Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja on her cinematic inspirations and journey behind the camera

The UAE’s first independent female filmmaker reveals why she loves to explore the dark worlds in her films and how she strives to create visual treats with them

By Asha Iyer Kumar

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Published: Mon 4 Dec 2023, 4:43 PM

Last updated: Mon 4 Dec 2023, 11:30 PM

That the modern woman is breaking glass ceilings is a cliché. Now women of substance write their own life scripts and screenplays. They create their own marquees to set their stories in and walk the red carpet with a peahen’s grace. Nayla Al Khaja, the first Emirati female filmmaker exemplifies the new-age woman who has found her voice and uses the larger canvas to tell stories close to her heart. On the eve of the premiere of her first feature-length film, Three, at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, she divulges why the thriller genre intrigues her, where she finds the inspiration for her stories and what the audience can expect from Three.

The first obvious question on the eve of the big day. How does it feel to have Three premiering at a prestigious festival in the Middle East? What are the emotions you are going through now?

It’s a big deal for me because it’s the world premiere of my first full length feature film. It is like your wedding night. I am super nervous and I am excited too. I really hope people show up. There is always that unknown factor. I hope it's received well. Of course, I don’t expect everyone to like the movie, but whoever does, I hope it impacts them and it finds a beautiful place in the world.

Is it the same with every film, the emotions of nervousness, excitement and anxiety all coming together? What does a filmmaker go through every time the ‘baby’ is born?

Yes, it is. There was one film that didn’t get the love it deserved and its place in the world – Animal. It was a good film and it was also my tipping point as a filmmaker. My directorial skills elevated in that film from an emotional point of view. And then four years later, a miracle happens – Netflix buys the film and it blooms again. So my advice to filmmakers and to myself is not to take the opening night or the first few months as the end game. A lot of films find a different market in different times. So always have hope.

Your films seem to follow a pattern in terms of theme with intense, dark human experiences (like abuse, oppression, mental trauma) taking the centre stage. Is it a conscious attempt?

Yes, these are coming of age themes. Kids are a dominant theme in my stories and so are dysfunctional families.

Three, which is a psychological thriller, deals with a young boy Ahmed. He is believed to be possessed, and his distraught mother is challenged by it. Is it a psychological premise or a supernatural one that taps into the fear factor in human beings?

I think I wanted to tap into the tapestries of fear and a mother’s love and how far she will go. People take wrong decisions when they are desperate for a loved one. Especially when it is for a child, they take even more wrong decisions because they are completely relying on emotions and it can actually backfire on them.

Many of your films are centred around children. What inspired you to come up with such themes? Are they from real life experiences?

Yes, the age of the boy in Three is 13, and it seems to be my running theme, in even my next film, Baab, the protagonist is a child. My previous film, Animal, was based on my brother’s life. He has been a pivotal point in all my films because his life impacted me a lot. My brother got really abused and went through a very harsh transformation which saw him transform from a quiet child to a maverick because of the atmosphere around. And I got away scot-free and I have been wearing the cross of guilt of just watching it.

Three is not essentially a ‘horror’ film, is it? It is a psychological thriller. Would you put it in the realm of psychiatry and science or that of parapsychology that deals with exorcism and other such inexplicable supernatural phenomena, because we understand the mother realises that a doctor cannot heal her son and finally finds a Mullah to cure him.

Personally, I would look at it scientifically, but I leave it open for the audience to decide. I don’t want to spoon feed them. If I say anything more, it will be a spoiler (laughs).

Do you intend to stay in the thriller/horror genre or would you do something different the next time?

My next film, Baab, deals with the five stages of grief or death experienced through the ear of a woman who has Tinnitus, the ear disease. It is magic realism, rather a horror fantasy that takes the flavour of an art house movie.

It is for this movie that you have tied up with AR Rahman for, isn’t it? How did this collaboration come about?

You know, it was very simple; I just texted him and he responded (laughs sheepishly).

Was it as simple as you make it sound?

Yes, I just introduced myself to him and said I was making a film and would like to talk to him. And literally in 48 hours, I was in his house in Dubai. He asked me what my favourite film was and I said, “I can tell you the first film that impacted me as a child and made me want to become a filmmaker. Indian film Boot Polish (1953).” He was so fascinated that I was talking about B&W cinema and we decided to join forces. For me he is a legend and it is very humbling to collaborate with him. For him too, it is very exciting because he will be composing in the Arabic Maqam which he is not used to and a genre that he hasn’t done before – horror.

How important is messaging in your storytelling? Do you make a conscious effort to convey something to the audience through your films?

Not at all. Some of my stories have social commentary for sure, but with my first and second features it is pure entertainment that I want to bring to the audience, in the sense that I love to take them into this gorgeous visual journey of dark worlds. And the reason why I like the dark palette over the light one is because with the dark palette, you can really play with the shadows. You can amplify the hues, give so much atmosphere.

Even Three is not a typical horror movie; it is a psychological drama. It is a sub-genre of the horror. With Baab too, it is the same. You see creatures; there is prosthetics; lobsters crying in the ceiling – it is a crazy visual movie. But it is also very poetic and romantically dark because it is about getting over grief.

Where does the story of Three come from? What was the inspiration?

It comes from a visceral place because I have gone through it myself; myself as in myself. There was a period when people would tell me what they have experienced with me and I am like, “What? That is not real.” And one day, it just went away. So, I took snippets of the anecdotes that I heard and wrote them down. And then, I witnessed someone else go through a very similar experience and I saw it from a third eye. I am very close to the topic because I have gone through it.

I was trying to understand the mother’s character in Three (from the trailer). She is someone who doesn’t know what is happening to her child or what to do about it. How did you sketch her character?

She is in a state of utter desperation and confusion and scared. For the first 40 minutes, nothing major happens to him, but there are signs of deterioration and decay in the child. She is questioning her life, herself. ‘Am I good Muslim. I don’t pray. Is this a curse? Did we get the evil eye? She carries all the guilt and because she is a single mom, she will get all the blame automatically. I was raised by a single mom. So I understand that.

Does the mother get a closure to it all at the end of the movie, because it is the mother’s story as much as it is the child’s story? Does she get rid of the crushing guilt?

Oh, that would give away the ending! (laughs)

Is the movie in Arabic or a mix of Arabic and English? And are there subtitles?

It is 60 per cent Arabic and the rest is in English, and yes there are subtitles in both languages.

Does Three instil fear, evoke suspense or offer pure entertainment?

(Takes a few moments to contemplate) I think it is a mix. At the end of the day, I want to create a film that is true to my voice and has enough leverage and components that can make it commercially viable for my investors.

There aren’t many films made in the thriller/horror genre in this region. Most of them are serious dramas. What are your thoughts? Where do you fit in in this new, emerging cinematic scene here?

Yes, most films made in the pan-Arab region make socio-economic-political statement about the condition of the people and their struggles. Actually, there is a big disconnect. There are either strong, festival type of films that do not find space in the cinema halls, and then we have the films in the theatres that are extremely popcorn that don’t need the brain. It would be nice to have a middle space, where it slides between the commercial and art, and I want to dominate this space. This way I can keep my integrity by giving it voice, the visual appeal and also make it entertaining for the audience. It is a struggle, but we can find a sweet spot for it.

Actor Jefferson Hall in a still from 'Three'
Actor Jefferson Hall in a still from 'Three'

AR Rahman in the new project, and Jefferson Hall of Oppenheimer and Game of Thrones fame in Three to play the role of the western doctor. How did you get him to sign up?

My producer contacted Jefferson’s agent and we offered him the role. He read the script and immediately said, “yes”. It was not very complicated to have him on board. He has such an incredible face for close-ups; he really has the presence. My producer also happened to know his agent, so that made it easier. With AR Rahman, the timing was perfect. He had just wrapped his project with Firdaus, the all-female orchestra, and to have a female filmmaker on board for the orchestra to play excited him. I think, if I had texted him five years ago, this wouldn’t have happened.

When can we expect Three in the theatres?

In February, although I am not sure of the date. It will be screening all over the Gulf; if it does well here, then in the wider Arab region; and if that does well, we will broker a deal with distributors in Asian countries including India, Indonesia, Malaysia.

Give us one reason to go and watch Three.

You must watch it because it is unique with its cross-cultural elements. It diverges from the clichéd horror types. It captures the rarely depicted rituals in the UAE and what’s more, it will treat the audiences to breathtaking cinematography.

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