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The Imperialists Are Still Alive! -- Film Review

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PARK CITY -- "The Imperialists Are Still Alive!" is an admirable film in many ways as its young writer-director, Zeina Durra, explores a subculture right before our eyes that remains mostly unseen. The film is fresh and funny, but it is also meandering, at times vague and defiantly uncommercial.

Indeed, the film's lack of narrative drive may ghettoize the film with exposure only at festivals and special screenings. Ironically, its one potential audience in the Middle East and the Arab diaspora will undoubtedly reject such a bold portrait of a Westernized and sexually liberated Arab woman.

The film in this sense reflects its maker: Durra's heroine Asya (Elodie Bouchez, who won best actress at Cannes for her role in "Dreamlife of Angels") is of mixed Middle Eastern ancestry, was raised in Paris and now lives in New York. She's a conceptual artist who enjoys satirizing and even mocking Western stereotypes of Arab women. In the movie's very first shot, she is having a male photographer take a picture of her entirely naked except for a scarf hiding her face.

The camera follows her through her life in Manhattan to gallery openings, underground nightclubs and avant-garde theaters in stretch limousines with supermodels and hipsters as party mates. What is most notable though is that everyone is from somewhere else and speaks multiple languages.

An Egyptian taxi driver comments to her in Arabic about her choice of male companion. An Argentine dancer has a Thai fan at the stage door. A Mexican maid offers her advice in Spanish. The heroine herself switches from French, Arabic and English on her mobile phone.

This is no story about a foreigner struggling to assimilate in American. Far from it: This foreigner and, in fact, all the foreigners, fit right in. It's Paris in the '20s and London in the '60s. They love it.

One night, Asya meets a Mexican Ph.D. candidate, Javier (Jose Maria de Tavira), and almost matter-of-factly the two begin to sleep together. He is amused about her paranoia. This is what dominates her life.

For it's post-9/11 in America, and being an Arab raises suspicions. When Asya's longtime friend disappears on a flight to Houston, the words "extraordinary rendition" is on everyone's tongue in the tight-knit Middle Eastern community. Javier kids her about her paranoia, yet she feels someone is watching her.

People do come and go at her loft apartment/studio and she uses toy guns for her art. Maybe someone has mistaken them for the real thing. Maybe someone wonders if the loft houses a terrorist cell. She dragoons Javier into helping her to ditch the fake guns late one night.

A great set-up for a thriller, right? Durra will have none of that. She beautifully establishes an environment, a mood and some very real tensions. But the movie just rambles on to the next encounter with a cabbie or gallery owner, then on to a club or party.

Durra doesn't explain much about her characters. Many give brief bios when they meet -- Asya does this seemingly every 10 minutes -- but that doesn't tell us who they are.

It's one thing to create a mood piece or character study; it's another to structure a narrative so haphazardly. Many encounters are completely superfluous. Others repeat things already seen or heard.

Despite the film's brevity, a re-edit would only help. A new title wouldn't hurt either.

The 16mm photography feels retro, but Durra says she shot her film this way because she feels Asya is "out of sync with her generation." If so, that doesn't come through in the meager story.

Durra displays considerable talent as a filmmaker here. (The script was developed at the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2006.) It just hasn't yet blossomed. But one can only hope that it does. We need more female viewpoints such as those belonging to Durra and Cherien Dabis who at last year's Sundance scored a hit with "Amreeka."

The good news is Durra already has a new project set up for shooting in Jordan later this year. Sounds promising.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: Hi, Jack Films in association with Corniche Pictures, Goldcrest Films and Tax Credit Finance
Cast: Elodie Bouchez, Jose Maria de Tavira, Karim Saleh, Rita Ackerman, Mariana Kulukundis, Karolina Muller
Director-screenwriter: Zeina Durra
Producer: Vanessa Hope
Executive producers: Rami Makhzoumi, Matthew Chausse
Director of photography: Magela Crosignani
Production designer: Jade Healy
Costume designer: Ciera Wells
Editor: Michael Taylor
Sales: The Film Sales Corp.
No rating, 91 minutes