It’s a common problem in Hollywood. The lack of women behind the camera (or in the editing room or writing scripts) is one hurdle faced by women in film, but another is the lack of roles for women, especially for women over the age of 40.
Director Ruba Nadda and actress Patricia Clarkson have teamed up to create projects precisely for those women. Their collaboration has benefited Clarkson, who at age 55 has had lead roles in two of Nadda’s films and will be the lead in a new miniseries Nadda created for HBO, Elisabeth.
“We so often have to play these secondary characters,” Clarkson said. “And sometimes they’re delicious and fabulous. But sometimes we want the weight of an entire project on our shoulders. If we fail, so be it. I want the opportunity to give from A to Z, a leading part. It’s a stretch. Every muscle in your body has been used when you’re done.”
Of her partnership with Nadda, she says, “Sometimes in this business, it’s fate, it’s kismet, and you meet someone and you realize, oh, I want to work with this person the rest of my life.”
Nadda, who is a decade younger than Clarkson, is Canadian born. Her father was Syrian and her mother Palestinian. Due to her father’s job, she spent her childhood living in many different parts of Canada, before the family settled in Toronto. Nadda studied literature at York University there. She never formally attended film school, although she did attend an intensive course at NYU.
There seems to be some confusion on the Internet about Nadda’s early films. She directed several shorts, including Lost Woman Story, Interstate Love Story, So Far Gone and Damascus Nights, but some sources cite Sabah (2005) as her feature film debut, while others list predecessors I Always Come to You (2000) and Unsettled (2001) as feature-length films.
For Sabah, Nadda says she got the inspiration to make the film after seeing a Muslim woman on a bus dressed in a traditional veil. The director wondered how the woman dealt with her sexual feelings and how she would have managed things if she began to have feelings for a non-Muslim man.
In the film, Sabah (played by Arsinee Khanjian) is 40, considered an “old maid” by her family. She lives with her mother as her caretaker. Since her father’s death, her brother Majid has been the family authority figure. Sabah begins to sneak away to go swimming, an activity prohibited by her brother, and at a public pool, she meets Stephen (Shawn Doyle), a non-Muslim.
Nadda decided to use an older woman as the protagonist since the character is limited by traditional Muslim set in stone household roles. Such a woman might feel a forbidden relationship would be her final chance for love and the director reasoned that the fear might tempt the woman to have an affair. Nadda wrote the script and the movie was filmed in 20 days in Toronto. “To me as a writer, culture and age is meaningless as we’re all pretty much the same,” Nadda said.
Her next feature, 2009’s Cairo Time, was her first project with Patricia Clarkson, who plays Juliette, an American magazine editor, who comes to Cairo to visit her husband, a translator for the UN. When her husband is detained in Gaza, he sends his former bodyguard, Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to guide her around the city. As they spend more time together exploring the bustling city and Juliette’s husband is more and more delayed, an unspoken connection develops between them. Instead of the illicit physical affair present in Sabah, it’s an emotional one in Cairo.
Nadda lets us watch as Juliette wanders the city, finding solace and beauty in a city many visitors cite as an overwhelming place of noise and action. “She trusts an audience’s intelligence,” Clarkson said of her director. “She trusts the audience’s ability to take this emotional journey. She didn’t want to rely on close up after close up. She could let the camera sit and rest. She trusted that our bodies would speak as loudly as our faces.”
Although the film moves too slowly for some, the simmering heat, both of Cairo and of Juliette and Tareq’s newfound connection, lingers in a viewer’s mind long after the final frame. Nadda said she wants people to feel something in the pit of their stomach after seeing one of her films and with Cairo Time, it’s a pit in not only your stomach but your heart.
“I want my movies, especially the ending, to stay with people long after the credits have rolled,” Nadda said.
Moving away from the romantic, Nadda directed Inescapable, an action film, starring her Cairo Time star Alexander Siddig, as Adib, a Syrian who must deal with his past in his homeland when his daughter disappears in Damascus. The action theme resurfaced again in her most recent collaboration with Clarkson, October Gale, which premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
“I’m ending this trend, I’m tired of it,” Nadda says, half joking of her recent film. “This one was really supposed to be a drama. It’s a very simple story, and then things happen to this woman. For me, it’s always about character. It always starts with an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary situations. I realized though that what I’m doing is a little too ambitious because when you have a very contained budget you can get away with a simple drama story. But then when you’re trying to have a chase sequence through a forest, and cranes, and weather, and lightning… I only had twenty days to shoot this, it turns into bit of a nightmare.”
While Nadda and Clarkson continue to fight for better parts for “older” women, Nadda has this advice for women who are looking to get their films made. “Don’t take no for an answer. Don’t let yourself get pushed around, and don’t be afraid to be the bad guy. Find a producer who will be there to back you up when things get difficult. Make sure you work with key crew that you trust. I always say, I’m a woman, I can’t change my sex. I can’t get angry about it. I’m too busy desperately trying to get my movies made. It’s hard work. There are no short cuts. If there were, I would have found them by now.”
Nadda’s HBO miniseries, Elisabeth, starring Clarkson, is set to premiere in 2016. “I do think that there are women out there, and men, who are still interested in the stories of middle-aged women,” Clarkson said.