Zeina Durra's first feature, "The Imperialists Are Still Alive!," follows Asya, a successful visual artist working in post 9/11 Manhattan who strikes up a romance with a sexy Mexican PhD student the same night her childhood friend, Faisai, goes missing. indieWIRE is pleased to reveal an exclusive scene from the film, which hits select theaters this Friday, April 15 through Sundance Selects.
WHY THIS SCENE?
Layering the complexities of how we live day to day was really important to me in writing and directing this film. I feel that often in today's American independent cinema, the focus on making a film accessible forces people to simplify things. However simplification can often take away the humor and complexity of a situation whether we are able to verbalize it or not; therefore taking away one of the strongest ways to communicate to people through a series of images and words. I love this clip as it deals with so many issues of class and culture and with the question of what is frivolous or not.
Asya is having her morning coffee in her studio and the lady who comes and cleans, Sandra, is about to throw away what she sees as a piece of crumpled up paper. Asya tells her not to as, "it's something she's working on" and gives Sandra instructions on where to clean to avoid that happening again. This immediately makes people cringe because of the seeming disparity in the situation.
UNDERSTANDING THE SCENE
The audience brings their own prejudices into the scene, interpreting it often as if I'm trying to show up Sandra's lack of understanding of conceptual art. But frankly, if there was a scribble on a scrunched up piece of paper on the floor, I'm sure anyone would probably throw it away if they were cleaning! Therefore that alone is an interesting look at the way people are uncomfortable at looking at class.
To add to this, all of us - whether someone's mother has come into their bedroom and rearranged things or a boyfriend has put something away - are somewhat territorial about our personal space and the things we have. Sandra then chats on the phone with her friend saying she doesn't understand what these artists do, why don't they paint flowers and trees, landscapes? Again I am not laying judgment on Sandra's inability to appreciate conceptual art but am putting her view in the context of Asya's life and how most artists probably question whether what they are doing is frivolous or not as ideas, especially when one is working them out can seem meaningless to others.
Sandra also says this in Spanish so that Asya can't understand her. I wanted to avoid crass exposition, as especially in situations where many languages are spoken, people often say what they mean in another language so the other person doesn't hear. It's like different codes. This comes up a lot in the film. Then, in walks Javier in his boxers, confidently walking across the loft as if he owns the place. He kisses Sandra hello and speaks to her in Spanish. Again the complexity of this act is what I'm interested in. He of course knows she's Latin American so speaks in his mother tongue. They are obviously from different classes but he embraces her as he would a friend but then this gesture is undercut when he asks her for a coffee, exactly as he would do at home to his housekeeper. Here we also have clues to his character background, a privileged left leaning Latin family, probably intelligentsia of some sort. So his politesse is undercut by his familiar attitude to staff. Yet all of this happens in a five second exchange. Then of course Sandra is not offended by his asking for a coffee as that is her normal interaction with someone like Javier. But she's horrified that Asya is with him, party for maternal reasons, partly perhaps, because she's had a bad experience with men from Mexico. She brings her own worries of single motherhood into the equation.
So in this short scene we touch upon many different things. This method also helped make my film richer by avoiding heavy handedness.