Filmmaker Interview: Imperialists’ Zeina Durra

Rooftop Films will be presenting a sneak preview of Zeina Durra’s hip, hilarious, fun, political comedy, The Imperialists Are Still Alive, this Sunday at the Ace Hotel. The film will open on Friday, March 4th, at New York’s IFC Center, and will also be available then on VOD, so come see it at the Ace and then spread the word about this Sundance hit when it hits the big (and little) screen.

Our show at the Ace is a free screening and Zeina will be there for a Q and A after the screening, but we sent her some questions about the film in advance, and here they are…

What made you want to tell a story that juxtaposed the War on Terror with New York glamour? What were you hoping to convey to an audience through this juxtaposition?

It was basically my experience in New York which is a magnification of the general tone of my childhood as well, however this was more intense. I was in New York during 9/11 and it was a very sad and scary time. Some friends of mine who were Saudi but had gone to Brown and lived in New York were stuck in the city and couldn’t leave for a month ( one would want to leave as there were round ups and it was a scary time to be a young Arab/Saudi guy in the States) as it would look suspicious so we had to “hang out and act normal” which made everything even more surreal as how do you a) act normal when you’re innocent it’s a strange situation and b) act normal when you realise what’s going to happen to the world as a result of 9/11. I was really interested in showing the fusion of daily life with the political and the surreality that ensues. Films rarely combine the political and ridiculousness of daily life and that was something that has always struck me. I didn’t want to separate the two, it was important to make this film this way and it was harder to make it this way as people kept on banging on about the tone of the film. The film has the tone I wanted but it wasn’t one that was familiar to them as people like to distance their reality from politics, when in this day and age that’s impossible.

As I was watching the film I kept thinking of the Henry Kissinger quote “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Why did you choose paranoia, justified and unjustified, as one of the main themes in this story? To what extent do you think an exploration of paranoia is intrinsic to an exploration of the War on Terror?

I love that quote! I was interested in “paranoia” as I’ve always been called paranoid by people who I feel don’t understand the world we live in, and it’s always frustrating but also at the same time can be a source of amusement because of the dynamic one can have with other people on this topic. The film wasn’t about paranoia per say, it was about how someone lives in a world where they have a different understanding, because of their nationality/exposure etc., etc., and how that affects them especially when obvious measures have been made to monitor that “type of person’s” behaviour. I think the War on Terror and paraonia go hand in hand and one has to realize that to understand at least one of the root causes of the philosophy behind the War on Terror. Of course the basic plan for colonisation and American Imperialism is there but it can be implemented by fear. I’m also from a middle eastern news family and so I grew up being told not to talk on the phone about anything like politics or opinions as when you’re from a news family the phones are almost definitely bugged! and if you say, “So what if they listen in?!” it’s not about that, it’s about anyone knowing things about you that are private and keeping your privacy.

What inspiration did you draw from for the character of Asya?

It’s embarrassing but the more I have to talk about it the more I admit that she’s based on pretty much my experiences! I used to pretend she wasn’t anything to do with me but after meeting me for 2 seconds it’s obvious! Although Elodie plays a much more charming version!

In the story we meet many different types of women, all dealing with the film’s tense political climate in very different ways. What specific issues do you think the War on Terror raises for women and for feminism?

Good question. Many different things are raised- they are nicer to us at checkpoints/airports which is HUGE as if you’re not Middle Eastern or Muslim you have no idea of how much they hassle you, especially if you’re male! Then it’s frustrating because as a woman people don’t listen to you as much they ignore your political chat which drives me mad and they always dismiss everything as paranoid. My favourite misogynistic line was once when i was at a dive bar in Tribecca ( when there used to be dive bars there), this old man at the bar said to me ( I was wearing a Keffiyeh scarf around my neck) “Why don’t you take off the Al-Qaeda and show us your titis”! The strong presence of women in the film was also how the story came out because it’s about this girl and her world and she seems to have a lot of strong female friends. I think there’s something great and special about strong women in New York.

The film is beautifully shot, and it has a wonderful eerie yet glamorous aesthetic, especially with so much of it taking place at night. How did you choose the time of day and the locations for each scene?

I really wanted it to be the New York I knew. I spent a lot of time exploring the city at night as only in New York can you have those wonderfully unexpected evenings full of crazy experiences and encounters where you don’t know where you’ll end up but you know it will be interesting. That’s how I spent most of my twenties and early thirties. Most of the locations are real places that I went to, like the jazz club in Harlem was a place I went to almost every Saturday night. I lived downtown for 10 years off the Bowery so it was my old hood as well and I love how you can mix high low ( uptown downtown) so easily in Manhattan – I’m in London now and that is just not an option because the distances are so far.

What is the purpose of the love story as a central plot device in the film?

I really wanted it to not be about the politics only but about how the actual politics and the emotional aspect of these political situations weave into the fabric of our daily life and how that is surreal. The love story was between a Latin American and an Arab as it gave the film a more universal tone, it’s like the world against the Imperialists! I also thought it was more fun for us to meetAsya through this sexy Latin guy rather than her fighting crime on the street which can become a little cliche! Also it was always painful and yet exciting to have to explain the Middle East to any of my boyfriends as it’s a mass of information to have to understand, but there’s also something lovely about taking on someone elses culture. However, luckily now my partner’s an American Iranian so he doesn’t need any tutorials/reading lists! Finally back to the theme of the universal, one of the complexities of the film is that both Asya and Javier are from the developing world and yet they are from the more privileged class which is also what they have in common, this complicates their struggle against the Imperialists! because the are linked to that system through their privilege.

What do you hope an audience takes away from your film?

I hope that it stays with them, images sitting in their head or little moments that play over when they least expect it, so that it opens a tiny part of their mind and helps them see where people like me are coming from. If they do totally get the story, then that it resonates with them. The most important thing is that it stays with them for a bit.

Are you a full time filmmaker? If not, what else do you do?

Yes I’m a full time filmmaker………

What is your next project?

A subversive English country house drama called CHINCHILLA KILLA, it’s a very funny film about a weekend in the country, think a modern day Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie with an Asya type character! Being trapped as a guest in a house party where you really don’t want to be and taking revenge in a rather ridiculous way.