It’s safe to say that London born writer-director Zeina Durra enjoys a challenge.
Her directorial debut, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! – whose name was borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise – first premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2010 and explored New York’s vibrant Middle Eastern bohemian subculture.
Now, nearly a decade on, the filmmaker’s latest project, Luxor, finds itself born into the chaotic landscape of 2020, once again centred around the familiarity of Middle Eastern culture.
“My dad is Arab, my mum was born over there, so I definitely understand the sensibility – the Pan-Arab sensibility,” remarks Durra, 44.
“Which gave me access but also I could direct in my Arabic, which was interesting.”
As the name would suggest, the film-maker’s latest creative endeavour is set in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor.
Its meandering storyline follows an English surgeon named Hana, played by Andrea Riseborough, as she attempts to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of recent aid work in war-torn Syria.
While recovering, she comes face-to-face with an ex-romantic partner, Sultan, played by actor Karim Saleh.
“This was quite different to my other work,” admits Durra. “My other work is very hard to explain to people because it’s so multi-layered and there’s so much humour, but you can only see the humour once you know what kind of director I am.
“With this, though, I think being down is very universal; being weighed down by emotion and trying to work out where you’ve come from, who you are, and what you’re doing.
“It’s not an easy topic to execute but … it’s quite a universal experience and, as a result, I think this film was the easiest film I’ve ever made – as in putting it together, not on set, because it was eighteen days, with a baby, all our kids, in north Africa.”
Partly a tale of rekindled interpersonal relationships, partly a reflective journey looking at the countless “what could have been” that punctuate life, Luxor is a film whose plot is emphasised by the grand historical surroundings of the city in which it is set.
“I was really down about a project that didn’t get financed and I’d been working on it for a really long time,” recounts Durra.
“I went to bed that night, having really thought about – you know when you get bad news and you’re like ‘well, how did that happen? What were the decisions I made to get there?’
“And I had this vision of this woman walking through Luxor and she had this heaviness to her.
“I woke up and was telling a friend of mine about the dream and said ‘well, do you know what, maybe this is the film?”
Armed with a concept, next to no resources and the desire to shoot the film in spite of ongoing unrest, Durra set out in search of potential locations.
“It was amazing – I had two days off in the whole thing. I was out there for a bit longer; I think prep was only three weeks – two weeks in Luxor.
“I was snooping in the hotel – my first time back there since I was about, I think I was twelve or thirteen.
“And I went through the service entrance, so I somehow found myself in the service area pretending to be lost and they were guiding me to the garden.”
As is often the case, creativity can spawn from the most unlikely of places.
It was successive chance encounters with fellow guests that sparked Durra’s imagination, recruiting hotel workers and guests alike as part of the low-budget filmmaking process.
“It was just really funny, because [improvisation] was very much the way we did the movie. There’s people there and you say ‘hey, will you come and be in the movie? We’ll pay you a little bit.
“There was no one in the hotel except for these old couples who were like ‘we’ve been coming for forty years!’
“This couple were in the service area and they were literally out of a film. They were part of an archaeology group from up north, enthusiasts, and he was in khaki with a walking cane and she was this old lady.
“So, all these tiny experiences like that really informed the film.”
That being said, it’s often hard to recreate those fleeting moments of inspiration after the fact, as Durra can attest.
“When you’ve been given this gift for your scripts and then you don’t have the budget to fly in people, you look in Cairo for people but they’re not the same.
“You find ex-pats that have been living on the banks of the Nile and they don’t have that ‘we’re from a local archaeological society up north and we’re enthusiasts and we’ve been coming here for forty years’ [feeling], they have, ‘hey, I’m an ex-pat and I’m tanned and I love this place’.
“So, we went in, the place wasn’t locked down – it was a live set, there were hotel guests walking around – and we just asked them not to look in the camera.”
Luxor’s release comes at a time when both the film industry and cinemas alike find themselves trapped in a stop-start cycle as a result of Covid-19 restrictions – something that saw the project divert from a traditional cinema-based release to an online-only launch.
However, Durra notes that despite pandemic restrictions, US politics also has a part to play when it comes to the forces presently impacting the global filmmaking community.
“I have to say, I didn’t realise how much tension I was holding in my body for the last four years until the result,” she exclaims.
“I lived in America for almost twelve years and my husband’s from Texas … also, the politics there really affect where my parents live – the Middle East.
“It’s going to be very interesting, because a lot of my New York friends – that’s where I became a film-maker essentially because I went to NYU grad film – everyone has said ‘God, New York might be really interesting like it was when we first went there’.
“We were all there [during the] late nineties, early noughties, and that was a really interesting time…
“So, people are thinking maybe with the pandemic and now with the fact [Trump] is no longer there – with Biden/Harris coming in – it might actually be a really interesting time to be back there.
“It might be an interesting time everywhere for people to do more underground things.”
Luxor is available now via virtual streamings listed on modernfilms.com