In Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time, Juliette, a Canadian magazine editor played by Patricia Clarkson, travels to the Egyptian capital to rendezvous with her husband; when he’s held up at work, she resolves to go exploring on her own.

Her adventure is compromised, however, by groups of men who shadow her every time she leaves her hotel.

A solution presents itself in the form of her husband’s friend Tarek (Alexander Siddig), who takes it upon himself to become Juliette’s escort. These tense early scenes are based on Nadda’s own experience of being a tourist in Cairo.

“I would visit (the city) with my sister,” says the Montreal born filmmaker, “and it was impossible for the two of us to walk down the street together. We couldn’t be outside by ourselves.”

But Cairo Time is more than a critique of its eponymous locale: its honesty about the city’s deep-seeded, deeply imbalanced gender politics is tempered by a sense of optimism about its rapidly changing social landscape.

“I’ve been visiting (Cairo) since I was 11-years-old,” says Nadda, who spent part of her childhood in Damascus. “So I can also tell you about the changes there, and they’re all positive.

“Fifty per cent of the population is under 25. So there is a burgeoning youth culture that is driving Cairo forward. There is no secret state police there, nobody is afraid of being arrested. The population is able to complain about their president, and free to try and change things.”

Nevertheless, shooting on location proved to be something of a challenge: the director describes dealing with “10 different levels of bureaucracy,” including a “censorship minder” who visited the set and asked to sign off on each reel.

“Fortunately, my mother taught me to speak Arabic,” says Nadda, “so I was able to be a Canadian filmmaker and a local at the same time. That helped a lot. And the censorship wasn’t about what you might think — it was about making sure that the city is well-represent­ed to the rest of the world.”

Nadda adds that the real surprise was finding out just how interested the people she encountered were in learning about the rest of the world. “When we were shooting in the white desert,” she laughs, “we had Bedouins asking us about Seinfeld.”

• Cairo Time premieres on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. at the Winter Garden Theatre. It also screens on Monday at Scotiabank Theatre.

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