Filming on Cairo Time

20 mins read

“Ruba, what have you done?” asked Atom Egoyan. “It’s great, but it’s impossible to shoot.”

It was 2005. Ruba Nadda’s debut feature, Sabah, was enjoying a successful festival run when the Toronto filmmaker showed her mentor Egoyan a script she had just completed called Cairo Time. It was a cross-cultural romance about a forty-something Canadian woman named Juliette who journeys to Cairo to meet her husband, Tom, who is working in the region. When work delays Tom’s arrival, Juliette winds up having an affair with his friend Tareq who is escorting her around this exotic, but alien city.

Nadda had wanted to set a film in this ancient capital ever since visiting Cairo as a teenager. “I remember thinking, I have to come back here and shoot a movie,” she recalls. Even before Egoyan’s warning, Nadda knew it would be next to impossible to film there, but she was driven, if not obsessed. “Filmmaking is a bitch most of the time and I’m up for the challenge. I needed Cairo and I needed to film there, or I had no movie. That, and Cairo is so beautiful, the pyramids, the way of life, the atmosphere and the chaos that wears down your guard. I needed that city and so did Juliette.”

Sure, but would Egypt welcome her? For starters there’s the dry desert heat, which often climbs into the forties. Then there are the unruly crowds, bureaucracy, endemic corruption, and state censorship, which monitors every shoot. Add to that the lack of a coproduction treaty with Canada, and you have a string of hurdles that would scare off most producers.

Born in Cairo, Egoyan suggested to his eager, yet stubborn pupil that she take her project to producer Daniel Iron, insisting that “he’d be the only person who could pull it off. Or Christine Vachon.” In the end, both joined Cairo Time. Iron had a long list of co-production credits to his name (The Red Violin, Clean), had collaborated with some of Canada’s top directors (Guy Maddin, Don McKellar), and his Foundry Films was about to release the international hits Away From Her and Manufactured Landscapes.

Vachon is the queen of American indies, producing talents such as Todd Haynes, Todd Solodnz and Mary Harron. Vachon secured Nadda’s leading lady, Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent, Good Night and Good Luck), and leading man, Alexander Siddiq (Syriana). Though Vachon was overseeing another film shoot at the time and couldn’t make it to Cairo (business partner Charles Pugliese was on hand instead), she remains active in securing international sales for Cairo Time.

Making Cairo Time wasn’t like an ordinary Canadian international co-production. Producing any feature film is like running a marathon, but the $5-million romance in Cairo would have to clear many unusual hurdles.

There’s no Canadian-Egyptian co-production treaty.
“The only way I could shoot in Egypt and maintain Canadian content status,” explains Iron, “was to co-produce with any country” that already had a treaty with Canada. Such treaties allowed filming to take place in a third country and Cairo Time would be shot entirely outside Canada. Ireland was chosen because Nadda had met the producer of Once, David Collins, during Sabah’s festival run. “Starting with my short films, I travelled quite a bit to film festivals,” explains Nadda, “building relationships with other people in the film community.”

Another plus was that Ireland is an EU country so Nadda could cast from the deep pool of European actors. “We didn’t actually get any money out of Ireland,” says Iron. “It was a minority Irish co-production so we didn’t need a lot of elements,” but those canny “hires” included production designer Tamara Conboy (Once), composer Niall Byrne and three of the actors including Alexander Siddiq. “They’re European which counts as Irish.”

The star treatment—not.
“One thing to consider was taking an actor to Cairo,” notes Iron. “They do not have the amenities we have here. The trailers there are like 1960s British holiday camper vans. So the question was, ‘Would an actor go there and not freak out?’”

Patricia Clarkson did not. Even though she had just come off the sets of Woody Allen’s Whatever Works and Martin Scorsese’s Ashecliffe, Clarkson accepted her Egyptian working conditions without complaint. “Darling, I don’t care,” she assured Nadda about her “exotic” trailer. Clarkson even stayed in the same hotel with the crew instead of checking into a more lavish abode.

Nadda honed her script over many drafts, but one thing remained fundamentally the same in Cairo Time: Juliette. Instead of creating an Arab woman as her protagonist, as she did in Sabah, Nadda chose an older white woman to channel her feelings. “To me as a writer, culture and age is meaningless as we’re all pretty much the same,” she explains. “I could shut off the side of me that was 32 at the time and an Arab woman, and see Cairo from a Canadian point of view which I can too. The reason I made Juliette older is that I needed to have weight behind her dilemma.” Essentially, she believes, characters are an extension of their creators. “I based Juliette on a small part of me who, at the time, was sad and out of sorts with my life, my goals and my career.”

As Juliette, Clarkson vividly channels Nadda’s sense of alienation by delivering an understated and nuanced performance, often without words. Her face is so expressive and the juxtaposition of a Western woman walking along the teeming, ancient streets of Cairo undoubtedly came directly from Nadda’s experiences visiting foreign capitals. “That emotion was so tangible to me, I ran with it.”

It was Christine Vachon who suggested Clarkson for Juliette based on her performance and professionalism on The Safety of Objects and Far From Heaven. Nadda was pleased that Clarkson understood the theme of complicated love where “sometimes you end up falling in love with someone else. I think she appreciated that Juliette handled it with grace.” Indeed Clarkson’s understated, but gripping performance carries the film.

Siddiq was another easy casting choice. “I’m a Trekkie,” confesses Nadda, who grew up watching him as Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

“He reminds me of my dad. He commands respect and he’s a very Arab man,” says Nadda who adds with a twinkle, “and he’s easy on the eyes.”

Nadda was so sure of her actors that she didn’t demand a screen test of the two of them together. Her gamble paid off. Clarkson and Siddiq create chemistry in Cairo Time which is reflected in their body language and the nuances found between lines of dialogue. However, whether audiences will feel that Juliette and Tareq’s relationship is consummated and the story reaches closure will be debatable.

Cash is king.
“They call their parliament buildings the Ministry of Corruption,” deadpans Iron.

“There’s like 10 different layers of bureaucracy,” adds Nadda. “Layer one, two, three say yes, but layer seven says No. It’s physically grueling— ”

Cairo Time had a strict 25-day shooting schedule. On the first day, recalls Nadda, “my first A.D. said the schedule would be impossible to meet, because we didn’t know if the equipment and film stock would show up on time.” Iron says it took a “long-g-g” time to get film material out of customs, and only after some cash changed hands.

“When we were shooting scenes inside Tareq’s cafe, the fellow next door would be hammering,” recalls Iron. Nadda would ask the man in Arabic, ‘Can you please stop?’ then offer him some money.

A key scene involved the pyramids. “At first we couldn’t shoot the pyramids at night,” says Iron, “then someone paid someone this much money to light them, and this much money to plug it in. Then, somehow it became, ‘Oh, you can just light them yourselves.’”

Iron advises hiring an experienced and trusted line producer in Cairo, which is the region’s central film and television production centre. “You need a good handler there,” says Iron. “For a documentary it’s easier, but for a feature you need someone there to hire crews, especially good people.” Their line producer dealt with all the permits, Iron says with relief, warning of some shady producers in Egypt. Otherwise “you never really knew when you would get a permit or not get one or how you got a permit.”

Sometimes, the anarchic atmosphere could be an advantage. “My DP and I were in heaven because we could get away with murder. There are no permits and the people were so friendly that we could put the camera anywhere and the people would go, ‘Oh let me help you.’”

And speaking Arabic helped. Nadda, who was raised in Damascus, Syria, was granted permission to shoot in a busy market that never allows film cameras, only because she is Syrian and fluent in Arabic.

The heat is murder. . .
“We all got sick,” says Iron.

Antibiotics helped cure the “deathly fever” that the Canadians caught for a few days. Nadda warns that foreign crewsneed time to get used to the scorching heat which preyed on their minds as well as their bodies.

“The Arab crew are loyal and hard-working,” says Nadda. “But hot-headed,” adds Iron. There was always the threat of a fist fight in the back of the set between the Egyptian electrics and the grips.

The crew was a mix of Canadians and Arabs who were shooting in sweltering June and July heat. “By the end it was getting brutal,” says Iron. Where the Canucks were busy adapting to work conditions and the unrelenting heat, Egyptian tempers were simmering. Explains Nadda: “It often hits 50. So, tempers are gonna fly. Everybody’s sweating. Everybody’s agitated. They fight, but literally 20 seconds later say, ‘We’re very sorry.’”

Nadda nearly passed out while shooting in the White Desert in 55C heat. “The only thing that saved us was that it was very windy. We thought the equipment would melt.”

… and so is the traffic.
“Egyptians have this great habit of driving at night with their lights off,” reports Iron. “They turn them on only to signal that they’re going to pass.”

Apparently, says Nadda, to turn them on at night is rude, because you’re going to blind oncoming cars. That’s basically the only driving rule in Egypt where the government admits that a driver is 12 times more likely to get killed in a car crash in their country than Italy. “Let’s say there are two lanes,” says Nadda, “but there are four cars travelling at full speed. The cars are almost touching.”

Nadda recalls scary rides driving along the Nile coming to and from the White Desert where there is one lane slicing through the desert. “There’s sand on the road and you can easily skid off,” she says, wide-eyed, remembering a close call.

Crowd control in a city of 17 million people? Good luck.
“What you see in the frame looks busy,” Iron notes about the outdoor scenes on streets and cafes, “but one inch out of the frame—insanity, like people fighting.”

There are more people living in metropolitan Cairo than Quebec and B.C. combined. Cairo Time includes several scenes where Juliette strolls through the streets alone or with Tareq both at night and day. How did filming go without police?

“My sister was crowd control,” explains Nadda, “and she would be a monster, speaking in Arabic, ‘Please step back.’ But the crowds would be respectful because she’s a young woman.” Iron adds that the crew often put up the yellow crowd-control tape themselves.

Then there was the noise, billowing from the fourth most crowded city on the planet. “My poor sound recordist was having an aneurysm,” laments Nadda. “It was a challenge,” Iron adds diplomatically. That said, Nadda’s soundmen were able to capture clean sound so that minimal looping was required. “You get so used to that insane noise in Cairo that when I returned to Canada I went, ‘Why is it so quiet?’” “The horns never stop,” says Iron. “That’s how drivers signal,” says Nadda, noting another quaint driving custom.

There’s always a state censor on set.
The woman censor saw Nadda as an Arab Muslim woman from Canada and liked her, but “on our reels, she had to sign [her approval] along the tape of exposed film, and there were many times when she didn’t want to,” says Nadda.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t religious transgressions the censor was looking for. “What she was most concerned about was making Cairo look beautiful and clean to tourists,” says Iron. In one scene, they were shooting on a street corner and there were two dowdy women wearing dirty dresses. “She wanted them out of the shot, but Ruba wanted that particular shot and said, ‘Danny, help!’ I threw myself at the censorship woman (but not sexually),” recalls Iron, who laughs about the episode now.

Luckily, the sweeping shots of Cairo escaped the watchful eye of the censor. These shots, filmed from a moving car, capture the bustle and size of Cairo and are the movie’s most striking images. The viewer feels like he’s stepped into Cairo where cars and pedestrians jam every street in a permanent rush hour and sand rubs against his toes. The city itself is more than a backdrop. It reflects the yearning and loneliness churning inside Juliette as she waits for her husband. Cairo brings together Juliette and Tareq. A key scene finds Juliette walking down the street in a blouse and skirt—ordinary in North America—but an invitation for Egyptian men to harass her. As her escort, Tareq unlocks the mysteries of the ancient capital and protects Juliette from encroaching men.

The city is also about chaos, corruption and unpredictability, precisely the qualities that marked the filming of Cairo Time and were the reasons behind Egoyan’s warnings to Nadda.

Was it good for you, Ruba?
Sitting in the spacious offices of Iron’s Foundry Films in downtown Toronto, Nadda is ebullient and talkative. She reflects on her shoot in the ancient capital a year earlier, “It’s what filmmaking’s about. If there’s no blood or craziness then there’s no fun.”

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