and the fact that he will go to the end of the earth to save his child. It just happens to be set in Syria amidst the context of civil war.
Swailes: Why was Alexander Siddig the right choice for Adib?
Nadda: Alexander is the quintessential Arab man. He’s so masculine, so poised, and he has a purity of spirit in his performance that is haunting. As a director I always look at someone’s eyes. How truthful are they? Will this person take me on this journey? If I wasn’t going to walk away from this movie, it had to be him. I wanted someone to get lost in this role, someone to be a little angry and a little masculine, and that’s what he embodies.
Swailes: You’re a filmmaker that wears many hats. What advice do you have for others looking to take on multiple roles on their own projects?
Nadda: Be decisive and persevere. That’s how I believe I’ve gotten this far. You have to recognize that, at the end of the day, no one really cares if you make another movie. That decision falls on you. You’re the leader of your own destiny and the one person who can’t walk away. For women it’s brutal. No one likes to talk about it, but it’s even harder. It’s impossible being a filmmaker no matter what, but for women there’s an extra dose and you can’t even entertain the idea of failure or weakness, you just have to keep moving forward. I tell myself that every day. I want to give up every single day of my life, but I can’t. I’m obsessed.
Swailes: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
Nadda: First, I want them to be entertained. But also, to recognize that this is a personal story that is very universal. It’s what I’ve been trying to do from the beginning—shine a spotlight on my culture and heritage and show we’re no different than you. This is a man who’s willing to die for his daughter. It’s that simple. I want to give the audience what they want, but not at all costs. I want to leave them with something. I try to do that with every single movie I make.
Katy Swailes is Communications Officer at the Toronto chapter of Women in Film & Television and a freelance writer on issues of women in media.