Sundance 2020 Interview: Zeina Durra on Realizing a Dream in “Luxor”

Less than 24 hours after Zeina Durra had her third child, she was texting with a colleague who quickly turned the conversation from personal to professional, writing the writer/director, “Oh my God, great. Congratulations. Now when’s the next movie?”

It’s a question that anyone who saw Durra’s 2010 electric debut “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” would’ve been just as eager to ask when she showed both a seductive and sly sense of humor and a cultural conscientiousness that’s all too uncommon.

“Actually, that text was so pivotal,” explains Durra. “I can’t explain it. That WhatsApp message is like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this.’ Because [my friend] knew I had this film. She knew that we had done the location scouts and it was all ready. We just had to go.”

In fact, the same could be said for audiences in regard to Durra’s second feature “Luxor,” an excursion to the sacred city in Egypt where Hana (Andrea Riseborough), a doctor whose spent the last few years of her life tending to those who have been injured on the battlefield in conflict zones retreats to do a bit of healing herself. After the filmmaker previously looked at an artist who questioned the value of her work at a time of war in her previous film, Durra flips the script to some degree by investigating what happens to someone who has sacrificed nearly every aspect of her personal identity in order to serve such a noble professional calling, yet she pushes the funhouse mirror effect even further within the context of the film to fascinating places, observing Hana’s history repeat itself after a chance encounter with Sultan (Karin Salem) on a ferry, allowing her to revisit some of the decisions she made the last time she was in town when she was in her twenties and the world seemed full of greater possibilities.

While it is said the past is always with us, it is rarely as alive as it is in “Luxor,” which can be appreciated as a vibrant travelogue, especially with cinematographer Zelmira Gainza’s exquisite camerawork and Durra’s ability to bring in vivid characters from all walks of life as Hana walks through the ancient ruins, but cuts deep as it burrows into her mind, creating sparks with all the connections that you can see gradually surface in Riseborough’s touching performance. Shortly before the film premieres at Sundance, Durra was kind enough to reflect on the experience of making the film, the energy she got from just going off and making something, as well as from the place itself, and defying western narratives of the Middle East in favor of something far more nuanced and unexpected.

So the last time we spoke for “Imperialists Are Still Alive!,” you said something that’s pretty interesting now in retrospect — “There’s always a struggle that any artist has or anyone that’s not like a doctor in a war zone has, which is how do you justify your day-to-day when there’s some crazy stuff going on.” After making the film about the artist, were you actually thinking even then about making something about the doctor in that equation?

That’s just always on my mind. It’s always on my mind. She doesn’t have the cozy house, but I was fighting it from mine with my two kids asleep. But I’m obsessed, so I went and researched it, like, “What makes them go there?” And I contacted the [Médecins Sans Frontières aka Doctors Without Borders], because I had another character who was this doctor in the film that hopefully will be made soon, and I went to the border of Syria during the war and MSF kindly let me interview the doctors there. Andrea is not a doctor from MSF in the film because there’s a separation, but I did go, and it was amazing. All these doctors were really intense and really brilliant, but you could see that they were escaping something from home. Either someone had died, or someone who just got divorced, and I found that really interesting. That they’re tackling some kind of inner story and they were out on the border.

How did you end up pulling the trigger on it as your next film?

It was the most random situation. I had been working on another film for a long time, and it was falling apart, so I was told to probably come back to it later and do something else because it was a complex film to make. And that night I went to bed and I had this dream about a woman who was walking around Luxor, and there were a couple of things going on in my life at the time. I had the flu and I had been watching quite a lot of old movies. I just got really nostalgic, and thought about the choices people make and what happens if they hadn’t made those choices.

I was talking to my friend [Zelmira Gainza], a DP who I’ve never worked with before on a feature, and I was telling her about this dream and how I feel like I want to make this movie. It’s quite nostalgic, but there’s a sadness to it and also this idea of rebirth that I just went on this riff with. Zelmira was like, “Well, whatever it is, I want to shoot it because it sounds amazing.” Then I thought I’m going to call this Egyptian producer I know and ask him, how much would it cost if we self-funded this thing and did it for nothing?” So I called up Mo [Hefzy], who was already was in town because he had a film in the London Film Festival, and he said “I really want to make this,” and called up Paul Webster, my main mentor who [said], “Sure, I’ll executive produce it.”

The only snag was I got pregnant two months later, so we couldn’t shoot until I had the baby, but then we shot immediately when he was three months, so he was on set with me – it was actually a very kid friendly set. Everyone was allowed to bring their kids. But it’s an indie film, so it was super intense.

Was the narrative structure difficult to crack? It really beautifully is able to bring the past into the present without flashbacks or any other story devices?

I’m all about layering. The height of development is really interesting to me because I have these images and ideas that then grow, and I met this amazing archeologist called Salima Ikram, who was really integral. She lives in Cairo and she’s a really important Egyptologist and it was through talking to her where she really got me into the mythology, and I really realized that I was almost not even writing this film myself. It was almost coming from a collective place, like I tapped into something. I was pregnant at the time I was writing it, so it was a really spiritual [experience] and in the first location scout, I had asked for my third child in the holiest temple at Bedos, which they talk about a lot [in the film], and he came right afterwards, so it was this whole mystical, amazing thing, but with the politics I always deal with, because it’s always there.

I wanted the audience to be able to escape somewhere different, but not escape the reality of our lives because that’s a cop out movie – an orientalist movie – which is not what I’m all about. I wanted them to go to ancient Egypt, understand these places and feel how these places are still alive. Salima said something really interesting to me that I put in the movie, which is, “These places have been worshipped for thousands of years, so they cannot not have this kind of energy” – people’s wishes, love, prayers, and everything, all this energy is everywhere. And if you think about how intensely these spaces were worshipped in, you can really see it.

You’re able to defy an orientalist narrative in part by bringing in other tourists Hana meets along the way, including a Chinese family that Hana encounters that seems quite authentic. How did they make it into the film?

It was a crazy shoot, like 18 days and I said, “Listen, I want a load of Chinese tourists” because suddenly they show up and they’re not from Beijing. They’re all these people from the provinces in these massive buses, and it’s really fascinating seeing them interact with this ancient civilization because it’s probably the first wave of people from the countrysides who have become wealthy recently. So I was asking the tour guides where these guys were from and I had seen this amazing tour guide, a woman who was in a leopard skin hijab and a cowboy hat, but the production wouldn’t let me fly her in because it was too expensive, so we found another guy who could speak Chinese, and that inspired the Chinese tourist thing [in the film] and instead of getting the Chinese tourists, I got a Chinese family that lived in Luxor and they had these two cute kids. It couldn’t have been sweeter and less stereotypical than actually having a Chinese family on holiday. It worked out perfectly.

Was the cab driver who brings Hana into town a real cab driver?

Yeah, they didn’t want me to cast him. My Egyptian producer was up for anything, but I remember someone going, “You can’t cast him because he has throat cancer.” He couldn’t really speak properly, but he was radiating warmth and he had this amazing look – it was leather jacket, his glasses, and he’s got a turban, and I thought [his voice] was actually quite a nice way to establish that [Hana] had known him, because [in the film] she’s like, “What happened to your voice?” so you really know that she knew him once and that she had been to that place [without much more exposition].

What sold you on Andrea to play this character?

Well, she’s brilliant, isn’t she? I needed someone who’s luminous, but serious, to play an aid worker, and that’s quite hard to find because her beauty isn’t distracting, it’s mesmerizing. That’s what I love about it, because she imbued the role with her pain and her existential crisis, and that hooked you. You just wanted to know what she was doing the whole time. You really need someone good for that, and we had a really great relationship. I think it’s because we’re both Scorpios. I joke about that a lot with her.

Was it difficult to film in these sacred places in Egypt?

It wasn’t difficult because Mo [Hefzy] is such a top producer, and a celebrity in Egypt. He’s president of the Cairo Film Festival, always on television talking about film. So we were able to get the permits, but we weren’t allowed to shut [locations] down, so we had to navigate all these tourists – crazy tourists, nice tourists, tourists in a bad mood, tourists who were curious, and tourists who didn’t care and would just speak over the whole thing. Thankfully, our sound designer is just a genius.

For more reasons than just canceling out noise. There’s some really interesting things you do to bring the environment into the film sonically as well as Hana’s inner thoughts. What was it like to work with?

There’s this amazing lab in Paris called United Post, combined with the composer Nascuy [Linares], who did “Embrace Of The Serpent.” Between Julien [Perez, the sound designer] in Paris, Nascuy, the sound designer Frederick [Le Louet], and the dialogue editor Alex [Durand], it was just ridiculous. I always work with them because they make sound fun, and they make it where it’s like a painting almost. They really listen to me as well and when I had questions they would help me because it’s funny, I’ve never really used score before, and I was always afraid of it because I was always taught it was a cop-out, but this totally needed score – not too much, not too little, and I was very disciplined about it. Luckily, Nascuy reminded me that I actually did play the piano and grew up knowing, but I was just shy about it. And he was so kind and open, and that’s the sign of a true genius.

He was so willing to share his knowledge and then listen to me when I’m like, “Can we take that note out?” It was a really great collaboration, and then when Julien mixed it, it was amazing. Everything was done in Paris, and because I have three kids, I couldn’t always be there all the time, so he would send me files, I would listen and just give pointers on what I wanted. I just kept on saying nothing orientalist. This is not exotic. I’m Middle Eastern, so I don’t want to hear lutes and Koranic things in the background, because that immediately puts it in an American movie [context] about the Middle East and even if it happens all the time when you’re there, if you put it in a movie, it suddenly goes over to a film about extremism, whether you like it or not. [But the mix] was just a really great moment for me. I feel like I learned something, which is exciting when you have been at something for a long time.

I can’t help but ask, but since you mentioned that kids were on the set, did that actually make the experience more special?

Well, it was comfortable to have them. It was a really indie movie, like beyond indie, so it wasn’t like there were resources like craft services or anything. But there were a lot of fun stuff where production drivers would make [the kids] birds out of paper and they would run around ruins, because the ruins were so big that we couldn’t even hear them. The DP and I put the kids In that scene when has Hana’s having that moment in the temple, I was like, “We’re missing something,“ so I called the hotel, and I’m like, “Get them over here now, please, and bring the baby.” From the gut, I created that whole scene with the kids – my kids and my DP’s kids. It was a really special experience. I can’t explain how amazing it was. And now I want to do another film there. I feel like I’m not over with that location, and it won’t be obviously the same story, but I had to direct in Arabic sometimes, and it was hysterical because I can speak Arabic, but I’ve never directed in Arabic before, and it was really fun. The whole experience was just really special.

“Luxor” will be available on VOD and iTunes on December 4th.