Meet Nayla Al Khaja, United Arab Emirates' first woman filmmaker

By Sindhu Kashyaap & Pooja Rajkumari
January 16, 2023, Updated on : Thu Jan 19 2023 06:34:38 GMT+0000
In a conversation with YourStory Gulf Edition, Nayla Al Khaja talks about her journey into filmmaking.
  • +0
    Clap Icon
Share on
close
  • +0
    Clap Icon
Share on
close
Share on
close

Nayla Al Khaja was all of 8 years of age when she saw the Bollywood classic Boot Polish. Central to the film was a story about young siblings losing their parents—a feeling that tugged Nayla's heartstrings. 


“Everything about the movie, the largesse, the grandeur, music, black and white cinematography, and emotions got to me," she recalls. I saw the movie 12 times, at least… It left me heartbroken...I didn’t want to see siblings be separated. The environment at my home was rocky as my parents were going through a separation, and I would soon be separated from my older brother in two years. Two of my films are from the perspective of the brother, as sometimes I feel he carried the bigger burden of the separation, being the older sibling,” she told YourStory Gulf seated in her home office in Dubai, where she and her editors also edit her films. 


While Boot Polish intrigued Nayla to consider filmmaking, she was always interested in fine arts. "I again stumbled into filmmaking again when I was 19 years old," she says. This was around the time when she worked on a documentary project. 


This solidified her intention to work with film as a way to tell stories. “The whole energy and process was beautiful and I fell in love with it… I felt it was unlike any other art medium. That is when I was sure I wanted to get into the business of films (sic),” says Nayla.

Nayla Al Khaja

Nayla Al Khaja

Rediscovering filmmaking 

She has come a long way since then. Today, Nayla counts a number of accolades under her belt. She is the first woman film director of the United Arab Emirates and has been touted among the top 50 most powerful personalities in Arab Cinema by Variety. She was also named Business Woman of the year by Gulf Business Awards 2020 and bagged the Black Swan Award for Women Empowerment—Asia 2019, to name a few. 

“In my world I like things that are packed with atmosphere…have darker palettes, tense moments, on the edge, and things that get you uncomfortable," she says. 

Nayla has two films on Netflix at the moment—Animal, a feature film about narcissism and Shadow, her most recent release.  Often, she dabbles on topics about mental health and its nuances in her films, she says. This also means Nayla has to treat it right since the subject is delicate, and there still is a strong stigma associated with seeking help for mental health. 


“The recent film I have done is about a young boy who suffers from Bipolar disorder…[in the film] his parents try to brush it under the carpet by behaving that there is nothing wrong with him. And in time his condition simply gets worse. It sheds the light on parents and their children and how they should pay attention, and having a mental issue is absolutely fine,” says Nayla. 


She had written and directed her first short film Arbana in 2006, for which she was awarded the Best Emirate Filmmaker at DIFF 2007. She also won a seat at the prestigious Producers Network at the Cannes Film Festival 2018.


OTT has changed things too, says Nayla. It has changed everything, they have made foreign language films accessible and desirable, she says. 


“It has broken down studio systems and made content accessible. They look different and view things differently. You see people of colour, different ethnicities, and genders. But the problem is when it becomes a checklist, that feels forced, and it isn’t authentic then. People will sense the inauthenticity. The story should lend itself to it,” says Nayla. 


Building a thriving business

“When I started I didn’t have a lot of money and I had to raise money…while I have done that for my films this was a tough journey. It is a tedious process, you need to do the math, and find organisations that align with your thought,” says Nayla. 


“The first six months was hard, I produced a lot of commercials… that kept the wolf at bay and then we started with our own projects,” adds Nayla. Today it is a company of 12 employees.


To Nayla, associating with a popular telephone brand helped when it came to raising funds. Her advice to entrepreneurs is to associate themselves with brands which can in turn elevate the startups they build. 


This did not mean running a business was not without its challenges. “The opportunities between men and women in film are staggeringly different. There is a study that says in universities the men and women in film are 50:50," she says. "But once they graduate, it becomes harder for women to tap into money than men. Men tend to get film funds and government grants, whereas women do not," she adds. 


Nayla also had to battle bias and people's perception that she could not do something simple because she was a woman. However the world has changed since then, she says. 


“I built a lot of relationships with volunteering, it also helps you in understanding what aspect of the film you really are excited about...The more you volunteer the more you realise how the field works," she says. 

She adds it is important to associate yourself with a brand that is known, once you do that, it elevates you as a startup. It is important to get the right associations, agencies, and brands that are well-known. This makes fundraising easier. Nayla first started by associating with a telephone brand, a popular one that helped her. 


While Nayla’s family was happy with the idea of fine arts as a subject, they weren’t completely comfortable with the idea of her getting into films. “There is a lot of baggage, drama and glamour associated with the industry, so they weren’t entirely comfortable," she says. 


"Also it is a very male-dominated segment… the narrative is more demanding, and they were worried about the type of films I would make. But once they saw a film or two, they relaxed into the idea,” says Nayla. 


She is now well on her way to finish her feature film 3, and is planning a rough cut for Cannes, or Toronto Film Festival. She has also signed up with AR Rahman for another film Baab


“People who are passionate about storytelling will stick around if you treat them well,” says Nayla.


Edited by Akanksha Sarma

Clap Icon0 Shares
  • +0
    Clap Icon
Share on
close
Clap Icon0 Shares
  • +0
    Clap Icon
Share on
close
Share on
close