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SUNDANCE 2020 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Zeina Durra • Director of Luxor

“It's as if this film wanted to be made”


- We chatted to Zeina Durra about her Sundance-screened second film, the Andrea Riseborough starrer Luxor

Zeina Durra  • Director of Luxor

Director Zeina Durra took her second film, Luxor [+see also:
film review
interview: Zeina Durra
film profile
, to the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance. The New York Film School graduate's first film, The Imperialists are Still Alive!, landed in the US Dramatic Competition a decade ago. The impossibility of putting the London-born director into a box is reflective of both her mixed heritage – her mother is Bosnian-Palestinian and her father is Jordanian-Lebanese – and the displaced characters that populate her films.

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Luxor stars British actress Andrea Riseborough as a doctor taking a break from her work on the Jordanian-Syrian border. In the streets of Luxor, she bumps into an old flame.

Cineuropa: How did the idea for Luxor crop up?
Zeina Durra:
I had another film that was ready to go, but we couldn't get a small piece of institutional funding that we needed to put the funding jigsaw fully in place. I was distraught because it was falling apart. I had the flu, and I had a biochemical pregnancy. There were a lot of hormones flying around. I was sitting on my sofa in a reflective state, thinking about the choices people make and how they end up doing what they are doing. That night, I had a dream about a woman walking around Luxor, especially Luxor Temple. The dream had a lot of emotion in it.

What was the process of turning the dream into a movie?
The next day, I called cinematographer Zelmira Gainza, who is my friend, and I told her about the dream and said we could turn this into a film that could be made quickly and quite cheaply. While we were talking, it became apparent that there would be themes of nostalgia for a past when the world was a better place, before the rise of the right. I called up Mohamed Hefzy, the Egyptian producer, who was in London for the film festival, and we met for a coffee so that I could hopefully get some advice. I literally wrote down the conversation I had with Zelmira, and listed some themes and ideas and showed it to him. He liked the look of it and said, “Let's do it.” Then I wrote to British producer Paul Webster, who came on board.

Why Luxor?
I think it's a very spiritual place. It's a place where the past is really present, but it's also a contemporary city. It's a living city with a tourist population and a domestic, residential population, and it's got this amazing past – with many layers, not just Egyptian ones. It's a symbol of past, present, contemporary and modern, where the Middle East meets North Africa. It was also in the dream that came to me. It's as if this film wanted to be made. I felt like I was writing this collective consciousness, especially when I got pregnant with my third child.

Why did you make the characters childless?
That was the whole thing. I was thinking, “How did I get here with three children? What would life have been like if I had been doing something more radical, rather than being a mum who writes movies at home? What if I hadn't moved back to London to be with my boyfriend, now my husband?” If I had been in my twenties at the time, I would not have moved. I have friends who didn't go down that path. We were all in the same place, but they didn't make the same choices. The choice not to go the family route is just as valid. But sometimes, society sends you mixed signals, and it becomes a situation where we find ourselves a little lost at times. I wanted to explore that.

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