For years, as she wrote the script for her new Syria-based film, Ruba Nadda tried to tell people about the terrors of the dictatorship where she had lived as a child. But it didn't really hit home until she went to the Middle East to scout for locations.
The Toronto director had imagined that she could shoot her film next door to Syria in Jordan, where the politics are more liberal. She quickly made two discoveries: Her script would still be heavily censored and her own safety would be in danger.
As soon as Nadda met potential Jordanian partners, her Canadian passport seemed to become irrelevant, and she found herself back in the tangled paranoia of Arab politics. "They accused me of being the daughter of the secret police, because they thought the script was so authentic," recalls the Canadian-born daughter of a Syrian father and a Palestinian mother.
The Jordanians also thought that she was crazy to even attempt to film so close to Syria. "All they saw was my Arab name. Because I have a Syrian passport too, they were worried that someone would abduct me and put me on trial in Syria for whatever reason they wanted. I had spent six years trying to convince anyone who would listen that Syria is a dangerous country, and now I'm sitting in a room with paranoid Arab producers who are saying, 'Are you out of your mind?' "
Nadda had already endured censorship – "constant tap dancing," she calls it – shooting her last film, Cairo Time, in Egypt. It was the success of that film that helped her secure $5-million in financing for her latest project, Inescapable. But it also convinced her that she would not accept censorship again – or threats to her safety. So she moved the set to South Africa, where she wrapped up 26 days of shooting this month.
Nadda, 39, lived in Damascus for four years as a teenager, and she based her new film on memories of a totalitarian state where spies are everywhere.
Set in January of 2011, on the eve of the Arab Spring that swept Egypt and then Syria, Inescapable is the story of a Syrian-Canadian man, played by British actor Alexander Siddig, who returns to Damascus after 30 years in Canada to search for his missing daughter. Other cast members include Marisa Tomei and Joshua Jackson.
Though it's more of a thriller than a political treatise, the film will shed light on the climate of fear and repression that ultimately triggered the uprising in Syria. "For years, I've been trying to convince anyone who would listen about Syria," Nadda says. "And all of a sudden, over the past year, it's been everywhere."
Siddig, a Sudanese-born actor who worked with Nadda in 2009 on Cairo Time, says the new film is not nearly as political as Syriana, the George Clooney movie in which Siddig also had a role. But he says it will help audiences understand why Syrians rebelled against a brutal police state.
In the film, his character's daughter is accused of espionage, and people are afraid to help him search for her. "It's riddled with danger, everywhere around you, and it's not even facetious danger, as in most action pictures," he says. "It's a really palpable, suffocating danger, in the many levels of the secret service. A lie is enough to get you executed."
The film is also a character study of an Arab father who will risk anything for his daughter. Nadda and Siddig are determined to rescue the image of the Arab man from the caricatures of most Hollywood films.
"I grew up with an amazing father, but Arab men have a very bad rap in North America," Nadda says. "So in this movie I wanted to show a different side to the Arab man, and I think I've succeeded. He's a real man. He's got his vulnerabilities, his rage, his despair – and at the end of the day, the most important thing to him is his daughter. My father raised his three daughters to be feminists. The Arab men that I know in my life are macho, yes, but they'd also go to the ends of the earth for their daughters."
With a report from Gayle MacDonald in Toronto.