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Sundance 2020: A conversation with the director and stars of ‘Luxor’

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Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh star in Zeina Durra’s “Luxor,” which was in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh star in Zeina Durra’s “Luxor,” which was in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Filmmaker Zeina Durra returned to Sundance this year with her newest film “Luxor,” starring  Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh. Set in Luxor, Egypt, the film chronicles the trauma of  Riseborough’s character, Hana, who is struggling to grapple with her past as a U.K. aid worker. As she rekindles her love with Saleh’s character, Sultan, and explores the city filled with forgotten memories, Hana begins to heal and process her experiences. 

Durra’s feature film, “Luxor,” premiered at Sundance Film Festival Jan. 27. The Chronicle spoke to Durra and actors Andrea Riseborough and Karim Saleh. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Chronicle: What drew you to this particular project?

Zeina Durra: I had just found out that a movie I was working on did not get made. I was just reflecting on my choices and that night, I had this dream about Luxor and all the emotions that are the basis of this film. And then I had a phone call with my friend, who is also the DP of the film. I told her about this dream and then she said “well, it sounds like an amazing movie. I’d love to shoot it if you make it.”

TC: One thing I loved about the film was how location and time played characters in themselves. How were you able to represent characters who were not vocal?

ZD: I think what is great about the place is that it is a place that is very reflective of our times. You have this ancient civilization that is super knowledgeable that then goes and disappears in a very tumultuous region. Egypt has been through a lot of changes recently. It kind of encapsulated everything: modern, ancient, birth, rebirth. 

TC: To what degree is this film a romance?

ZD: It is definitely an aspect. The guy does not save her. And it’s not about the guy saving her. It’s about you saving yourself. And then you are able to have that second chance. Only you can fix yourself. 

TC: I definitely understand that. One of my favorite scenes was when she was going through the healing process with the woman that owned the hotel. It seemed as though she was always watching the pivotal moments with Andrea’s character. 

ZD: There is always some character who has been observing you while you have been in a crisis. And they come in with one word of wisdom or two. And they kind of guide you in the right way. These people come into your life like little gurus and then they leave. And then they leave.

TC: An interesting aspect of the film for me was these moments of silence. You are watching her interact with her scenes and in a way, you become a part of it. 

ZD: There was so much amazing footage of that. It honestly could have been a three hour movie just her walking in amazing places. It was all about editing. You would have these scenes that weren’t actually long, and they were silent. It feels like there are a lot, but if you time it, it’s very limited. We were very disciplined about it. It’s like a trick you play on the mind.  

TC: Right off the bat, I just want to ask, why these roles? 

Andrea Riseborough: I think the truth of it. I think, in Hana, Zeina has written a character who is unashamedly educated and feels for the world, literally been piecing it back together, the flesh of it, on the border between Jordan and Syria. It is a film that is about a very small moment in time but it is a thing that is larger than the character I play. 

Karim Saleh: Intelligence. I think he cares - he cares enough to want to grow. The script was layered. It wasn’t trapping the place in one version of its identity, and it wasn’t trapping the characters in one version of their identity. It was supportive of the idea that peoples’ senses of themselves are vast. I love that for my character, he finds himself through love. The idea that love is a teacher, that love is cathartic, that love is healing — I think that is a powerful message. And I think it’s very true — chemically, emotionally and spiritually. It is that layering that drew me to the script.

TC: What was it like playing characters that have such distinctive pasts, particularly in these moments of silence?

AR: It is sort of like alchemy. Zeina tapped into something very deep when she put a group of people together that she did. There was a natural intensity that we felt that inside this place that holds so much history and is innately intense. In a way, the best thing to do was be silent and in so many ways, that told the story. Some things are far bigger than words and strangely, she wrote a script that captured that, which is a huge feat. 

KS: There were many things available to us that made us able to conjure up their history together. And in a weird way, the place we were filming was holding the echoes of our story somehow. It was as if Luxor had done its research or as if we weren’t the first two people to have roamed there looking for a higher form of connection. There was something available. It was palpable. 

AR: And Luxor is the sort of place that lends itself to being able to listen. Because if you listen, if you listen really hard, you keep hearing “I don’t know.” The questions keep getting larger and larger. Things just get larger and larger. It spoke volumes in itself. 

TC: What kind of research did you both have to do before filming or about the location you are filming?

AR: For me, images. Seeking out and pulling up as many images as I can of what my circumstances have been for the last couple of years. And to allow those images to sink in. I found that to be the most helpful thing for me, to imagine where Hana had been. 

TC: What are some ways you were able to improvise on your character and were able to have a little more liberty and freedom in how you believed they should be portrayed?

KS: On improvisation, I think when I met Andrea, immediately seeing her take her first steps into the character, there was a part of me that wanted so much to engage. And, any moment in which the structure opened up a little, it felt like letting horses loose through a gate. I wanted to know what rules could be broken in the silence. Improvisation really is an exercise in curiosity. 

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