The Imperialists Are Still Alive! Filmmaker Zeina Durra, Uncut

The Imperialists Are Still Alive! opens at the IFC Center in NYC on Friday, April 15th and is also available through your local cable provider’s On-Demand program. I urge you to watch this film which is guaranteed to change the way you look at the world around you, in so many ways. But also, and very importantly, it will make you laugh at things you never thought you would find funny… That’s a rare combination in a film!

Read the interview below, check out a brief piece of mine about the film on The Huffington Post, and then book tickets for this Friday’s screening at 7.55. You’ll be treated to a Q & A with Durra after the film. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it!

E. Nina Rothe: You chose a very specific type of camera to shoot your film but also a very bold shooting technique, with the actors shot within a single, stationary frame. How did you arrive at those decisions?

Zeina Durra: I’ve always been more influenced by late 50s and 60s European cinema. It resonated with me from an early age. At film school you have the luxury to work out your language. I always communicated “filmicly” in this way and this film is a culmination of that. It’s sad that the power of film has been diluted by television as a lot of films by young directors seem to not understand the potential for communication of ideas and story that cinema has. I don’t mean ideas as in intellectual ideas but in the way one communicates how a character is feeling or what is going on the way you place your shots together and what angle you shoot it from and what lens are a key part of directing and telling a story. That’s partly been lost as people are so influenced by televison and  it shapes their languange vis a vis communicating through images.

ENR: Why the title? Did you ever think of calling the film with a different title?

ZN: We had some bad titles, I can’t even go into them they are so embarrassing. Then my producer and I were sitting watching Godard’s La Chinoise and this sub-heading came up “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” and we both knew it had to be that title. There’s something very brilliant about the way Godard deals with the complexity or the student revolution of ’68 and how he both satirises but empathises with it at the same time and I felt that really worked with my film. Also there is a lack of understanding, because of all the politicized religious movements in the Middle East right now, that the resistance movements in the area in the 60s up to the end of the cold war were very much influenced by leftist secular ideas. This was also something that the protagonist had been brought up with and I wanted to have some allusion to that when I introduced her in the first shot and the titles somehow makes that first shot work really well as it give some kind of a guidance.

ENR: The affluent, European bred Arab character is one we never see in films. How difficult was it for you to sell that idea? To get the film made, starring these two characters, both Asya and Karim?

ZN: It was so hard to sell the idea on so many fronts. People wanted her to be non-political and then political — but that’s so unrealistic as anyone who’s Arab is aware of the situation. It would have been disingenuous to make a film like that. Then the idea that she 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. Also the way I just wanted to structure the story in general was such a hard fight since the story was told not just through “plot” but through texture and locations, characters and dialogue and the juxtaposition of these things against one another. That’s where the honesty in the story lies and it’s sad that in today’s film world there is a lot of pressure for filmmakers to take things out. We managed to make this film on budget with everything I wanted in it but it was a struggle to make people believe that we could do it. I’m sure many a good film has been ruined because of this pressure to conform.

ENR: Speaking of the characters, the actors playing them. How did you decide to cast the three leads? Were they all your first choice?

ZD: Elodie [Bouchez] was suggested by my casting director. I didn’t know who could play this complex character but knew it should be a French actress as they 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. I was very lucky that Elodie agreed to do the film as she is excellent! I met Karim [Saleh] at this Middle Eastern event at BAFTA and asked him if he was an actor, spoke to him for 5 minutes and then offered him the role. It was a relief as I always found it hard to cast Arab actors as they are not normally like Karim. 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. He was also perfect as 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 as his Mexican accent is not very regional and sounds rather posh in an intellectual posh way but his English accent almost countered that which happens a lot when children go abroad to University and pick up accents that don’t mirror their own and that again is a comment on the globalised world I was trying to illustrate.

ENR: How much of Asya is you and is the film truly autobiographic?

ZD: The themes of the film are very autobiographical, however the actual characters, especially the Mexican boyfriend were worked on extensively so were not really similar to those in real life — Jose Maria made him far more charming and easy going!

ENR: Did your upbringing limit you in the way you had to portray certain situations?

ZD: Not at all, my family are amazing and supportive, we were asked what we thought about things from a really early age which is probably why I have so many opnions! The first shot of the film definitely shows I have no inhibitions in what I show on film. Not for a shock factor but I’m not afraid to show something I think is important.

ENR: What are you working on at the moment?

ZD: My new film, which is a subversive English Countryhouse drama called Chinchilla Killer -- it’s hysterical. Think Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in the English Countryside. The protagonist is invited to spend a weekend at a friend of her boyfriend’s grand English country house. Imagine a situation when you have to do something for your other half that you really don’t want to do. So she’s stuck in this house and it gets too much for her and she takes revenge! It’s very funny, a satire that explores English society and debunks this romanticism that most films about English “aristos”.

ENR: If your audience could take away on thing from watching your film, what would you hope that to be?

ZD: I really tried to just show these situations and characters in my film and let them play out without banging people on the head. It’s obviously from my perspective but I didn’t want to force it on people. My aim was to make a film to show people the way I see things and to hope that a tiny part of their brain will open and see things a little differently. I think it may be working as people go away and then tell me that they dreamt about the film for a week! Especially people who weren’t really on the side of a character like Asya going into the film.

Top image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

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