Helmer Ruba Nadda had the usual complement of crew members when she filmed “Cairo Time” in the Egyptian capital, including cinematographer, production designer, 1st a.d., costume designer, censor.
“When you shoot in Egypt the government puts a censor on your set and watches your every single move,” explains the Syrian-Canadian director, whose pic was release by IFC Films this past weekend. She managed to circumvent repeated attempts to “cleanse” the images of the teeming metropolis that serves both as the backdrop and another character of her subtle romance.
Cairo isn’t exactly the easiest filming location to begin with. Nadda describes intense summer temperatures (“We shot in June when the heat was insane”), tough logistics (“My parents thought I was nuts to go there”) and multiple levels of bureaucracy (“You have to jump through hoops to get over them”).
But censorship posed the biggest challenge to filming in the conservative Islamic city of 20 million, though not for the reasons one might expect. Ironically, the censor — a woman assigned by the government who had to sign each reel before it left the country — “didn’t care if we had a sex scene,” Nadda said. (There are none in the film.) “The concern was how I portrayed Cairo to North American audiences.
“They didn’t want me to show child poverty. She would jump into my shot if she saw garbage in the streets or women not dressed as she would like them to be dressed.”
To capture the images she wanted, Nadda resorted to diverting the censor’s attention. Her sister and aide — who, like the helmer, speaks fluent Arabic — helped out by taking the female official off on shopping trips.
And in order to shoot a scene inside a carpet sweatshop that employs young girls, Nadda set up two camera units. “I went out with one, shooting stuff we wouldn’t use, and the 2nd unit shot real footage of the girls working. That’s how I got away with that scene. Distraction is a great tool,” she said.
Nadda and crew shot the $3.9 million film in 25 days, on 35mm film, sometimes in seldom-used locations such as inside the famous men-only El Fishawis coffee shop and at the eerie, sweltering White Desert, reachable only via a harrowing eight-hour drive on a cliff-side road.
Like any low-budget filmmaker in crowded Cairo, Nadda never had complete control over locations, which was a challenge for stars Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig. “I threw Patricia and Alexander into the middle of it, and we just had to do the best we could. My sister and I would ask people, in Arabic, ‘Please don’t look at the camera.'”
But other factors worked in Nadda’s favor. She communicated with her fellow Canadian d.p. Luc Montpellier using “a kind of shorthand, which you really need on Cairo’s streets.” She relied on a savvy local production company founded by the late Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine to supply services and equipment. And she was grateful for the cool demeanor of New Orleans-born Clarkson, “who doesn’t perspire,” Nadda said.
Asked whether she would shoot in Cairo again, Nadda doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. My heart is in the Middle East. I’d happily go back if the censorship woman would have me.”
Bookings & Signings
WME signings: d.p. Peter Menzies Jr. (“Clash of the Titans”), production designers Jeff Mann (“Transformers”) and Ethan Tobman (Violet & Daisy”), editor Chris Gill (“The Invention of Lying”) and costume designer Oliva Miles Payne (“Entourage”).
Paradigm signings: line producer Phillip Goldfarb (“Flyboys”), production designer Fred Andrews (“Without a Trace”) and editor Padraic McKinley (“Charlie St. Cloud”).