DUBAI: Zeina Durra was a child when she picked up her first camera. It belonged to her father, a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist who ran the Middle East desk at United Press International in London. From a young age, she watched keenly as he and his colleagues collected stories from across the region, setting up his camera on the floor and pretending to be a news reporter just like them. She yearned to tell stories, but in her journey to becoming a filmmaker, she realized she should use the camera to tell the stories her father never could.
“I would always hear from my father how certain really important stories wouldn’t make the news, then you realize there’s so much more. You have these grand ideas about changing the world, and I thought that narrative was a much better way to do it,” Durra tells Arab News.
Her latest film, “Luxor,” tells one such story. Far from the news cameras that chronicle the front lines of conflict, it’s about a surgeon (Andrea Riseborough) suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) floating through the titular Egyptian city, haunted by her past as she tries to assess who she is and who she wants to become. Ahead of its Middle East release, it’s already become a hit in the UK — a film with themes that are easy to relate to as the world suffers through the traumas that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted.
“We’ve beaten some pretty huge movies (in the UK), and I think it’s really interesting, because I think the film really speaks to the sadness that a lot of us have at the moment, even though it doesn’t drag you down. We’re living in this very low-grade PTSD situation with the coronavirus and coming in and out of lockdown. Watching it, you just go on this journey with her. Then at the end, you, like her, cathartically have gotten rid of stuff as you watch, and are left with hope,” says Durra.
Growing up, Durra saw trauma manifest in the people she loves most, with many friends and family who escaped war zones or had been displaced from their homes only to find feelings they thought they’d buried come to the surface in the most mundane of settings. “It’s not necessarily seeing bombs falling. That’s not what triggers my memory of those things.
It’s more like being in a nightclub with a cousin who’s just arrived from Syria, and he is saying he has to leave because the sound of the beat reminds him of the shelling, and so we both go home. Or sitting in a café in New York while on the phone with a friend in Beirut who is describing how she can hear jets overhead, and you’re just having your coffee. I think that’s a very Middle Eastern thing. We don’t really deal with that, but that’s really part of our lives,” says Durra.
Since childhood, Durra has travelled back and forth with family across the Middle East and Europe. This year is perhaps the first time in Durra’s entire life that she’s been largely stuck in one place, struggling to sit still as she waits to see which potential filming location for her upcoming projects will open up first. Although her films are not autobiographical, Durra’s peripatetic lifestyle is reflected in her characters.
“My characters are, often, constantly on the move. I wonder if that’s because I’m the daughter of people that left somewhere that was troubled and moved here to the UK,” she says. “My mom’s also Palestinian-Bosnian, and she came from Beirut to London. I wonder, is that something that I’ll always have? Like, will I ever make a film of someone who is just sitting in one room? I doubt it. Because for me, I can’t understand what story that would be. To me, it’s always ‘You’re moving, you’re moving!’ And I’m wondering if that was me searching for something.”
While Durra’s films may always feature characters who are in transit, the way she handles that material has matured, as much of that journey has moved beyond just the physical world into the emotional and even spiritual.
“The first film I made was more rock and roll. It was a younger movie in spirit. ‘Luxor’ was much more about the other side of that,” she says. “There’s a deep, subconscious psyche that I was trying to deal with.”
Durra recently turned 44, and the experience has made her reflect, she says. Aged 22, half a lifetime ago, Durra moved to the US to attend the legendary film school of New York University, a dream she’d had since she was a child.
As an Arab filmmaker, the most important lesson she learned there were to trust her vision rather than to do what every other peer or teacher thought she should, especially if she was dealing with subject matter that others did not understand as well as she did.
“It’s really important to be kind to oneself. I just know that I really know what I’m doing. Back in the day, there’d be a lot of people that would say, ‘Are you sure you want to do it that way? Why don’t you do it this way?” In my head I’d say, ‘No, I don’t want to do it that way,’ but you listen to them anyway. Now I know what to listen to and what not to listen to,” says Durra.
“You have to work out that, if you have a singular voice, which you probably do if you’re from the MENA region, (you have to trust it). People from the region are still misunderstood, so you come from a place and you have so much to say, you have to find the right people to work with and listen to,” she continues.
For Durra, it’s people she met when she was 22 that are still her favorite collaborators, and her greatest champions.
“Don’t dismiss anyone that you meet, because you don’t know who anyone’;s going to become. In the end, film is tough. A lot of people don’t stick around and those who are still in it 22 years later, they’re pretty much in it, you know? One thing that’s thing that’s really nice is that all the people I’m working with I really have known for years.”
Without those people, Durra would not be able to tell stories that others wouldn’t, the stories that never make the news but are just as essential as those that do, especially in the Middle East. Durra has many more stories she wants to tell about the region. With a little help from her friends, she will continue to for decades to come.