This past January, 10 years after her debut film, The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, premiered at Sundance, Zeina Durra was back in Park City for Luxor, her slow-burn romance set in the Egyptian city of the film’s title and co-starring British actress Andrea Riseborough and French actor Karim Saleh. Just a few months later, the London-based filmmaker, 44, followed the rest of the world into lockdown, and she is now experiencing the complexities of releasing a film virtually across the U.S. and U.K. (Luxor, just out, is available in selected theaters and online on Amazon Prime.)
The idea for Durra’s second film came to her not through a history book or a news article but in her sleep. “I went to bed and had a dream about Luxor and a woman walking around the temples and ruins,” says the British-born, Bosnian-Palestinian filmmaker, for whom ancient Egypt has always been a source of inspiration. “When I woke up, I spoke to one of my friends, who’s a cinematographer. And she said, ‘I think this is the film you should make.’”
Durra drafted a screenplay and quickly got the support of Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy (Paranormal). She was well on her way to getting the project made when her mother warned, “Just don’t get pregnant,” the filmmaker recalls. “Because that’s exactly what happened every time a film had come together previously in the last 10 years.” A month later, Durra, who now has three children, says, “I got pregnant!”
But Luxor did get made. It was filmed in Egypt a year later over just 18 days, when Durra’s youngest was three months old.
“The film is only 85 minutes long,” says Durra. It’s a precision that is consistent across her entire filmmaking process and something she learned when studying at New York University in 2005. “It was the only film school I wanted to go to because it’s the only one where you learn how to write a script, direct, shoot, do sound, everything,” she explains. “I’m always very involved in the editing. I sometimes grab the keyboard and just start going for it!”
Durra also studied Arabic at Oxford, and the film, a love story between a British aid worker and an Egyptian archaeologist, is also a love letter to the rich history of its setting: the site of ancient Thebes, the Pharaohs’ capital at the height of their power. Durra says she wanted audiences to be able to escape to somewhere different and be immersed in that world with her film, which continuously focuses the camera on this moving landscape. “I think unfortunately nowadays for audiences, the way the world is and the way our brains are now, working people don’t have the time for ‘slow’ films. Everything is so script-oriented.... You lose the strength of what an image can say.
“I wanted viewers to go to ancient Egypt, to understand these places and feel how they are still alive.”
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL