Bird Watching – Ruba Nadda’s “Cairo Time”
Of the many reasons I wish I’d been in attendance at the Toronto Film Festival last month, the wide variety of films by women that were shown and celebrated is at the top. Six of the festival’s twenty gala presentations were for films directed by women, and the one of those I most look forward to seeing is Ruba Nadda’s thriller Inescapable. I love it when women make thrillers, since for some reason the general establishment seems to be shocked when they can handle it (odd, considering how many popular novelists who write thrillers are of the female persuasion, and how many of America’s favorite CBS crime shows are run by women, as well). This thriller in particular looks timely and tense, telling the story of a father who must return to his native Syria after thirty years to search for his missing daughter. In that Liam-Neeson-esque role is Alexander Siddig, one of the most underused actors of recent memory.
But, that’s not the movie I’m supposed to be talking about, because I haven’t been able to see it yet. (It was acquired by IFC Films for distribution, though, thankfully.) Luckily for me, Nadda made another film with Siddig that could tide me over a bit. But, it is decidedly not a thriller. Three years ago, Nadda showed Cairo Time at Toronto, where it won the award for Best Canadian Feature Film. Patricia Clarkson stars alongside Siddig, as the wife of a UN official working in Gaza, who is supposed to meet him in Cairo. He gets held up, and enlists a former employee to pick his wife up at the airport and help her settle in at her hotel. We see very quickly that a connection of sorts brews between these two characters. The core question of the film is whether it will bubble up to the surface, into something that needs to be faced head-on rather than through lingering side glances.
Clarkson’s character, Juliette, has never been to this part of the world before, and it shows. She’s an educated woman, a magazine editor, but at first she has a hard time grasping differences in the realities of everyday life in this new culture. She’s startled when a café is just for men. She wonders why “no one seems to care” about the children who roam the streets trying to sell small trinkets to tourists. Siddig’s Tareq is patient with her to a degree, but also respects her enough to tell her when he objects to her point of view. And as he shows her around Cairo, she gets a bit better at seeing it the way he sees it.
Nadda’s screenplay is subtle; there’s never any risk of veering into Eat, Pray, Love territory here. Clarkson and Siddig are both skillful actors who should get more opportunities to play lead roles, and Nadda lets their facial expressions and body language do a lot of the emotional work. Her cinematography, too, keeps the viewer locked into this world. She’s equally adept at conveying the swirling action of busy city streets and the magnificent beauty of the surrounding landscapes. A scene where Tareq and Juliette end up walking near one of the pyramids in dress clothes after a night out stands among one of the most gorgeous shots I’ve ever seen in a film. Nadda simply knows what she’s doing. (Credit to director of photography Luc Montpellier, as well.)
As the title suggests, this is a film about a finite amount of time, something that always had an end date on it. I’m a bit of a sucker for movies where a filmmaker tortures us like that. There are classics in this subgenre from Brief Encounter to The Bridges of Madison County and beyond, and so long as every one of us knows what an opportunity missed because of circumstance feels like, they’ll keep making them. Putting a timer on your action is one of the oldest narrative tricks in the book, and putting a timer on a love story just hurts like hell. But it’s a beautiful hurt, when it’s done like this.
Cairo Time is currently streaming on Netflix.