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Sundance ’10 | Zeina Durra Explores Cultural Identity in “Imperialists”

Sundance '10 | Zeina Durra Explores Cultural Identity in "Imperialists"

Director Zeina Durra heads to Sundance with her first feature, “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” The film concerns Asya, “a successful visual artist working in post-9/11 Manhattan [who] lives the life of the hip and glamorous, replete with exclusive art parties, supermodels, and stretch limousines, while she carefully follows the situation in the Middle East on television. Out partying one night, Asya learns that her childhood friend, Faisal, has disappeared—the victim of a purported CIA abduction. That same night, she meets Javier, a sexy Mexican PhD student, and romance blossoms. Javier finds Asya’s conspiracy theories overly paranoid—but nothing in Asya’s world is as it seems.” [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

“The Imperialists Are Still Alive!”
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Zeina Durra
Screenwriter: Zeina Durra
Cast: Elodie Bouchez, Jose Maria de Tavira, Karim Saleh
Executive Producer: Rami Makhzoumi, Matthew Chausse
Producer: Vanessa Hope
Cinematographer: Magela Crosignani
Editor: Michael Taylor
Production Designer: Jade Healy
Coproducer: Joel Blanco
91 minutes

Zeina Durra on her background and Sundance project, “The Imperialists are Still Alive!”…

I’m Zeina Durra. I was born and brought up in London. I came out to New York to go do the graduate filmmaking programme at NYU, Tisch School of the Arts and stayed on to make this film. I can’t pinpoint when exactly I knew that I wanted to direct, but I grew up in a television news family and so cameras and film were always around. Perhaps, I saw how frustrated my father was with censorship of the media and thought that you could perhaps get your point across more in fiction. I remember especially one incident during the Gulf War where my father wasn’t allowed to show the aftermath of a bombing of a UN bunker which had been used as shelter for Iraqi women and children on British Telelvision and how affected he was.

I’ve always been driven to get the other point of view out there since I was a young child, this probably stems from the fact that I have parents who come from rather misunderstood, tragic parts of the world, my mother’s Bosnian/Palestinian and my father’s Jordanian/Lebanese.  My parents ended up in London because the Middle East News Bureau my father ran was relocated to London due to the civil war in Beirut. So, as a result I’ve always been put into situations where I had to explain or defend myself from a very early age. My first film that I made was for my tenth birthday. It was called “Murder for Love” one can quickly tell from the title that it was not a film influenced by the works of Antonioni, Godard or Tarkovsky but perhaps something more in sync with “Dynasty” and “Dallas”!  I do strongly believe that art can change society and that combined with my love of writing, images and the challenge of making a film all inspire me to do this.

I wanted to tell the story of a woman who is of predominately Arab descent brought up in Europe, living in New York City in the way that I see her. She is not estranged from the Middle East nor an outsider in Paris or New York. She navigates all these spaces with familiarity and confidence. The idea that Arabs or Muslims brought up in the West find themselves constantly torn between their roots and their “Western” lives, has always annoyed me since I have never related to that conflict. The milieu in which I grew up produced a different type of person; a wanderer, who views the world as their home and all the things that other people may view as contradictions are simply normality for them. As a result the “contradictions” in their lives lose meaning and are transformed into a synthesis of experience. This film is also told through the perspective of a woman. It’s something I took for granted when I wrote it, being the product of a feminist education, I never thought twice about how different this character was to the normal portrayal of women on screen.

There are two main things that affect you when you’re related to the Middle East and living outside of it. The first is the threat of being suspected of being some sort of extremist, and thus facing rendition, harassment, the second is the ongoing political instability over there and being affected by war in countries where you have family and friends and the destruction of places you know and love. 9/11 and living in New York definitely heightened this sense of living in a state of dread fearing for one’s safety in the hands of being mistaken for someone else or just taken in because you don’t agree with  American policy. Lebanon in 2006 and living in New York was an example of how we’ve always lived with war and worrying about family, friends, and the thousands of innocent victims that are caught up in it. These things are always present and something anyone from a Middle Eastern intelligentsia background would have grown up with so they are representative of our experience as opposed to isolated examples. That’s why I chose to have these two political incidents within the framework of my film.

Director Zeina Durra. Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.

The story wove itself from here, with me juxtaposing scenes from daily life that I had witnessed or experienced and then weaving in the politics. However,  the scenes from daily life come from the way in which I see the world and from the things that interest me, such as class, the scene that I was moving in in New York – New York as a city and how it functions. The love story was important for me because it’s through falling in love with someone that you often see things about yourself that go unquestioned and it was a good way to show Asya’s make up.

I also chose a Latin American since from my exposure to that part of the world and having many friends in New York who are Latin American made me see how the issues with the Middle East also tie in with the issues of Latin American countries. For example,  Mexicans and other Latin Americans are often treated with the same disdain that Arabs are in the US, so it was interesting to play with two characters coming from privilege who find themselves in a country where they are discriminated against. It’s this idea of identity that I liked playing with in their relationship and the unspoken empathy they could have for one another but there are some things he won’t understand about her, like her by default familiarity with the world of espionage since it’s not as prevalent in his culture.

It was really hard to write this film as it’s about subjects close to my heart and I had to really be harsh with myself. I wanted to approach the characters with both empathy and satire. This is key to understanding the tone of the film. As I said above, when you find yourself a fusion of so many things there are bound to be “contradictions” but we don’t see them that way, of course one notices the absurdity but in a digestable way. This is something very complex that I had to communicate to be true to the issues I was dealing with in the film.  Life isn’t simple and that is what I’m celebrating in the film, the madness of it all and that is where both the humour and sadness come from in the film.

The method through which the story is told is very much a part of its texture. I wasn’t interested in simplifying the situation that my characters find themselves in, rather bringing all these different elements, be it context, location, emotional situation, political situation, wardrobe, nationality, encounters, to tell this story. This is precisely due to my fascination with the multifaceted moment that can be both funny and sad at the same time. I really tried to show that consistently throughout the film and it’s something that everybody can relate to whether they realise it or not, from whatever walk of life you’re from. We’ve all been in a situation when something grave has happened and yet something ridiculous or surreal occurs simultaneously.

Stylistically I was drawn to super 16mm since Asya is out of sync with her generation, she’s more in the spirit of the ’60s. It’s also a lighter camera to use and considering that we shot this in only 23 days, we had to be super fast, dashing around to get things on film. It was also very important style-wise to get the anthropological details of the art world right from the artists work that we used, Manhattan, locations, costumes, fashion styling, designers we used, background people, cameos from the scene, as these details and the faces tell the story.

Making a film from a totally new perspective about a group of people that not many people are familiar with and mixing satire with empathy meant that every single step was a challenge. It took a while for me to find a producer that would work well with me and Vanessa Hope was actually Head of Development for Original Media at the time. We met to talk about my film and she was the one out of all my meetings that understood what I was trying to do, and then she came on board. Berlin was a great support at the very beginning as they selected a 183 page draft for their Berlin Talent Campus Script Clinic in 2006.  Everyone was intrigued by the script but nobody really got it as it was a new perspective being done a in an unconventional way. The fight I had with form for the film was the same fight I had with making it, it’s a new voice and I basically fought hard for everything and that’s why I’m so proud of the film and everyone who helped me make it. We really were raising money and shooting in the middle of the financial crisis and we made it through in the end.

On showing the film at Sundance…

The film is very funny and so audiences will definitely enjoy themselves as well as enjoy the love story between Elodie Bouchez and Jose Maria de Tavira – their performances are amazing. New York plays a big character in the film with all its energy and eccentricity which is always appealing. I think once the audience goes home, the film will hopefully stay with them for awhile and make them think over time about the characters and situations in the film and hopefully some little part of themselves will open and they’ll be able to see things a little differently. It’s definitely a new perspective and something never seen before on film.

On her inspirations and aspirations…

There are so many films that inspired me to make this. Some in more direct ways and others more indirect. I’d say the cinema of the Sixties has always appealed to me and seeing as Asya, Elodie Bouchez, has the spirit of someone from the Sixties, it just seemed appropriate to think of those films, although those films always stay with me no matter what I make. A few would be, Godard’s films, Antonioni’s, especially “L’avventura” as he captures society so well in it, Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7” is key, Garrel’s “Regular Lovers,” “Annie Hall” (for the love story element) and of course anything by Fellini and of course Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers” kept on coming up subconsciously but that was more the energy and spirit of that film than anything more direct.

My next film that I’ve almost finished writing and which is funded, is a road trip movie set in Jordan. It’s about a group of cousins who grew up all over the world who go to their grandmothers funeral in Amman. They all get so fed up with the stifling city that they go on a road trip across the country. Jordan is a great place to actually see what’s happening in the Middle East as everyone congregates there, from refugees, spies, statesmen, NGOs, journalists, “contractors” and business men, so you get a good picture of what’s really happening politically and then there’s the obvious social/class angle that is very apparent as there’s a stark contrast between wealthy and poor with not much in between. We’re making it with Corniche Pictures in 2010.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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