It’s fair to say that writer-director Zeina Durra, born in London, loves a challenge.
The Imperialists Are Still Alive, Her directorial debut! – whose name is influenced by La Chinoise by Jean-Luc Godard, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and explored the lively subculture of the bohemian Middle Eastern community in New York.
Now, almost a decade later, the new project by the filmmaker, Luxor, finds itself in the turbulent world of 2020 and revolves once again around the familiarity of Middle Eastern culture.
“My father is Arab, my mother was born there, so I definitely understand the sensibility – the pan-Arab sensibility,” Durra, 44, says.
“That gave me access, but I was also able to direct in my Arabic, which was interesting.”
The filmmaker’s latest work, as its name implies, is set in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor.
The meandering plot follows an English surgeon named Hana, played by Andrea Riseborough, who, after an aid mission in war-torn Syria, is trying to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.
She meets her ex-romantic partner, Sultan, played by actor Karim Saleh, as she recovers.
‘This was really different from my other job,’ admits Durra. It’s very hard to describe my other work because it’s so layered and there’s so much humor, but once you know what kind of director I am, you can’t see the humor.
He said, “I think the theme of being down is very universal; being weighed down by emotions and trying to figure out where you’re coming from, who you are and what you’re doing,”
This isn’t an easy topic, but… but… It’s a fairly universal experience, and that’s why I think this movie was the easiest I’ve ever made, in terms of putting it together, not on set, because it’s been eighteen days in North Africa, with a newborn, with all of our children.
Luxor is a film whose storyline is underlined by the great historical setting of the city in which it is set, part of a tale of rekindled interpersonal relationships, part of a reflective journey looking at the various ‘what could have been’s’ that shape life.
Durra says, “I was really down about a project that hadn’t been funded and that I had been working on for a very long time,”
That night, I went to bed and really thought about it—you know, when you’re having bad news and you’re thinking, ‘Well, how did that happen? ‘What decisions have I taken to get there? ‘
And this vision I had of this woman walking through Luxor, and she had this heaviness in her.
I woke up and told a friend about the dream and said, ‘Well, you know what, maybe it’s a movie, maybe? ‘”
Durra set out to find potential locations, armed with a concept, practically no money and a determination to make the film in spite of the continuing turmoil.
It was great – I had two days off for the whole thing. I was out a little longer; I think the training was in Luxor for just three weeks — two weeks.
I’ve been snooping around the hotel—the first time I’ve been back since I was around, I think I was twelve or thirteen.
“And I went through the service entrance, so I kind of found myself in the service area and pretended to be lost, and they led me into the garden.”
Creativity may come from the most unlikely locations, as is often the case.
It was frequent chance meetings with other guests that ignited Durra’s creativity, and as part of the low-budget filming process, he recruited hotel staff and guests alike.
It was just a lot of fun, because [improvisation]was the way the movie was made. People are there and you say, ‘Hey, are you going to come and be in the movie? A little bit, we’ll pay you.
“No one in the hotel was there except this old couple who said, ‘We’ve been coming here for forty years!’
This couple was in the service area and they were from a movie, literally. They were part of a party of archaeologists from the north, enthusiasts, and he was a walking stick in khaki, and she was this old lady.
“So all these little experiences really influenced the film.”
However, it’s always difficult, as Durra can attest, to recreate those brief moments of inspiration after the reality.
“When you’ve been given this gift for your scripts and then you don’t have the budget to fly people in, you look for people in Cairo, but they’re not the same,” he says.
You meet ex-pats who lived on the banks of the Nile, and they don’t have the ‘we’re a local archaeological geologist.’