Of Syrian and Palestinian descent, Montreal born Ruba Nadda is known for her strong female lead characters who often find themselves involved in subtle and complicated narratives. She's never shied away from issues of race and diversity, starting with her first feature ‘Sabah’, in which a Muslim woman falls in love with a Canadian – against her family’s wishes.
After a stint of award-winning short films, Ruba went on to make several features, including the critically lauded Cairo Time starring Patricia Clarkson, which won Best Canadian Feature Film at Toronto International Film Festival and was Rotten Tomatoes best-reviewed film of 2010.
1. You come from an interesting background, two countries that weigh very heavily in the world’s political sphere right now. How does this affect the stories you wish to tell?
It's funny, I've been telling stories about my background (the Middle East) since I was 14, but really only until I made Cairo Time did it get easier. Audiences have a much better understanding now about this culture so there is almost a short hand whereas before, I was always trying to convince people of certain things. My culture is also so ingrained in me, I'm always drawn to Arab characters and Arab settings. But also, because I've lived in the Middle East from when I was really young, I have a great understanding oh how people live in other parts of the world, and that empathy really helps me as a director.
2. Let’s talk about female sexuality. There is a running theme of control/loss of control in your films. You have been quoted as saying ‘I don’t do sex, I do restraint’. What drives you to lean towards restrained sexuality?
I think for me the restraint is a lot more challenging to show then just straightforward sex. Restraint in the world we live in does no exist so much anymore. Romance and love - it's harder to find. People are busier and we live in a world of intense, immediate gratification. I have always been drawn to love stories - and the classic ones had natural restraint - for 2 lovers to get together in the olden days, there was class, cultural divide, religion -- very difficult for 2 people to actually fall in love whereas now, what keeps 2 people apart is not very much. And so for me as a storyteller, I like the restraint because it's much more challenging to tell this kind of story. Also, give the audience what they want but not at all costs. In my movies, female sexuality is there but again, it's shown and told with a female hand and a female perspective.
3. What has your experience been like as a woman in a position of power on set? Are there any obstacles that you have consistently come up against in your career?
This is interesting. I've had fantastic experiences (my experience in Cairo with the crew was magical) and sometimes, I have had great, great obstacles. I try really hard not to let it bother me because the reality is I can't change my sex and I am very protective of my voice. My voice as a writer and director can't lie and it can't get jaded, and so I can't - I refuse to let it bug me. I'm really good at what I do and I know what I want, and I get what I want and at the end of the day if you have a problem with me because I am a woman, that's your goddamn problem not mine. Of course I've had some difficulty with this - and encountered a ton of sexism, but I try to not take it personally. The truth of the matter is, my job as a director is not a popularity contest. You really just have to keep pushing through. I think of it like boxing. You go down, you get back up again. I try not to take it personally.
4. You had quite a prolific early career with your short films. Is there anywhere to view them?
My short films are still my little babies. I loved them. And I loved making them. You can find most of them on the extras feature in my movies (Cairo time, Sabah, October Gale).
5. Your films traverse the spectrum of what it’s like to be a woman. Do you feel you have an obligation to portray women in a certain light?
It's funny, I always see my hero as a woman - I guess because I am a woman and that's my voice and how I see the stories and how I tell them is also very female (in my opinion). I have a degree in English Literature so I try not to be too critical of what or how I approach telling a story. For me, it always starts with a woman, an ordinary woman caught up in an extraordinary predicament, always - and I go from there. There is something very universal about that.
Ruba Nadda is currently developing a drama at HBO starring Patricia Clarkson.