Yesterday afternoon, discouraged by the rainy weather, we decided to go with our house guest to a movie. We chose "Cairo Time," a new film by the Montreal-born director Ruba Nadda, who now lives in Toronto. It looked good in the description we read, but turned out to have some real flaws. I'm astounded that this film won the audience favorite award for Canadian films at the Toronto Film Festival, and wonder if that could have happened in Montreal with its large Middle-Eastern and well-traveled population.
Starring the indie-film actress Patricia Clarkson (Juliette) and Alexander Siddig (Tareq) the story involves a happily-married blonde magazine editor who flies to Cairo for a vacation with her UN-employed husband, who's been working in a refugee camp in Gaza. But violence erupts in the camp, and her husband can't get back to Cairo. Instead, his old colleague and friend, a tall handsome Arab named Tareq, picks Juliette up at the airport and eventually becomes her Egyptian guide. No one was miscast, but I found the story and direction completely implausible, even to the point of being silly and guilty of unfortunate stereotyping.
Juliette wanders around Cairo tossing her bleached-blonde hair, wearing sleeveless dresses, plunging necklines, and short skirts, and wonders tearfully why men are following and hassling her -- this is a supposedly intelligent woman who beats Tareq at chess and edits a successful magazine, and who is married to a seasoned UN administrator of long Middle Eastern experience? Come on. Even her Cairo guidebook, often consulted on-screen, would give her the basic guidelines. Behavior that might be believable in an adolescent character comes off as ridiculous in a middle-aged woman of Juliette's background; the craziest moment is when she stubbornly boards a bus full of Palestinians bound for Gaza because she "just wants to see" her husband, but of course the bus is stopped by military police and she's taken off, cell phone in hand, to call Tareq to come and fetch her. Tareq is pleased when Juliette finally trades her floral sundresses for a long-sleeved shirt and headscarf for a visit to a mosque -- but the next day she's back in a sleeveless yellow number and no bra. He tells her to be careful, pointing out that three tourists were recently killed outside their hotel. "Why?" she asks. "Because they were American," he answers, as if talking to a child. He's bemused one day, irritated to the point of stony silence the next, then non-plussed: is this a pattern that would really make a man like Tareq fall in love?
What I find most disturbing is that films like this perpetuate western attitudes and stereotypes about the "exotic east" and "clueless westerner," and do nothing for the cross-cultural understanding ostensibly at their root. The Canadian director, 36-year old Ruba Nadda, has a Palestinian mother and Syrian father. This film, her second feature, seems shot through western eyes sympathetic to Arab culture but colored less by knowledge of cultural nuance than by the allure of the exotic that Edward Said called "Orientalism." (An article about the actual tournage in Cairo reveals some of the problems Nadda encountered and how she got around them.) Stereotypes abound, not only in behavior of the blonde heroine, but in comments like that of a female friend who (following the requisite lunch in a Bedouin tent) reveals she had an affair with an Arab man: "He became possessive and demanding -- they all do," she says, then adds, with a faraway look in her eyes, "But he was a great lover."
The romance that develops between Juliette and Tareq seems unlikely at best -- he's smart, elegant, restrained, and sophisticated -- what does he see in her? -- and never becomes physical. He's the best actor in the film, but no on-screen sexual tension ever develops between the two of them. And the predictability of the locations weakens the film. In addition to the Bedouins, there's also a carpet-weaving scene, and of course a trip to the pyramids, with our heroine wearing a turquoise chiffon evening dress.
The best parts of the movie are the street shots of Cairo itself, and these certainly increased my long-standing desire to go there with my own "exotic" husband - his last visit there was a long time ago, when his father was working, for real, as a UN administrator of a Gaza camp. But I certainly won't be dressed for the trip by the costumer for this film.