Interview: Zeina Durra

Zeina Durra is a Bosnian-Palestinian-Jordanian-Lebanese filmmaker who was born and brought up in London and spent her 20s in New York. Her first feature, “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” debuted at Sundance in 2010, and follows Asya, a young artist who shares the same ancestry as Durra, as she navigates through post-9/11 New York, while living in a glamorous world of fur coats, limousines, and private clubs in the back of noodle shops. I met up with Zeina while she was in town for the Biennale for a spontaneous interview outside KW.

I find it funny that we’re meeting here at the Biennale to discuss your film, which ostensibly deals with the 1%, while there’s currently an Occupy encampment set up inside. 

The film deals with more than just the 1%. It’s dealing with the multi-faceted life of someone who comes from an unstable place of political turmoil, but is brought up, like me, in a comfortable family, and the situation that that puts you in. It’s more nuanced. I try to deal with it in a humorous and self-deprecating way, revealing the absurdity of being in that situation. But there are many scenes which make it more complex, because one does have a bond with the 99% regardless of where you’re from. That’s just a basic human thing. So in the scene where Asya is sitting in the deli and listening to reports of bombings in Beirut together with the deli owners, there class and background don’t matter, because everyone’s in the same boat. The difference between her and them is that her family grew up with more luxury and access than the people in the deli’s family did, but they ultimately share the same pain regarding what is going on, and that’s link overcomes class and background.

In the film, Asya is convinced that the CIA has abducted her childhood friend Faisal, a Saudi Arabian, from a Houston airport. So although she’s living her life amongst the American elite, there is also a strong sense of distrust. 

There’s always a kind of tension. I was born and brought up in England, where I went to the top institutions like Oxford, and you’re brought up with the very grandchildren whose ancestors actually screwed up where you come from. I dealt with the complexities of that through the irony of being brought up with the people who created the situations. So in a way you never feel like you’re part of the that 1%.

Asya shares the same background as you, except for being raised in Paris rather than London. Is it safe to say her character drawn from your own experiences?

The characters in the film were loosely based on me and some of the people I know, but I see them almost like a voice of a generation of diaspora — People who are from a specific background, but are brought up abroad, and then assimilate.

Did you feel a responsibility towards an accurate depiction of Middle Easterners during the writing process? 

It was very difficult to write. People don’t want to know about a strong, successful, independent Arab woman who doesn’t seem Arab and could be anyone, because that means that the people they’re killing could actually be people like them. These kinds of attitudes are very patronizing — they’re about boxing people in. My film tries to smash those boxes. Asya is in so many you don’t know how to conceive her. That’s why it was so hard to fund, because there wasn’t a box I could fit it in.

To me the film seemed to be one big joke, punctuated by moments of seriousness.

It’s me talking about how absurd reality is, and it’s absurd for most people like me living outside of it in the West. What was really nice for me was when the Pakistani poet and write Fatima Bhutto wrote a wonderful review in the Huffington Post the following day. She’s someone who’s grown up with conflict in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so it’s important for me that someone who’s lived a more extreme version of what I’ve gone through can relate to it and use it as an example of resistance.

The reviews for your film were mostly positive, but there were some who seemed almost offended by its subject matter.

Bad reviews are bound to happen. Some people just won’t get your film, but when a review comes and says that there’s no self-deprecation or humour in it, it’s just that they didn’t want to get what I was doing. I think the film messed people up. Many people don’t like the idea of easy assimilation by people from a Middle Eastern background. It makes them feel uncomfortable when they can’t see the ‘otherness’ in people. This film shows the integrated other. It’s much harder to do an honest film about these situations and all these feelings that you have than to do a film about a poor immigrant that’s abused and has a kebab van. That’s much more palatable to Western audiences, as some feel much more comfortable looking at us from above.

Don’t get me wrong, films should be made about that, because it’s a serious valid struggle, but there are also other dimensions. That’s not my reality or experience, so I didn’t want to make a film about that. I’m more interested in the absurdity of life. War could be going on and I’m sitting in a cafe drinking a latte on the phone with my friend and hearing bombs go off in the background. That is the reality that I’m interested in.

What’s your next project?

I have a lot of projects on the boil, and I’m not sure which one will go first, but I’m hoping it will be a film called Antelope Nights, which will be set in Arkansas and will very much be my tone.