Remembering Cairo Time

I am seldom this sentimental. But the recent turn of events in Egypt have really made me think of a film that already occupies my heart and daydreams when things are calm. Thankfully, there has been a forced professional reason for reposting all this writing of mine about my most beloved cinematic efforts and I gladly jump at the chance to revisit Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time, a masterpiece of subtleness and deep burning romance I first watched at the Tribeca Film Festival this past Spring. Enjoy the piece but more importantly, rent the DVD from Blockbusters. You’ll thank me for it!

There are movies that for their duration, while you sit inside the darkened theater, keep you company. They feel familiar, warm and true to your own life. Then there are films that inspire you, to be different, to try something new, to achieve your yet untapped potential. There is yet a third kind, the movies that shock you, to the point of leaving you breathless once they end, a bit unsettled but probably having learned something new.

On a whole different level, perhaps combining a bit of all the above, there are movies which have the potential to change your life, move you to the point of tender tears and push you to find the kind of love, respect, devotion and kindness that is portrayed within their story, their short yet impressive time on the screen. For me Cairo Time was one such masterpiece. The film is a unique adventure featuring one breathtaking city, a brilliant script written with just the right balance of romanticism and intelligence and two unlikely leading characters who are played to understated perfection by two of the best actors alive. Though the Tribeca PAC was totally packed for the film’s opening this past Saturday, Cairo Time is still the kind of film that will always feel like a best-kept secret, a personal indulgence which you may just share with your closest friends and loved ones. In other words, a jewel of a movie.

Cairo Time is also a quiet work of art, one that doesn’t scream its message at the audience or try to prove the filmmaker’s wit and uniqueness with surprise turns and unexpected events. Instead, the film soothes you into the overwhelming grace of the Arab world, the chaos of the streets of Cairo versus the hospitality of its people, the permeating calls to prayer, the colorful souks, the smokey cafes and the unrelenting heat and dust of the city. It is in my opinion the film which best captures the spirit of Cairo, turns it into a true third protagonist, along with Tareq and Juliette, the leading man and woman in the story.

In the opening scene of the film, we see the ever-calm Juliette -- played by the beautiful Patricia Clarkson -- arriving into the subtle chaos of Cairo airport. As she walks out of immigration, she is met with the warmth of Arab hospitality by the lanky Tareq -- played by the super-handsome Alexander Siddig -- a friend of her husband Mark. Mark, we soon learn, is a UN man and is being detained by his work at a refuge camp in Gaza. He has sent his trusted friend and retired colleague Tareq to pick up his wife, update her on the situation and take her to the hotel, where she’ll await his uncertain arrival. It is in the waiting times when we slowly discover that Juliette is accustomed to being alone, because of her husband’s line of work, and she is also a strong woman, though quite reserved and feminine to the core.

Juliette’s first outing alone in Cairo proves perilous. The traffic, the noise, the unwelcome advances of young Egyptian men, her own overwhelming jetlag all conspire to create the perfect situation for her and Tareq to get to know each other. And because they are both gentle souls, with kind hearts and strong emotions -- though boiling quietly just under the surface -- they each and together begin to experience the kind of love that actually helps them grow and find themselves within it.

There are plenty of beautiful subtle messages in Cairo Time, among them how when a person opens their heart just a little, love then comes rushing into their life, through that tiny crack. How calm is not the same as unfeeling and one should never underestimate the power to love of a quiet soul. How we often need someone else to teach us who we really are. And how the sexiest moments in life are often those that only require a look, a breath, the slight touch of a hand. Needless to say, I found myself crying at the most unusual moments, craving the beauty of Egypt and the warmth of its people, but also yearning for the hot sun, the spiced coffee and the morning call to prayer invading one’s hotel room right before sunrise…

At the Tribeca Film Festival opening of Cairo Time, I caught up with stars Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig, as well as the film’s writer and director Ruba Nadda. Indeed when Nadda gushed “I was so lucky to get this man!” about Siddig, she wasn’t kidding. As much as you may have admired him in movies and on TV, in person he is even more charismatic, graceful and kind. His sparkling eyes -- yes, they actually do glisten when he speaks -- put me immediately at ease while I interviewed him. I told him that every woman in the screening room at Tribeca had fallen in love with his Tareq, who has now become our idea of the quintessential romantic hero, and asked him how he played that as an actor. He humbly answered “You are way too kind! I don’t think that’s the case, but thank you for the compliment” and continued “I prepared by simply looking into her eyes” while pointing to his co-star Clarkson. About what’s next, he disclosed “I’ll be in Ruba’s [Nadda] next film. I don’t mean this to sound condescending, but for such a young woman she is phenomenally talented!” And he’ll be doing TV in the UK. Watch Siddig in Primeval on BBC America starting this January 2011.

I then talked to the positively glowing Clarkson about her role. I had been meaning to ask her about Juliette and how she played her with such understated passion. Clarkson confessed “This was an internal preparation. I didn’t want her to be me. Juliette is a woman whose emotions are on simmer, while I am always on boil!” I also asked her about the wardrobe choices for Juliette, in the first half of the film. When I watched the film during a pre-festival screening, some of the critics had dismissed Juliette as a stereotype of an American woman who wears inappropriate -- read: sleeveless -- clothing in an Arab country. Well, the laugh’s on them, since not only is Juliette meant to be Canadian, but Clarkson promptly answered “You can show your arms in Cairo, it’s legs that need to be covered. But I guess the people watching the film with you that day did not know that…” Indeed, chuck it up to the critics’ need to always have an opinion. And BTW, when I watched it again that evening, I confirmed that Juliette is dressed quite demurely throughout the first half of the film, in short sleeves -- not sleeveless -- and below-the-knee skirts. The film not only does her character justice, but is completely devoid of stereotypes of any kind.

Finally, I caught up with filmmaker Nadda -- a stunning, brilliant woman with dark, luscious hair -- and asked her about the choice to make the film about Cairo, as opposed to another location in the Middle East. Nadda herself is Syrian-Canadian and although she admitted that Damascus is one of the most beautiful cities in the Arab world “Cairo is the happening city of the Middle East. It was the perfect city to film because Cairo has it all: the culture, the arts, the music, the sights, the pyramids and the desert.” When introducing the film Nadda confessed that she was quite emotional being on the stage at TFF, fourteen years after having come to NYC to study filmmaking at NYU. A beautiful testament to the power of dreams.

The film also stars Tom McCamus as Mark, Elena Anaya as Kathryn and Amina Annabi as Yasmeen and features a phenomenal soundtrack by Niall Byrne, which is available on ITunes. Cairo Time is now available on DVD.

All images by Colm Hogan courtesy of IFC and TFF

Excerpts of this piece originally posted as: http://news.avstv.com/2010/04/27/best-of-tribeca-2010-cairo-time/ in April 2010

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2 Responses to “Remembering Cairo Time”

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Ajnabee [theajnabee.com] on Topsy.com:

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  2. sulekha:

    Nina, you have a beautiful way with words.I feel like I’ve already seen the movie with your eyes and it’s beautiful. I am almost in love with Tareq…I loved your beautiful subtle messages in Cairo Time,” how when a person opens their heart just a little, love then comes rushing into their life, through that tiny crack.” And another fav of mine is,”And how the sexiest moments in life are often those that only require a look, a breath, the slight touch of a hand.” Will definitely watch this lovely movie..thanks

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