When the trailer for Ruba Nadda's political thriller Inescapable hit the Web last month, the Web hit back. Commenters unleashed a stream of vitriolic feedback that even included death threats against the Montreal-born writer-director.
The movie – which will screen at the International Film Festival – is about a former officer in the Syrian military police who's forced to return to Damascus when his globe-trotting daughter goes missing there.
Nadda, who spent a considerable chunk of her adolescence shuffling between Syria and Canada, intended the film as an eye-opening critique of what she feels is a poisonous government regime. So when supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began attacking her viciously online, she felt less victimized than validated.
"It's funny, because I feel justified," Nadda said during an interview in Toronto this week.
"For years, people were saying that I was paranoid and crazy for feeling like this [about Syria]. Now I'm like, see? I'm not crazy.
"The comments were insane. Alliance had to dismantle the comments section because they were threatening my life," she added, referring to the film's distributor. "I was like: 'Aha! I was right.'"
In fact, that sort of affirmation – if we can call it that – has been common for Nadda recently.
The 39-year-old found herself sifting through piles of Hollywood projects after the success of her contemplative romance Cairo Time, a flickering slow-burn of a love story that won the prize for best Canadian feature film at the 2009 edition of the Toronto fest.
But none of the fledgling film projects cast Nadda's way elicited the same passion she felt for Inescapable. Nadda lived in Damascus on and off for four years until she was 17, and the paranoia and fear that came with living in a police state never left her.
That informed the film's script, which she started writing in 2007, but strands of her family's story also became knotted into the fabric. Her youngest sister's cavalier attitude about visiting Syria is reflected in Muna, the young freelance photographer whose detention by the Syrian government sits the film into motion. And elements of Nadda's father, a "very macho, overbearing teddy bear," influenced Alexander Siddig's quietly seething Adib, who is relentless in his search for his missing daughter.
Rounding out the cast, Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei virtually disappears into her role as Adib's jilted Syrian lover Fatima, while Vancouver-raised Fringe star Joshua Jackson applies his typical slippery charm as a Canadian consular official with a genial grin and murky motives.
But while Nadda points out that no one in her film can be trusted entirely, it's the forces left largely unseen that pose the biggest threat. In Inescapable, Nadda's Syria is a place where a dysfunctional government police force – accountable to no one – disposes of dissenters in a terrifyingly casual way.
"You just disappear," she said. "They ask questions later. They'll wipe out your family. They don't care. It's so steeped in my bones. The paranoia and the danger and everyone's watching you, and everyone's going to turn you in – that it just kind of seeped through my filmmaking with this movie."
For a long time, Nadda faced blank stares when she pitched industry types on the film. Most moviegoers can't place Syria on a map, she was told; they won't understand the subtle but persistent sense of menace.
Then everything changed. Last year, a civil war broke out in Syria in the wake of uprisings considered an extension of the Arab Spring, resulting in sanctions from a variety of governments, including Canada's.
Suddenly, Nadda was sitting on a project that couldn't have been more timely.
"I knew all along how dangerous the country was and no one ever believed me," said Nadda, whose next film will be a thriller starring Patricia Clarkson set on Ontario's Georgian Bay.
"People are like, did you know that there's like 20 different secret police agencies and they don't talk to each other? Yes, I knew that. Before, everyone thought I was out to lunch or I was being a paranoid Arab. … So I think the best thing that I can do is provide a context with this movie of why and what's happening there now.
"I'm just trying to shine a spotlight on this country and say, 'Hey, look at this country. It's terrible.' For me I think, I feel I can go to sleep at night."
On the other hand, security concerns stemming from the controversial film would lead many people to a few sleepless evenings.
Nadda says her family was uncomfortable with the film. One of her sisters worried that Nadda could be harmed, even in Canada. Her Syrian-raised parents, fretting for her safety, were similarly unhappy.
Nadda, who holds Syrian citizenship, concedes that each visit to the Middle East is fraught with stress because she worries she could be indefinitely detained.
"I don't know if I feel comfortable travelling to the Middle East after this – I'm kind of scared."
When she left Egypt after shooting Cairo Time, officials accused her of holding a fake Canadian passport and threatened to fly her back to Syria.
"That fear, I'll always have wherever I go. Every single time I go to the Middle East, I'm just scared. I'm scared that something's going to happen and I'm never going to leave."
And yet, even though Inescapable is an undeniably political film designed to rouse viewers to the smothering reality of life in Syria, it's also a twisty thriller that climaxes with a series of gritty action setpieces.
So for Nadda, the trick of Inescapable was making sure her message didn't interfere with the film's narrative momentum.
"It's still a movie, it has to be entertainment – I'm not a documentary filmmaker. It's a very difficult position to be in. You need to be telling your personal story but at the same time, I want to shine a spotlight on what this country is like – the president has to go down. He can't remain there anymore. It's unacceptable.
"And so," she added, "if I can help, just a fraction, in providing more insight into what this country's like, then I feel like I've done my job."