Challenges fail to deter Emirati filmmaker - GulfToday

Challenges fail to deter Emirati filmmaker

Nayla Al Khaja 1

Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja during her talk titled ‘How I went from making films for Netflix to world cinemas’ during Xposure 2024.

Gulf Today, Staff Reporter

“Believing in yourself can take you far; the more I was getting rejected the more I wanted to find success,” vouched Nayla Al Khaja, pioneering filmmaker from the UAE, during her talk ‘How I went from making films for Netflix to world cinemas’ at the Xposure International Photography Film Festival in Sharjah on Tuesday, March 5.

Khaja, whose debut feature film Three was released in cinemas in February 2024 across the Gulf and major MENA territories – 120 theatres in 7 countries – in English and Arabic, looked back at her career hurdles, the initial bottlenecks to her business at the age of 26, and the rejections that preceded her ultimate recognition and success. She currently has two shorts streaming on Netflix: “The Shadow” and “Animal” while her upcoming project, Baab, a fantasy realism horror scheduled for shooting in 2024, will have two-time Oscar winning Indian music director A R Rahman set the musical score for the film.

The 46-year-old, who has chosen the genre of psychological thrillers as opposed to rom-coms that are stereotypically considered women’s favourites, said she had grown up watching film cassettes in Russian, French, Indian and English.


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Commenting on the generational gap that prevented her parents accepting her choice of profession, the eminent director noted that there is a huge gap in the ways of thinking.

She elaborated: “The idea of a sticky floor is that you have to break the ceiling but you have to learn to walk on sticky floor. The journey itself is extremely difficult, it will break you so many times and every time it breaks, new skin will come out, new ideas will emerge and you will be in a much more powerful position than when you were broken. So in my process of making my film I had to be patient, resilient and a person of action.”

Khaja, who blends horror and beauty in her films, observed that perception is key to everything one does and the richer the experiences of life, the more tolerant one becomes. She added that the film Three, shot in Thailand for financial reasons, took her four years with COVID lockdown and her own pregnancy making it a big struggle while her short film Animal was initially snubbed but was picked up by Netflix six years later.

The feature film, which was launched by Noura Al Kaabi, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, will use artificial intelligence to study the voices of the actors for the first time in the history of Arab cinema and produce a Mandarin release.

The filmmaker pointed out that she had wanted to showcase the beauty of her city with the “360 degrees of its nuances” in a movie for the world to see. Khaja called Dubai’s amazing metamorphosis in less than 40 years “one massive Botox exploded over time”.

The director called the calibre of actors from Sharjah ‘mind-blowing’, and recalled how her lead actor in Three, Jefferson Hall of Oppenheimer fame, was floored by the histrionic skills of the child actor-protagonist.

Al Khaja remarked it was absolutely incredible to see 400 photographers in one place under one roof, and was excited to see film as one of the components of Xposure 2024.

The seven-day festival wrapped up on March 5.

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