Meet Zeina Durra, Sundance's Most Fascinating Filmmaker

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From its lengthy introductory shot of the nude protagonist fussily mixing feminism, art and vanity to a cryptic, haunting closing shot I shouldn't spoil, a number of factors make Zeina Durra's feature debut The Imperialists Are Still Alive! among Sundance 2010's most fascinating films. None, however, make it more intriguing than the way it compels one to describe the indescribable -- starting with Durra herself, a London-bred, New York-trained filmmaker of Jordanian/Lebanese/Bosnian/Palestinean heritage. Imperialists! presents her alter-ego Asya (Elodie Bouchez), a successful artist in Manhattan with links to both the Palestinean resistance and upper-crust Western hegemony. Negotiating between the two with her tight circle of comrades, Asya falls in love with a Mexican lawyer/Ph.D candidate (Jose Maria de Tavira) and avoids the prying eyes and ears of spy agencies including the CIA, Mossad and Mi6. Oh, and it's a comedy. See where I'm going with this?

Or sort of a comedy, anyway -- kind of a Metropolitan for the 9/11 generation, with irony where the wealthy young entitlement used to be (Metropolitan director Whit Stillman even makes a hilarious cameo as a tipsy, past-his-prime party boy). The elements gorgeously come together through cinematographer Magela Crosignani's 16mm-camera lens, combining season, fashion, paranoia, romance, location and spirit in a completely original fusion of New York atmosphere I haven't been able to stop thinking about for a week.

Meeting Durra on Thursday only complicated matters. She walked into the Yarrow Hotel bundled in the same white faux-fur coat Asya wears in the film, her posh English accent weathered by non-stop conversation, Q&A's and chatter about Imperialists (which has yet to find distribution but would make a fine theatrical/VOD pick-up for someone like IFC Films). What followed was 15 minutes of the most intriguing discussion I've probably had since arriving in Park City 10 days ago -- if only because, as with the film, I wasn't sure what to make (or even believe) of Durra's tales of assassinations, kidnappings, class contradictions and a decade of story development. But whatever the case, she's nothing less than engaged with her material, which is one of the best of the festival's 2010 crop and one you'll be hearing about in the months -- and hopefully years -- to come.

Are you OK?

[Sitting down, out of breath] I'm fine, I just...

First Sundance?

My first Sundance with a film.

How are you holding up?

I don't know, I lost my voice. It's not even like I'm going out! I'm not partying at all. It's just like I'm talking so much about the film.

That seems like a good problem to have.

It is! It's a good problem to have.

I did really like the film, and one of the things that impressed me the most was that I didn't know what to make of it -- genre-wise, the characters' back stories...

I think "genre" is basically "auteur" work -- the genre basically becomes the auteur, right? But it's really hard when you're starting out, because you're not an auteur if no one knows your work. I reckon that the genre of my film will make more sense with the films I get to make. If you look at people I really respect, I mean... La Dolce Vita. What genre is that? [This is not a rhetorical question; Durra waits for a reply.]

I couldn't say.

Exactly! L'avventura. You could say it's a mystery, but it's not a mystery because nothing is ever solved. And in the U.S. today it would probably never get distribution.

So was that your intention with Imperialists? To make something undefinable?

No, no. My inspiration was just to make my film. I've always just wanted to make the films I've wanted to make. I really love my films.

What is "your film" this time around?

Ten years of me trying to work out what was going through my head. From film school until now, there just always been these themes. How do I get these themes out there? About living in the contemporary world, and how conflict affects us, and how my upbringing affects this, how my outlook affects people's reactions to me -- and their outlooks as well. People think, "She's paranoid." But I'm not paranoid; I grew up with this stuff. And when you really do, it's pervasive. You hear about assassinations. You hear about Mossad killing someone's Dad in the park in London. It's really normal if you're Middle Eastern intelligentsia living abroad. I know it's like, "Oh, that's so sensational." But it's not sensational; it's normal. And it's normal for a certain bracket of intelligentsia living in Europe. Especially in the '80s. There were a lot of assassinations going on then.

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I do like this as a thriller, but as a different kind of thriller. Like a relationship thriller, perhaps.

I didn't want to make a thriller, because my life isn't a thriller. Or forget my life. In the life of anyone in this world I'm talking about, there's this constant pressure that will never go away until all these conflicts are resolved. For me, it's unrealistic to just do a linear thriller because that's all I was interested in dealing with. That in itself, by the end of the movie, is boxed off. I wanted to deal with this constant tension that you deal with in your daily life. That's not just Middle Eastern, but anyone from a place of conflict. So I chose a Latin Ameircan, because really, a Latin American and a Middle Eastern, when they're in America, have the same sort of experience to a certain degree. Like the issues that people project onto them, the prejudice, whatever. I didn't want to make it just about Arabs or Iranians or whatever. I wanted to make it a more far-reaching thing when you add a whole continent in there, too. So it's Mexico, Latin America and the Arabs, too. That's quite a lot of people you've got.

Is that part of the motivation for shooting in New York, where all these cultures coexist so openly?

No. New York is just because I lived there for 10 years and it was so specific. Had it been in London, I wouldn't have felt so vulnerable -- because I'm from London. But I was on my own in New York. So the film really gave me a new perspective because during the time you're on your own, the people you mix with are a vulnerable group of people looking out for one another. Especially after 9/11.

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