The news of Faisal's rendition, a Saudi national disappeared off an airplane, are first heard in a ballroom bathroom. His fiancée sobs in a stall, "We were supposed to get married in Beirut. Oscar de la Renta made my dress." Her friend commiserates with her loss -- "Oscar makes beautiful dresses."
The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, Bosnian-Palestinian-Jordanian-Lebanese-British (try getting that through an airport) director and writer Zeina Durra's feature-length directorial debut, is a political comedy on identity, the Middle East, occupation and violence, and will be opening in New York on April 15. The film opens with Asya, a conceptual artist with an axis-of-evil pedigree similar to the director, posing nude for a self-portrait, wrapped only in a Palestinian keffiyeh and holding a cigarette. How she will manage to smoke with her face shrouded by fabric is a dilemma. As is the question of whether, as a Palestinian liberation fighter, she would have had the time or the inclination to have a bikini wax or not. When Asya's brother gets caught in Beirut while the Israelis bomb it to smithereens -- as happened as far back as 2006 -- and her cousin is rendered by CIA spooks, Asya finds herself caught between the petty glamorous world of the New York art scene and the very shadowy world where conspiracy theories are only the start of the story. There's a lot of truth in conspiracy theories, Asya says, lying in bed with her Mexican boyfriend who she's just had a bout of post-coital anxiety over (Are you CIA? No, he replies. Asya thinks for a second. Mossad?); it's the really crazy theories that destroy the real ones.
Durra weaves through her protagonist's schizophrenic life deftly and with a sense of humor that I had thought trademarked by Elia Suleiman among Arab filmmakers until I met Durrah -- absurd and darkly funny. Sitting in a limousine with an Old Dowager aunt to discuss the missing Faisal, Asya is placed between a serious looking civil-rights consultant, a poodle and a Filipino maid. "Habibti," her aunt warns her, "Remove the battery from your mobile, they can hear you while it's still in. Remember that. Linda, did you bring the petite four? Please offer them to our guests." Remarkably, for a multi-culti work -- there are Chinese, Arabs, Latin Americans, all subalterns -- no one is a caricature of themselves or their ethnicities. Perhaps a subtlety only a Bosnian-Palestinian-Jordanian-Lebanese-British filmmaker can pull off. No one approves of the Mexican boyfriend, though.
There's no question that the film is an indie treasure, stylistically shot on super 16mm film in 23 days. The Imperialists Are Still Alive! avoids the pitfalls of taking itself too seriously in that particular alternative, self-congratulatory way, instead making fun of those that do. Asya attends an environmental dance theater staged by modern artists from Chiapas where men leap about the stage covered in leaves -- "I am a tree," they bellow, "A NAKED TREE!"
The question underpinning The Imperialists Are Still Alive! isn't about Islam, terror or even conflict -- it's about resistance. And resistance can take the shape of many narratives -- the personal, the political, the artistic. In the backdrop of the Arab Spring, nowhere near the horizon when Durra wrote and shot this film, can a work of cinema like this one lend itself to the catalogue of insurgent ideas? Why not? If cinema is valuable to society as well as entertaining, then there are moments of lucidity that we carry forth from this film. There's the practicality of espionage: If they are watching us, does that mean that they watch our friends, our family, our communities (the storming of the notorious Amn Dawla State Security offices in Egypt would answer yes, rooms full of tapes and documents and files of yes answers)? There's the ennui of survival and displacement -- what do those who belong do when they find themselves outside the momentum of change? What role does an exile play?
One might look to Libya for answers where ad hoc newsrooms have been set up by Libyan exiles in America and Britain to relay the news of what is happening on the ground in Benghazi or Misurata to the rest of non-Libyan public. There are the suspicions they plant in all of us (who are they? They're usually the same in all our imaginations) that perpetuate inaction, indecision, doubt. There is the more practical side to having our faces obscured by cloth -- not oppression, but protection. Explaining her nude keffiyeh portrait to a group of movers, Asya explains that invisibility is necessitated, not by fundamentalism, but rather when you don't want the police or military to identify you. Like Subcomandante Marcos one of the men asks. Yes, exactly like that.
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