The debut feature of London-raised Zeina Durra, which opens April 15, begins with artist Asya (Élodie Bouchez) talking out the political and aesthetic utility of a photo shoot in which she's clad in nothing but a keffiyeh and a Kalashnikov; the film maintains the balance of freighted symbology and self-parody throughout. The film, set in 2006, follows Asya through New York's art world and nightlife (featuring Whit Stillman in a priceless cameo as the demimonde's dubious all-time apex) and outerboro ethnic enclaves as a friend is snatched up by Homeland Security and Israel bombs Lebanon, where Asya's brother lives.
One motif in your film is the bond between two spheres of Middle Eastern transplants in NYC—between the artists and businessmen who pull up to a falafel joint in a Lamborghini (or is it a Ferrari? It's been several months since I've seen the film), and the people who serve them. I would expect class to create a greater division between the people on either side of the deli counter, but I take it that hasn't been your experience?
It's a"Lambo," as I learned from making the film. One of the reasons it was hard to make this film was precisely because the Americans I would speak to were shocked that classes would mix. I find that it's often the experience of people of other cultures living in a different place, that cultural ties are far stronger than class. Language, food, political understanding and music are great bonds and I see it all the time in my own experience and with that of, say, Latin American friends living in New York. When Lebanon was being bombed to bits in 2006 and I was on my own in New York, I would go and have tea at this Moroccan shop in the East Village. I wouldn't say anything. I would just go in, look at some plates and then sit down and chat about other things. But they always gave me tea, knew why I was there and we all hung out because it was a painful time and there was some kind of solace in that.
You give your protagonist a lighter emblazoned with a picture of a Hezbollah leader, and have her explain,"It's not about religion, it's about resistance." Have you seen many of the recent movies that've tracked the decline of leftist resistance movements and the rise of religious organizations—like Carlos, or Terror's Advocate?
Those are two films that I was so excited were made, precisely because all our films work together to give a context to these themes that have been somewhat overlooked, since they don't fit into how the Western world wants to see the problems. I want to make a film about how religion replaced leftist resistance movements, but more focused on the 1970s in the Middle East, particularly because I come from leftist intellegentsia parents, so it was really a core part of my upbringing and it's so sad that religion has taken over. What's also great is that artists like Emily Jacir are also dealing with these themes. She had a great piece at the Venice Biennale about this intellectual who was assassinated by Mossad in Rome in the 60s, shot through his copy of 1001 Nights (that he was translating into Italian). It makes our voices bigger and more comprehensible to the outside, which is exciting. And other filmmakers/writers/artists won't have such a hard time as I did making this film since the themes will be vaguely understood or have a reference point.