06/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

At Tribeca Arabs Are Lovers, Not Terrorists

New Yorkers can be a cynical, surly lot, but when it comes to the Tribeca Film Festival they seem to embrace it with uncritical, proprietary fervor. They wait in the rain on rush lines, brave east-west traffic, watch a wobbly tyro effort with rapt attention. Partly, I think, it's in recognition of the great gift conferred on the city by Tribeca: in a culture capital where the number of screens for foreign and indie works have pitifully shrunk, the fest gives them a chance to see worthy, provocative features that are unlikely, in the current climate, to receive a theatrical release.

This past Sunday a huge crowd braved the soggy evening to converge on the stadium-size BMCC theater for a screening of Cairo Time by Ruba Nadda, who's just four years out of NYU Film School. A love story with an old-fashioned romantic sweep, it follows a magazine editor (Patricia Carlson, playing against type) who has come to Cairo to vacation with her husband, an employee of the U.N. After he's delayed by trouble in Gaza, his colleague, an attractive retired police officer (Alexander Siddig), acts as her guide through the city.

No surprise that they fall for each other. Yet Nadda's restrained handling of their romance rubs intriguingly against the grain of standard treatments of opposites attracting -- she cites Jane Austen as an inspiration; while Cairo in all its tumult and color becomes a character in itself. Still, I have a reservation about the casting: Carlson plays sardonic and snarky better than she does a passion-deprived wife.

At the after-party at Bar Artisanal on West Broadway I chatted with the film's co-star Alexander Siddig. The Sudanese-born English actor is broadly cultivated in a manner that eludes his American counterparts, who tend to have the intellectual depth of Megan Fox. It always pisses me off the way actors of Siddig's ethnicity and complexion are cast as terrorists -- "blowing up planes," as he put it, or "holding someone hostage." How refreshing and apt to see Siddig in the role of romantic charmer.

But I felt a little uneasy, I told him, with the film's portrayal of the Eastern male as an exotic, sensual object for a Western woman. Siddig agreed this was tricky material, then jumped into an analysis of Edward Said's "Orientalism," which argues (in case you wondered) that the West both harbors a longstanding prejudice against Arab peoples and their culture, at the same time that it romanticizes Asia and the Middle East.

A flashbulb went off behind me. We turned to watch the group posing for a photo. "Look, this is what's really going on," Siddig said, smiling delightedly. There was Ruba Nadda surrounded by a bevy of fellow Arab filmmakers -- one in a head scarf, another a platinum blonde -- currently all students at NYU Film School.