From the opening shot of artist Asya (Elodie Bouchez) naked save for a machine gun and a hijab on her head, one can tell that The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, written and directed by Zeina Durra, is looking to flip the victim image of Muslim women on its head with a subtle sense of humor and observation. The Imperialists Are Still Alive! tracks moments in the life of Asya, an artist of mixed Middle Eastern background who lives a rock’n’roll lifestyle in NYC with a hip crowd while keeping tabs on the missing whereabouts of her friend in Lebanon. She lives her life day to day, and Durra keeps the films fresh and fun by never making Asya a self-pitying martyr, nor making light of life post 9/11 for people of Middle Eastern descent in NYC. Elodie Bouchez (of Alias and The Dreamlife of Angels) plays Asya with a keen awareness of her surroundings and a deep inner life that isn’t always obvious on the outside.
I spoke with Durra and Bouchez last week in NYC.
What was the genesis of this project, how did you get started?
Durra: Basically, I went to film school because I knew I wanted to make films. I knew I had a lot to say, and I was really working out what was I about, what did I want to do, what did I want to make films about. And that’s how this film came about. It took me ten years. It’s much more a meditation, rather than it being a story, about how one navigates one’s world with this kind of crazy political backdrop. And if you take that to wider themes, it’s about how we basically live. In every moment there are sort of very big things and very trivial things. So how do we digest that in our brains as we’re walking around?
Elodie, what attracted you to this film?
Bouchez: First of all, what really matters to me is the quality of the script, because I’m very sensitive. I really loved the script when I read it and I totally got her vibe even though I didn’t know her yet. And I enjoyed the quality of the writing itself. And that was funny because right at the same time, I was deciding whether to do this big French comedy that I wasn’t so sure to be part of. [But] I really loved it [Durra’s script], and the two movies were going to happen at the same time, and I thought “That’s the kind of movie I really want to do.” Then I met her and knew that we could get along.
How was it learning Arabic for the role? Was it difficult or with relative ease?
Bouchez: Arabic is not an easy language, especially for the accent. But we worked really hard on it.
Durra: People think her Arabic is so convincing because of her body language. Because often when you speak a language, you don’t have the body language that goes with it, so it seems forced. People don’t understand – cinema’s all about body language. When you edit the finest details of body language, that’s what really gives away an actor’s performance. Because film has that magnified. So what’s really interesting about this is when Elodie would say something and we would all laugh, we’d say “Just open your wrist a bit more.” She would do it, and then it would look so much more real. That was really interesting for me as well, discovering how to teach her how to speak Arabic.
I enjoyed the multi-lingual vibe of the film, and how characters moved smoothly between languages very often as if it was nothing.
Durra: People who speak more than one language are often immigrants or super-educated. But what’s interesting in the film is that rather than focusing on the privilege that lots of languages can give you, nowadays, the world is so globalized that wherever you go, people really do flip between languages. And no one just speaks one language anymore, people just throw in different bits of other languages. And I’m really interested in how that’s evolving. I’ve seen it a lot in cinema. I’ve got my ears to the ground like “Oh, are they doing this too?” And in the last five years, a lot of films have been throwing in a bit more languages here and there.
I appreciated the relationship between Asya and Javier, and how they really understood one another, and being in America where their ethnicities may be marginalized by threats of terrorism or immigration fears. They seemed to find a bond together.
Durra: There’s definitely a true bond, and it’s enhanced by the fact that when you are living in the States, and you don’t have people around that can have that cultural understanding. Latin America, for example, is a perfect place to choose, because both Latin Americans and Middle Easterners suffer from similar prejudices. I had a friend, who was a lawyer, and people were like “Oh, you speak English really well for a Mexican.” He had a law degree! And we were at a really nice dinner party. And it’s like “Who are you, where did you come from?” Meanwhile, he and his friends have PhDs and have been studying law at Yale. That’s the kind of things that really kill me, and when you’re living away from home, it’s really nice to be around people that get that.
Is this film based on events in your life, or is it all fictional?
Durra: These are themes that I’ve been aware of or that I’ve been interested in or things that I’ve experienced. Luckily I haven’t had a friend abducted, but most things are worries that I have had, that something has gone missing.
Aysa’s life is split between two different existences, but at the same time, it’s one world.
Durra: That’s the thing, If I did a Danny Boyle split-screen, you’d have her brain split in two with one of her running around and one of her always concerned about her family and politics. But the challenge was to weave in my ideas about these themes, which were that you continue living, while you have all this stuff going on. Just because you live your life, doesn’t mean you’re not concerned. It’s unrealistic to portray someone living abroad who’s from a war torn country just sitting at home thinking of where they’re from. They get up, they have an interaction with someone while they’re grocery shopping. Whatever level you play it at, Asya has a ridiculous, rock’n’ roll downtown life, but you deal with the fact that you have to get up in the morning, you take a shower, you have lunch. And that’s how we live.
And often, a lot of white male directors do the “poor victim” thing, which is a minefield. I’ve often found that Western films dealing with ethnic minorities going through a struggle are often handled in a patronizing way. And it’s always the same story being told. It was very hard for me to have this cool, feminist girl who wasn’t having problems covering up or with a religious father — people just didn’t get it. It was hard to make, because we weren’t doing the classic “Do I go to college or do I help my father make kebabs?” People just didn’t understand.
The Imperialists Are Still Alive! is now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.