Arab by descent, reared in the West and educated at New York University across the Atlantic from her London home, director Zeina Durra found inspiration from her own background when she wrote and directed “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!,” which screened in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January and had its New York premiere earlier this Summer as part of the Northside/The L Magazine festival in Brooklyn, co-hosted by indieWIRE.
Durra’s film is set in the aftermath of 9/11 as the New York Arab community braces for a backlash. Asya (Élodie Bouchez) and her friends straddle the city’s downtown nightlife, reeling from the apparent CIA abduction of their friend as he was flying to the U.S. Asya, a fashionable French Manhattanite, embarks on an affair with a Mexican hottie, often hilariously confronting the clash between the contemporary values she embraces and the traditions and protocol of her heritage.
“This was like me working through my upbringing, dislocated from all this conflict,” Durra said on what had inspired “Imperialists.” “I grew up lucky, but still with the burden of coming from a background of conflict.”
While attending NYU in the wake of 9/11, Durra said she and her friends tried to keep a low profile, though that proved to be a challenge under the circumstances. “We were told to ‘act normal’ and [my friends and I] were at this club and we were seated there and nobody knew what to say. So we just sat there.”
Like the character Asya in “Imperialists,” Durra is a fashionable and outspoken individual with a strong creative streak, which she channels into her own experiences. Aside from the obvious 9/11 component to her film, which still has yet to find U.S. distribution, New York’s social and ethnic mosaic is also a running theme.
“It’s always something that has interested me as an observer and it came naturally in this story which is about and set in New York City where everyone is piled on top of one another and so forced to mix,” Durra said. “Then from a more intellectual standpoint there’s the idea that Middle Easterners (or any people) tend to seek solace with one another especially in times of crisis regardless of background.”
And while “Imperialists” honestly – and even hilariously – tackles not only the clash of culture, but even of social class, gender and generational divides set in America, Durra is now looking to transport similar themes to her next project, set in the Middle East.
“I have many stories I’d like to tell. I’m writing and just did a location scout for my next film in Jordan,” Durra said. Her next story will involve three cousins from New York and Paris who travel to Jordan to attend a funeral. “Everyone comes for forty days. Everybody is there – the people you hate and the people that hate you.” Durra noted that her next project will not only feature a group of zany characters thrust into a situation of social obligation despite their personal clashing idiosyncrasies and dislikes, but also hint at the general tensions in the Middle East.
“Rather than deal with genres,” she said, “I think that once I’ve made a couple more films, people who may not fully understand my voice – as it’s not one they’ve heard before – will [find it] easier to understand this world I’m exploring.”