Guest post by writer/director Zeina Durra of "The Imperialists Are Still Alive!" which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and has it's East Coast Festival premiere today at the Woodstock Film Festival. (Ted's Disclaimer: My wife Vanessa produced The Imperialists Are Still Alive! and all personal bias aside, it is a film I very much both enjoy and admire.) My experience in Salt Lake City airport pretty much sums it all up. The Homeland Security Immigration Officer asked me why I was coming to Utah. I told him I had a film at Sundance. He then asked me what it was called, I paused for a moment thinking that if I told him the title of my film he might not let me in -- but then my mind fast forwarded to an interrogation room scenario where they looked up the Sundance website and would see my name attached to a project called The Imperialists are Still Alive! So, I just said it, “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” and he said, “Sounds great, I’d love to see it”. Did I detect a secret amused smile or was he just generally a happy guy? we’ll never know and I walked off into the minus 20 landscape.
Even a Tagline ( a tagline is something that I have a disproportionate dislike for) would come in handy at US immigration. It's sole purpose would be to answer the question, “What’s your film about?” with pure ease and perhaps if there was a hook one would sell a few future tickets to the Homeland Security team. This is also a tough question to ask just before one is obliged to put one's hand on a filthy screen that takes your fingerprints. This is partly because it’s stressful to have to recount your film in a border situation and because if I don’t give them an answer or they don’t like my answer there’s always the chance that I may be shipped back to a country which I didn’t come from in the first place.
I always reply to the question of what my film is about with “It’s a love story set in New York” which it is, I’m not lying about that, and it works, it sounds sweet and fluffy with no hint of complexity, a bad “chick flick” falling short of a Woody Allen. It says let me into your country I’m adorable.
If my title causes so much trouble you may ask, why choose a title that may inspire a strip search? The reason is it's hard making a film about a character that isn't familiar to everyone -- how do you introduce her?
My central character, Asya, played by Elodie Bouchez, is a girl who can navigate most spaces, she doesn't fall into the usual yawn category of Middle Eastern girl who flips kebabs while trying to assimilate in a white suburb, grappling with the idea of whether she should wear the veil or not. I think one would find it a stretch to find a person from the Middle Eastern Diaspora who is not political from birth or politically aware.
So, in my case, I wanted Asya's left wing ideology that she was brought up with, to come across ( remember even the 70s, when she was born, still held some hope for Arab Nationalism and justice for the people before it was slowly replaced by sheer depression and helplessness). A solution for this was the title. The title would help introduce this from the get go.
My producer Vanessa Hope and I were stuck, we knew the title had to convey this. Then one day while sitting at Film Forum watching Godard's La Chinoise, a sub-heading came up, "The Imperialists are still alive......." and we nudged each other. It was perfect and we both knew it.
Ok, it's not an easy title but it says it all and the link between what Godard was talking about in La Chinoise was also very present in The Imperialists Are Still Alive! He didn't have disdain for his characters, his portrayal of them showed how he had empathy and yet he simultaneously satirised their situation.
There were naturally strong suggestions that we change the title, but nothing worked. We went through lists and lists. I remember looking and liking titles like, "Unmade Beds". It's often hard to know why one likes a title, in this case maybe it's because I'm bad at making the bed in the mornings and crumpled sheets always lend themselves to a french late 60s aesthetic, but anything lyrical just didn't do especially as it would precede the first shot of my film which is full on.
In this title search I realised that there are many titles like " The life and death of....", or, " The Life and times of...", or, " Death and life of....", there's perhaps a vague rhythm to be found in these safer titles "The x and x of xxx x" that may bring security.
It's hard to get people into the cinema and so there's a theory that if you keep it vague it doesn't limit the audience. However, perhaps the film world should move away from formulaic structures as titles are important and have an ability to convey so much. It's sad that the current trend to simplify and make things easy for an audience does not allow much room for originality. I was lucky as I had both a very supportive team and some creative control over the project.
If one let's some originality flourish we'll make better films that don't bore us by making us feel we're watching a screen-writing class (please note I am not arguing that all film should be highly experimental and plotless, I just don't want to feel restless during the majority of the films I go see because the plot and the need for resolution overshadow everything else).
In a test screening we had, one comment was, "I didn't know where the film was going to end up and that worried me." Isn't it worrying that nowadays the idea that one may not have psychic powers to decipher the conclusion of a film is a fear?!
It just seems that there's even less space for originality in the creative process and that's something that should be addressed. When I say originality I don't mean forced quirky scripts but fostering the idea that someone can tell a story as they see it without conforming to how others think things should be seen.
For those of you who’d like to watch a film where the filmmaker has to make it through US immigration citing the title, “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!”, a film about New York, partying and politics, art and alienation and a really sexy cast ( even if I chose them myself!) come along and see us at Woodstock on Friday 1st October at 4.30
Zeina Durra was born in London. She got her BA from Oxford and MFA from NYU's graduate film programme. The Imperialists Are Still Alive! is her first feature that she wrote and directed that premiered at Sundance 2010. She is currently working on her second film.