Opens Friday 23
During her 15-year-long career, Canadian director Ruba Nadda has become known for her grasp of Muslim sensibilities, particularly when dealing with the Western world. Her superb 2009 flick Cairo Time, for example, succeeded in balancing romantic drama with a serious take on culture clash. (It also provided the underused Patricia Clarkson with a starring vehicle, and revealed the potential of Syriana’s Alexander Siddig as a leading man).
But there was little indication that Nadda wanted to escape her comfort zone, so it came as a surprise that the follow-up to Cairo Time turned out to be a proper action film. Inescapable combines some of Nadda’s strengths with a bag of new tricks, although with mixed results. A Canadian businessman of Syrian origin (Siddig) must confront his chequered past back in order to rescue his daughter from the secret police back home. A shadowy diplomat (Joshua Jackson) and an ex-flame (Marisa Tomei) seem to be on his side, but in Syria, you can’t be too careful.
Sure, it sounds a fair bit like Taken — but Nadda is adamant that any similarities between her film and the 2008 Liam Neeson vehicle are superficial, just as setting Inescapable in the most volatile country in the Middle East was unavoidable. The film was shot in South Africa and while the Assad regime is seldom mentioned by name, the dictator’s repressive ways are easily recognizable.
In person, Ruba Nadda is disarmingly enthusiastic — and while she’s not the kind of filmmaker who thinks her movies are precious babies that can never be criticized, she’ll defend them passionately.
PLANET S: The one aspect of Inescapable most media focuses on is how discordant it feels next to the rest of your filmography. How does this make you feel?
RUBA NADDA: It’s ridiculous. I’m interested in characters, ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations, then I throw a number of obstacles on their way. From that point of view, Inescapable is just like Cairo Time. I wanted to show the world a different portrait of an Arab man, an immigrant who has lived in Toronto for 25 years who finds out his daughter has been kidnapped in Damascus. With a well-defined character as a starting point, it’s not hard for me to go from a romance to a thriller.
PS: Why did you choose South Africa as the place to shoot a movie that’s set in Syria?
RN: Because the story is so political, there was no way we could shoot it in the Middle East. We went to Jordan to scout but it wasn’t safe, so we bought chairs, rugs, cups, water bottles and so on from Damascus and shipped them off to South Africa. And I bought the establishing shots from National Geographic.
PS: How hard was it to create the proper look?
RN: Very. Shooting in Johannesburg was exhausting. I was pursuing a certain aesthetic, and I didn’t want to compromise — everything in the frame had to be “Syria.” We only had a $4 million budget and 25 days to roll, so there was no room for mistakes. My sister found what seemed like every single Arab living in the city, and a Syrian woman to live with Marisa during the shooting.
PS: The process was two takes and done, I imagine.
RN: I wish. One take. But that’s part of being a filmmaker: you’re desperate to make your movie and you can’t complain.
PS: Even though Inescapable is a political film, you don’t deal with the Syrian government crackdown head on. Was that a conscious decision?
RN: Absolutely. I had to situate the story before the Arab Spring, because there was no way I could keep up with the changing political climate. Plus, I see Inescapable as a personal story: it’s about an Arab man who would go to the end of the world for his daughter. If I can give context to what’s happening in Syria right now, beautiful. But I also know you can get further with the public by being subtle, rather than by stating “Hey audience, there are eight-year-old kids being tortured in Syria. Please care.”
PS: This is the second time you’ve used Alexander Siddig as your leading man. What is it about him that keeps you coming back?
RN: As a director, you want someone you can have an easy rapport with, and I get joy from directing Alexander. He’s so loyal to me: the financing [for Inescapable] fell apart numerous times, and he never walked away.
PS: What was it about Marisa Tomei that made you believe she could portray a Syrian woman?
RN: I couldn’t get an Arab woman: I didn’t know anybody in the West and if I cast from the Middle East, they’d be reprimanded. Marisa is very Mediterranean; there’s something feisty and expressive about her. I sent her to Beirut for four weeks, where she became an Arab woman.
PS: Was it hard to convince her to do the trip?
RN: She wanted to go to Syria! I was like, “Marisa, no. If you go to Damascus, you’re not coming out!” You have to understand actors. You think I’m crazy? They’re crazier. Actors would give everything they have for a role.
PS: What about Joshua Jackson?
RN: Joshua was on Fringe, so we only had him for a short period of time. He flew 22 hours from Vancouver, started shooting the same day, and flew back five days later.
PS: How do you feel about Inescapable being labelled as the Canadian Taken?
RN: It’s not Taken! There are no sex slaves, and Alexander doesn’t shoot his way out like Liam Neeson — my hero is an ordinary man, he’s not good at fighting. The only aspect that’s similar is the missing child. But it doesn’t really upset me — I can’t control what people say about the movie. Plus, the comparison is cool for a Canadian film.
PS: What did you learn from the experience?
RN: This movie tested my perseverance. There were many times that it felt like Inescapable wasn’t going to happen. In the end I realized that, even if everybody walks away from you, it’s your job to never walk away.