Zeina Durra's upcoming film The Imperialists Are Still Alive! is a truly groundbreaking feat. In it Durra -- herself a beautifully exotic woman with a plush British accent -- introduces audiences to intelligent, witty, unfamiliar characters few have really had the courage to portray in films.
Asya, Karim and Javier are three affluent immigrants living in the US, calling NYC home and getting the most out of the Big Apple. They go to private after-hours clubs where passwords are required at the door, move around in limos and Lamborghinis, and attend the hottest art events. These are not strugglers, the kind of Arab and Mexican characters we are now used to seeing portrayed in films, although each individual does come infused with their own baggage, which makes them even more likable. Durra, the writer and director, presents protagonists who live in the grey zone of real life, and even if their stories don't appear typical to us, they are very much real.
Durra's wit and penchant for an amusing sense of the absurd -- from her provocative first scene, involving a naked Asya and a conservative Iraqi family, to details like her leading lady's Hezbollah lighter -- all conspire to complete this innovative picture.
When I ask Durra how much of herself and her life are in the film she confirms, "The themes of the film are very autobiographical," and continues, "However the actual characters, especially the Mexican boyfriend [Javier] were worked on extensively so were not really similar to those in real life. Our actor, Jose Maria [de Tavira] made him far more charming and easygoing!"
While on the subject of the film's cast, Durra lucked out with award-winning French actress Élodie Bouchez, who brings a refined kind of sexual energy so important to the role of Asya, and so unlike the raw lustiness found in her American counterparts. The filmmaker was sure she wanted a French actress to play her complex leading lady, a visual artist of Palestinian/Lebanese/Bosnian descent born in Western Europe. Durra finds French actresses typically "are both artists as well as actors. Being an artist is about having an energy and a lot of the good French actresses have that." She met Karim Saleh, who plays his namesake with wit and charisma "at this Middle Eastern event at BAFTA and asked him if he was an actor. Spoke to him for five minutes and then offered him the role."
For the role of Javier "Jose Maria de Tavira came to my attention through some Mexican friends. I wanted an up-and-coming Mexican actor and he had just done this film Arrancame La Vida which was a huge hit." De Tavira's British lilt sealed the deal since, as Durra describes, "He had this English accent with a hint from up North because he had gone to university in England and had dated a Northerner and I love details like that." It is just such details which Durra uses confidently, to add "a comment on the globalized world I was trying to illustrate."
As is often the case with anything groundbreaking and different, Durra did not find a road paved with roses when she first tried to make her film. In fact, affluent Arabs depicted cinematically "was so hard to sell on so many fronts!" Potential producers wanted Asya to be non-political then political, which Durra confirms "is so unrealistic, as anyone who is Arab is aware of the situation. It would have been disingenuous to make a film like that." And then "the idea that she [Asya] was in this world that was very New York yet there were not many male or American white male characters was confusing for some producers."
A further test came in the way she wanted to tell her story. Very much influenced by "late 50s and 60s European cinema" -- the title of her film comes from the subheading of Godard's La Chinoise -- Durra wanted to tell her story not just through plot, but "through texture and locations, characters and dialogue and the juxtaposition of these things against one another." Her choice of 16 mm film adds a very special texture to her landscape and Durra's angles, the way she frames her shots are all part of what she defines as "the way one communicates how a character is feeling or what is going on." She feels "the way you place your shots together and what angle you shoot them from and what lens are a key part of directing and telling a story."
In the end, Durra managed to make her film the way she envisioned it and the contemporary, elegant, smart result opens at the IFC Center in NYC on Friday, April 15th. As an added bonus, the filmmaker will be there for a special Q & A after the 7:55 screening on opening day. The film is also available through Cable On-Demand.
I urge you to watch The Imperialists Are Still Alive! because its images and themes will remain in your heart and mind for weeks to come. After I first did, at a screening back in February organized by Rooftop Films, I walked away with thoughts and feelings that now redefine my own city and the people who inhabit it.
And if watching it creates a yearning in you for Durra's upcoming projects, not to worry. She's working on her next film which "is a subversive English country house drama called Chinchilla Killer." She gushes, "It's hysterical, think Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie set in the English Countryside...."
For the complete, uncut interview with Zeina Durra, check out TheAjnabee.com.