Zeina Durra’s ‘Luxor’ digs into themes of loss and love in Egypt’s ancient city

The film details a romance between an archaeologist and a doctor

'Luxor' stars British actress Andrea Riseborough, right and French-Lebanese actor Karim Saleh. 
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Aweek before this year's Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Zeina Durra is swamped. "Everything has gone mad," she says, with a chuckle. "Every single thing that could happen has happened." That sounds dramatic. But then this mother-of-three – her children are aged 7, 4 and 15 months – is having to juggle the daily rigours of parenthood and the launch of her second film, Luxor.

Returning to the indie festival in Utah, where her debut feature, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! premiered in the US Dramatic Competition strand in 2010, this time Durra is competing in the World Cinema category. "It's a very esoteric film," says the director, who cast British actress Andrea Riseborough as Hana, a doctor who has been working on the Jordanian-Syrian border.

"It came together in three days. It was very bizarre, how fast it happened.

While this might make it sound like a hard-hitting drama, Luxor is more in tune with the gentle rhythms of the Nile setting. Hana arrives for some rest and recuperation in the titular Egyptian city where she lived in her twenties. On a passenger ferry, she accidentally bumps into Sultan (Karim Saleh), an archaeologist and her former lover. As they begin to renew their relationship, it stirs up turmoil beneath Hana's glacial exterior.

The idea for the film came after a night's sleep, reveals Durra. "I had this dream about Luxor and a woman walking in the ruins." At the time, she was trying to launch a feature project that was rapidly falling apart. When she told her friend – cinematographer Zelmira Gainza, who would eventually shoot Luxor – they realised it would make a good basis for a feature, with a protagonist yearning for a time "when the world wasn't such a toxic place".

Durra managed to find funding through award-winning Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy. "It came together in three days," she says. "It was very bizarre, how fast it happened." Yet the key to unlocking it all – aside from securing the services of the "ridiculously talented" Riseborough (Birdman and Battle of the Sexes) – was being introduced to Salima Ikram, the Pakistani professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo.

"She's brilliant – if she was my professor when I was 18, I would be an archaeologist now," Durra says. "Her ability to infuse everything with joy, curiosity and knowledge, it was so wonderful … she'd open tombs up for us and we'd visit digs and hang out with the archaeologists." Spending time with Ikram and her colleagues gave Durra her own feelings of nostalgia for her time at university. "It really reminded me of my Oxford days – something I'd forgotten about since I went into the film world."

Director Zeina Durra attends "The Imperialists Are Still Alive!" after party held at Trousdale on April 19, 2011 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/WireImage)
Director Zeina Durra at the screening of her film 'The Imperialists Are Still Alive!' in 2011 in West Hollywood, California. Wire Image

Plundering Ikram's knowledge, Durra began to realise exactly how the themes of her story wove into the stunning history she discovered at Luxor Temple on the Nile. "It wasn't a coincidence that I had chosen to do this film about rebirth and turmoil," she says. "The Middle East, the Mena region, has been through so much that I liked the idea of this ancient civilisation that's always been there and been through these historical ups and downs … there were so many parallels."  

While the film runs to a brisk 85 minutes, as Riseborough's Hana wanders the corridors of her hotel and the Luxor ruins in an emotional daze, Durra grounds the story in realism. She spent time with real doctors who had worked in war zones. "They had this really intense energy, and perhaps they were escaping something themselves," she recalls. "I was really interested in that; 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."

So is Hana similar? Has she been forced to seal up her emotions? Durra talks about the “residue” that her character lives with as she gets on with daily life. “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. And then when she sees Sultan, it’s a reflection of her youth and what she was and how joyful she was when she was younger.”

Durra's own Middle Eastern heritage is an intriguing mixture – her mother is Bosnian-Palestinian and her father is Jordanian-Lebanese. Born in London in 1976, where her family had relocated due to the civil war in Lebanon, she made her first film, which she called Murder For Love, at the age of 10. It was inspired, she says, by the American soaps Dallas and Dynasty. Later, after her time at Oxford reading Oriental studies, she left for New York to study filmmaking at Tisch School of the Arts.

Getting her debut feature, The Imperialists Are Still Alive!, off the ground was a Herculean struggle. The story dealt with a chic female visual artist (with Middle Eastern heritage, much like Durra's) living among Manhattan hipsters. "A lot of men who were looking at the script said, 'Does this really exist?'" says Durra. "But I still get emails from people around the world saying 'I love her, I know this woman.'"

After her first film, Durra moved back to London, when she started her family with her husband. During this time, she wrote scripts, with the express intention of making her second feature. "Things were coming together, but then I would get pregnant again. With Luxor, it was so funny. I'd written this and then I got pregnant and everyone was like 'Zeina, this is always happening with you.' And I said, 'But yeah, I'm going to take the baby on set this time.'"

That's exactly what she did – relocating her children to Egypt, including her youngest, who was only three months old at the time. Now, Durra is keen to ensure that another decade doesn't pass before she makes her third film. After her time spent writing while raising her children, she has a stack of scripts to pitch. "I can't wait to go again … I'm so happy on set." But for the moment, it's back to the daily grind. "I have to go and get my kids from school."

Luxor will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Monday, January 27