When we get a chance to interact with Nayla Al Khaja, the first female Emirati film director and producer, just ahead of the UAE’s Mother’s Day (March 21), the conversation naturally sways towards her lovely 15-months-old twins, Noah and Dana. “They love to dance, and this is the first time that I’m giving an interview where I can show off my babies,” she says. Well, motherhood is not just a journey of a lifetime but an emotion, and Nayla, as a mother, woman and an artist, is happy to share it with her children. Currently, she is working on two feature films and a series. She is also working on a children’s adventure film themed along The Goonies meets Indiana Jones. “It is a film set in the 1600-1800s where children go back in time. It has a time travel element and is done in a Middle Eastern style. The crux of the film is that the children will do everything they can to return home. The theme is familiar, but the treatment is fresh, and I am excited to be part of it,” she says.
We’re tempted to ask if as a filmmaker there a movie she wishes for her twins to watch on growing up. “The children’s films I watched as a child to start with. One that impacted me was Boot Polish, with lessons about valuing things and the importance of parenthood. I’d also like them to watch The Goonies and, of course, my film, which I hope they can watch by the time they are six. That is my single biggest motivator — thinking about how cool it would be for them to be able to watch a film I made,” says Nayla, who is not just an award-winning filmmaker, but also a cultural consultant and a motivational speaker. And while her kids are far away from understanding gender stereotypes, she shares how she will treat them equally. “They will both be offered the same access to education and treated equally. I hope they will understand we care about them both deeply, respect their needs and will always be there for them.”
Well, not just at home, Nayla’s work is also known to shatter stereotypes and when asked what’s the one taboo she wishes we outgrow in 2021, she says it would be not to find reasons to justify when someone is treated poorly, either by verbal or emotional abuse. “We empower and enable by staying quiet. I would love to see more women standing up for their rights, even if it’s smaller comments that seem harmless. It is important to step up quickly when a line is crossed and not feel embarrassed or shy. Rather, I believe we should all get used to feeling uncomfortable and by calling people out on their inappropriate language or behaviour. This will generate real change, foster respect and ensure people are not mistreated,” she says.
She shares how it was quite early on that she knew she wanted to be involved in the arts, probably when she was eight. Nayla was exceptionally good at painting and drawing, and all her teachers had her in the advanced art classes and notified her mother about her skill. At 13, her work got printed in newspapers and some of it was even sold. “Though, at that point, I didn’t understand films and had no idea that I’d pursue it when older. That realisation came much later,” she adds. Ask her what the difference in the thought process is of making short features vis-a-vis full-length feature films and she is quick to sum it up as, “Day and night. A short can be anything from two to 20 minutes, but usually, 15 minutes is the sweet spot as that’s the length, which is perfect for film festivals. Short films have a short lifespan whereas a feature film has longevity. In general, a short film is used to demonstrate your skill set so you can raise money for a full-length feature film. With feature-length films, you can distribute and/or sell them and there is a greater chance of getting your money back.”
The focus is back on the arts and Nayla agrees that it was especially during the pandemic that we realised that we needed arts more than ever. “In times of crisis, people question their mental health and look at finding ways to express their feelings. I believe we heal our own emotions by expression and the arts offers us an opportunity to voice our feelings. Whatever medium you choose to pursue — and remember you do not need to be particularly good at it — you can feel happier and experience an inner joy, which provides an important release.” Her work too was badly affected by the pandemic as they worked in big groups, and it is not viable to adhere to strict social distancing on the sets. “If you are working with your director of photography, then he is around a camera along with other crew members and you are all working nearby. But we have found ways to overcome this hurdle. Everyone on the sets does two PCR tests and quarantines until the shoot day,” she adds. Also, they too take further precautions, including wearing masks, etc. On the sets, she speaks Hindi, English and Arabic, because, in general, the crew on set come from different backgrounds and, therefore, languages. She highlights the importance of knowing different languages, “On the sets, it eliminates language barriers and lessens misinterpretation of instructions.”
Interestingly, she picked up Hindi when she was young from her my nanny and Bollywood films, and English at school, while Arabic is her mother tongue.
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