Meet Nayla Al Khaja, UAE’s first female director

Oct/27/2021 / by ABHIJIT MASIH

Dubai is a swanky city, and home to the tallest building in the world. Most people mistake Dubai to be a country, whereas it is not even the capital of the country it is in — the United Arab Emirates. However, Dubai has put itself squarely on the map for all things glitzy and glamorous. Besides the tallest building, it is home to the largest shopping mall, the largest man-made island… And also to one of the pioneering Arab woman to venture into films, Nayla Al Khaja.

Nayla Al Khaja

Nayla Al Khaja is the first female film director in the United Arab Emirates. She has directed films, documentaries and numerous TV commercials for international brands such as Mercedes, Nike, Nestlé, and Nivea. Al Khaja is also a living argument for the presence of women in the movie world. 

Al Khaja took a break from her busy schedule of filming, to speak to SEEMA from her office in Dubai.

You are one of the first Arab female filmmakers. How did you get drawn to films and filmmaking?

Actually, it came from my father, because my dad is a film collector. He used to collect primarily Indian films — black and white ones. He had a really incredible and extensive collection, and I pretty much saw all of them. The film that inspired me and emotionally triggered me towards this field was an Indian movie called “Boot Polish.” It was nominated for an Oscar, and it summarizes the tragedy of life. How your luck depends on how you’re born and where you’re born. It showed me, at a very young age, how unfair life can be and, and how movies can really be an immersive experience that plays with all your senses. It can give you a lovely, panoramic window into many cultures and religions, and into people from different backgrounds.

What do you find most interesting about the process of filmmaking and direction?

In films, you’re working with a very high wavelength of energy. Besides, I thrive on chaos. I thrive on madness — and film is all about unpredictability. I like the fact that this industry has a lot to crush you, or elevate you, to make or break you. It is like Russian roulette. I think that’s what I like about it. In better words, it’s a sexy business. And I just like that feeling of being always on the edge. So I kind of like that madness that surrounds the film world. 

Female directors
Al Khaja on set

How would you define your style of filming?

Storytelling is so powerful. You work with so many personalities, you’re juggling around so many people, and you’re also exposed to different artists. So you’re exposed to many art forms. That is the kind of filmmaking I like. The kind, that, if you pause a scene, especially in my latest two films, you can see the art there because it’s very atmospheric. They look like paintings. So I really want to bring my foundation of art into my love for film.

Two of your short films — “Animal” and “Shadow,” were lapped up by the BBC. How did that happen? 

They really liked it.

You never know what the ethical reasons are for people to choose films. It is not because of their artistic excellence alone; the topic should be relevant as well. It is about mental health and narcissism. “Animal” is about an iron-fisted father who controls and dominates the household, and how that impacts the children in that household. They really liked it and made an offer. So I was very happy to have it there. After all, it is one’s ultimate dream is to have a film or series on a big OTT platform.

Your film “Alexandria Killings” is about the first women criminals of the Arab world. Oscar-winner Terry George is directing it now. What is your role in the project? 

I love the story. It’s about the first female serial killers in the Arab world to receive capital punishment — in 1921. They ran brothels and they had dirt on everyone. And when the British left Egypt, their empire crumbled and, hence, they resorted to murder. I just thought the story has so much depth, and a lot of layers. We were able to pitch it to Rocket Science in London. They really liked it and signed me on board as a creator of the show. Rocket Science subsequently presented it to Terry George, and he loved it. This is the guy who has written “In the Name of the Father,” and directed “Hotel Rwanda.” The fact that he liked my material was very humbling for me. So George took over, and he became the show-runner. I still retain my executive producer credit, and I moved my entire rights for a good amount of money. 

In the last 10 years, the UAE has emerged as – and has promoted itself as – a filming destination, especially for Hollywood, with films like “Fast and the Furious” and “Mission Impossible” being shot there. Why has the desert country turned into such a hot location?

That is true and nice, but the country is missing a very important heartbeat, which I believe if they focused on they could have a thriving industry. So the films are never filmed from A to Z here in the UAE. This is because we don’t have enough crew and cast to fulfill those roles. Hence, productions tend to admire cheaper locations with better crew, like Casablanca, Georgia and Eastern Europe. It’s very hard for the UAE to compete against cheaper places, especially with the experience and sharp crew members with a lot of feature film experience [that it has]. If films become a priority here, [the industry] will really skyrocket.

Female director on set

Nayla Al Khaja filming a short narrative film directed for Dubai Culture as part of the project Soul Dubai

The West still has a preconceived image of women in the Middle East. Arab women are considered limited by opportunity. Would you disagree?

We should stop using this as a ground for others to fill the earth. We should be creating our material. I don’t blame people for thinking what they think if we’re not aggressive enough, and if we’re not pushing our narrative, our stories and our perspective. If [we don’t] then somebody else will be saying it for us. And they’ll say it the way they want to say it, not the way it should be said.

What were the challenges you have to encounter as a woman in this field?

There are a lot of challenges. I don’t think being a woman is a challenge, as much as being in a place where the industry is not thriving. It’s hard for everyone, regardless of your gender. As a matter of fact, maybe it’s even better to be a female because there’s a huge push for women empowerment in every field. So perhaps it’s not a bad idea to become a female filmmaker. 

Women directors

You mentioned that you are working on a feature film. Tell us a little about it Ms. Al Khaja.

So my film is called “THREE,” like the number. It’s, in fact, a trilogy. It’s really a mental health story, a psychological thriller slash horror film, based on a true story [about something] that took place in the UAE in the 1990s. I co-wrote it with Ben Williams, a writer that I cherish, from Louisiana. We finished the screenplay a few months ago, and we’re going through it with a fine tooth comb to make sure it’s perfect. Jomon Thomas, who produced “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” and is producing “Monkey Man,” is going to produce my first feature film. That’s quite exciting.

How do you manage both film and family? How do you take out time for your twins?

The other day, I heard my children calling my husband “mama,” and I got worried. I have a boy and a girl, and one thing I don’t compromise is weekends. On weekends, I give them my undivided attention. It’s quite difficult, but whenever my schedule is calmer, I do end up spending quite a bit of time with my kids. We have our French Fries Fridays. We dance with them and give them a bit of freedom with television. 

Nayla Al Khaja with family

What kind of cinema do you like, personally? 

I love film festivals, but the coronavirus is not [helpful]. I miss watching a lot of indie films. I also like watching documentaries. I don’t like making them, but I love watching them. I think my taste has changed. [Earlier], I liked a lot of commercial films, but now I find them really boring. I like alternative cinema now.


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