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Oman News

TAS Weekly: Meet UAE’s first female filmmaker Nayla Khaja

In an exclusive interview with The Arabian Stories, Nayla Al Khaja, the UAE's first female film director, shares insights into her remarkable journey in the film industry, her experiments behind the lens, her intense passion for storytelling, her commitment to address social issues and her curious fascination to tread lines between reality and abnormality

By Meenu Prasad

Friday, March 29, 2024

Dubai: In a world where geographical and cultural boundaries are increasingly blurred, women aspiring to make a mark in their chosen fields need only shed their fears and embrace their pioneering spirit. Nayla Khaja, UAE’s first female director, embodies this philosophy, blazing trails and inspiring others to do the same.

While her debut feature film ‘Three’, released on February 1 across the GCC and Egypt, showcases her talent and versatility, her two shorts, ‘The Shadow’ and ‘Animal’, currently streaming on Netflix, add to her growing acclaim.

Nayla is making waves globally with her groundbreaking work. With upcoming projects like ‘BAAB’, a fantasy horror film featuring AR Rahman’s musical score, and ‘Magic Carpet’, an adventure film spanning continents, she continues to push boundaries. And, her production company, Nayla Al Khaja Films, keeps promoting local talent and cultural narratives while collaborating with international brands.

Recognized as a top-tier speaker advocating for women’s voices in the film industry, Nayla’s storytelling captivates audiences, tackling contemporary themes with humour and sensitivity. Her journey, from winning awards for her early shorts to being listed among Forbes’ top Emirati women, reflects her influence and impact in the film world.

Her dedication to her craft and commitment to empowering women exemplify her status as a visionary filmmaker and cultural ambassador for the UAE.

Read on to find more about Nayla Khaja’s films and her directorial ventures.

Tell us more about your journey and success, especially on becoming the first female director of the UAE. What is your message as a role model for other aspiring directors?

The inspiration to pursue a career in film direction initially sprouted from a deep-seated passion for storytelling through the cinematic lens. Witnessing the power of films in shaping narratives and influencing perspectives motivated me to embark on this creative journey.

As I trace my path, it becomes evident that my filmmaking endeavours are fueled by a commitment to addressing social issues. The selection of themes in my body of work is driven by a desire to shed light on societal dynamics, often choosing subjects that might otherwise go unnoticed.

I always tell people, do what you like the most. Do what makes you happy and fulfilled, the journey may not be easy, it could be challenging and difficult but the outcome should be your own accomplishment. 

To take the journey of fulfilment is taking the first step.

What motivated you to create this (Three) film? What was your inspiration behind the genre of this psychological-horror thriller?

Approaching ‘Three,’ I poured my passion into the project, navigating challenges and successes. Watching the film, I inevitably question aspects like scene execution, recognizing both flaws and achievements. I take immense pride in the outcome, grateful for the collaboration with talented actors, the dedicated team, and supportive producers who believed in bringing this vision to life. 

The significance of ‘Three’ lies in its representation of my storytelling journey and cultural narrative. The upcoming world premiere is a culmination of hard work, dedication, and the anticipation of what the future holds. The genre of psychological horror thriller always seemed fascinating to me as when you are watching the film in the same genre, the film sticks with you long after the end credits and sparks a discussion about the film.

The age of the character was greatly an unexpected combination. How did you train the child artist to absorb and process a character who is ‘possessed by three adult spirits’?

This is an inner character that Saud Alzarooni had to undertake, to be in the shoes of the character he is playing. The dynamics of Jackal and Hyde or Bruce Banner vs The Hulk persona seemed to resonate. The other personalities you may inexplicably get and it slowly takes over while you are powerless to do something. A puppet being controlled by evil entities, to observe the events from a third person perspective and wildly different acts of evil to cause mayhem and harm to others and himself…

As a director/screenwriter where would you draw a line between reality and abnormality in scripts and how would you distinguish between the extremes that a script could move?

The line depends on the filmmaker. Personally, in my body of work, I consistently explore themes related to social issues. When choosing these themes, I carefully consider what matters to shed light on topics that connect with how society works. Each theme is picked with the aim of making a meaningful impact through storytelling.

When deciding on themes, I try to bring attention to issues that might be overlooked or need a careful viewpoint. ‘Three’, for example, shows my dedication to exploring cultural stories and perspectives tied to my upbringing. Through storytelling, I want to make people think, evoke empathy, and help them understand social issues better.

The impact I hope for, through my work, is diverse — I want to start conversations, challenge how people see things, and ultimately contribute to positive changes. By addressing social issues in my films, I want to create a space where people can think deeply and talk about these themes.

Again, it comes down to the filmmaker; to look at some of the films that affected you deeply. It could be political, societal or personal challenges and how do those struggles reflect on you, the viewer.

The usage of subliminal messages has become popular in films, with most such films tasting hundred percent successes. What would be the possible psychological strategy behind a film to make it work?

There are many tricks, visual or auditory, to distinguish between reality and abnormality – though this does not reflect well on paper, it does during the editing process. However, reflecting the idea between the extremes is showing the normal or normality of the person in day-to-day activities and then intruding on the abnormal. The effects of the abnormal slowly ramps up. Some films like to include flashes of the uncanny or brief glimpses of the supernatural or abnormal.

As a filmmaker, what do you think will be the future of ‘Plot interpretation by reviewers/audience’?

The films that I make, even my previous works, explored such concepts that may be taboo, but I like to show the unfiltered perspective and use the medium of film to showcase it. The idea of plot interpretation by reviewers is one where I want viewers to talk about. With THREE, bringing this film to life was aimed to shed light on Islamic beliefs and the practice of exorcism, offering a perspective not commonly explored in cinema. Our focus was on showcasing the diversity of cultural beliefs across different regions of the world. 

I was drawn to telling this specific story because it harkens back to a vivid childhood memory of mine, where I witnessed an exorcism akin to the one portrayed in the film, albeit with some creative embellishments. Beyond the supernatural elements, the narrative delves into cross-cultural beliefs, themes of mental illness, loneliness, and explores the profound bond between a mother and her son.

Do you find any scope in the field of ‘deep script analysis and interpretations to mythology and subliminal’ becoming an autonomous career in itself, like ‘film reviews’ and similar established careers?

Oh yes, deeply. That is how you make your film timeless. Take the example of Citizen Kane, people and academics still talk about it, its inner meaning, techniques, ideas, etc. The film, when you look at it today, is not that interesting but back then it introduced new concepts to cinema. In today’s film selections, it is not so much as film technique or novel film making techniques, but showcasing subtle ideas and concepts within the film, either visually or by auditory means to show deeper meaning to the overall plot. It is about visual storytelling without being ham-fisted as a narrative tool. Film reviews do explore such concepts, with deep understanding of the film, where the film transforms from a narrative guide to high art.