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.
Your film, too, is about a woman who's something of a dissident—in her objection to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and her post-9/11 paranoia. And yet she's a participant in the Western art market and New York high society, and I'm wondering if you think the movie represents her negotiation of this complex identity, or the process of her recognizing it as incompatible.
It's about complex identity. I don't think it's incompatible. This is how we live and that's the point. You can go live in a commune, grow your own food and make your own clothes if you want, and not participate, but at some stage you are going to have to participate with the systems whether you are fighting them or not. It doesn't mean you are conceding—one can still fight to change—just that everyone in some way, especially if one has particular ideals, has to brush against things that don't resonate with them (to say the least!). A lot of the comedy and surreality of the film comes from exactly this. It's about fusion. This has also been a strong theme throughout my life as I am from a more privileged Middle Eastern background. Ban Ki Moon has to sort out issues of genocide but I bet you while in the process of doing this he may pop out to dinner, order his favourite dish and then have a hot shower, maybe with his favourite shower gel. Life is surreal when you get down to those details. That's what I'm interested in.
Do you still live in the East Village?
I left New York 18 months ago. I was getting too dependent on New York. I do think that part of my leaving was because it wasn't the same town anymore, it was getting super cheesy. I went to Veselka last month and it was full of fratboy types. There were no more interesting folk with their homemade radios and awesome hairstyles sitting alone eating perogi. It was the end of an era!
Also on the political front living outside of the US is such a breath of fresh air. You forget how isolated you are in New York. New York's also a city for the ambitious and when you leave your brain panics but then you start to see things in a more lateral way. I still get comments from people in London, saying,"Zeina, you're such a New Yorker, that's such a New York thing to say," but after 10 years living here from 23 to 33, a super formative time in ones life, that's inevitable. I like the new perspective that living in London has given me.
In an interview you did last January you described your next film, which you were preparing to shoot in Jordan—what's the current status of the project?
I have that on hold as I have a more urgent project which was a culmination of my move back to England as everything hit me head on. Moving back to where you grew up is really interesting and tough. It's a country house drama called Chinchilla Killer and it's hysterical. Think Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie but in the English countryside; modern-day, none of this romanticism about the English Upper classes;"foreign" guests who are English but considered foreign as they're only second-generation. It actually ties into a lot of your questions here as it's about a"New England." If you've ever had to do something you really didn't want to do because of your other half, you'll get this film. The protagonist goes on this weekend in this grand English house because of her boyfriend. She knows people there but is not really into it as they are rather narrow minded. It all gets too much for her and she takes revenge! It's very funny. I'm hoping to make it soon, and am looking for funding so keep your ears to the ground!