Civilised Beginnings

Zeina Durra was born in London and educated at Oxford, where she read Oriental Studies, and New York, where she studied filmmaking at Tisch School of the Arts. After making her feature debut in 2010 with The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, she’s now back with her second feature, Luxor, starring Andrea Riseborough as an aid worker who meets a former lover when she arrives in the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor.

ASFF: How did Luxor get started?
ZD:
Well, I was really bummed out that a film I’d worked on for a really long time…I was told I’d have to wait a little bit to make it. I thought it was going to go ahead. And that night, I had this dream about Luxor and a woman walking in the ruins. I was talking to my cinematographer, Zelmira Gainza, the following day and I told her about my dream and she said ‘Maybe that should be a film somehow, a very simple film’ – which could be about a woman in her early 40s, grappling with things, and nostalgia for when the world wasn’t such a toxic place. And we riffed off it. She was just listening to me talking, and she said, ‘It sounds amazing. If you ever want to make it, I’ll shoot it.’

Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh appear Luxor by Zeina Durra, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

ASFF: Hana was an aid worker in a war zone. What sort of research did you do into that?
ZD: I went and did research at this clinic and I spoke to the doctors, and they were all so amazing. It was really interesting talking to them. It felt like they had this really intense energy, and perhaps they were escaping something themselves. I was really interested in that when I did those interviews; every doctor I interviewed, there was either a death or a divorce and they were going there to this border to fix things, and lose themselves – I found that really interesting and I thought that would be an interesting character to build.

ASFF: Has Hana sealed herself off emotionally from the world?
ZD:
I don’t know if she’s sealed herself off…in any situation, when you’ve been through something like that…you get on with daily life but there’s clearly a residue on you that you might not even be conscious of until you’re faced with it. I don’t know if she was even that conscious. She’s just living in it. She’s living in this pain, living in this thing, but if you asked her, would she talk about it? No.

ASFF: What drew you to Andrea Riseborough to play Hana?
ZD:
I thought she was an excellent actress. And my casting director said, ‘Andrea is the best person to do it.’ And I thought, ‘Great, if she’ll do it, that’s awesome.’ And then she did it and we had a really good working relationship!

ASFF: Your last film The Imperialists Are Still Alive! was ten years ago. Was it difficult to get your second movie off the ground?
ZD:
I moved back to London, which is not the most energetic place to make films, from New York. I had three kids. And I wrote a lot – I wrote five movies! And things were coming together but then I would get pregnant again. With this one, it was so funny. I’d written this and then I got pregnant and everyone was like ‘Zeina, this is always happens with you.’ And I said, ‘But yeah, I’m going to take the baby on set this time!’ So I just did it – I took him to set, he was three months old. So I managed!

Luxor is available on demand from 6 November. For more details, click here.

James Mottram