Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja tackles mental health in debut thriller

Three is set to premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival next month

Nayla Al Khaja with the director of photography Mik Allen on the set of the film Three in Bangkok. Photo: Nayla Al Khaja Films
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Emirati female directorNayla Al Khaja has released the trailer of her first feature film Three. The Arabic psychological thriller will have its world premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia next month.

The film tells the story of Ahmed (Saud Alzarooni), 13, who is going through a difficult period in his life after his parents' separation. He goes through different mental health battles in the movie, which are interpreted as him being possessed.

Ahmed's family believe that he has been cursed by an evil eye and seek the help of a religious leader.

Al Khaja, a pioneering filmmaker in the region, tells The National that her debut feature is a personal one.

“Filming it was a form of healing and therapy,” she says. “My art, like most art, is a discovery of oneself and a reflection of all the untapped and bottled sentiments we repress. This is why I was inspired to be as close to the story in real life like I was while filming it.”

As well as young Emirati actor Saud, the film stars English actor Jefferson Hall as Dr Mark Holly, Saudi actor Mohannad Huthail as Yousef and Welsh-Thai actress Kelly B Jones as Saud's teacher.

Al Khaja explains that she wanted to reflect the diverse culture of the UAE through the film.

“Where I come from, Dubai, we have over 160 nationalities. And I always find it fascinating that natives make-up 9 per cent of the UAE population and live among all these different nationalities and coexist peacefully,” she says.

“But with that comes lots of complexities and we feel a bit lost sometimes. So, I wanted to bring those emotions out in this cross-cultural film.”

The film was shot during the Covid-19 lockdowns in Bangkok, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah, which meant many hurdles for Al Khaja and her crew.

“I led a crew of over 200 professionals all while navigating the complexities of Covid-19”, she says.

“Beyond directing, I took on the dual role of producing, turning this into a demanding yet fulfilling experience that tested my core strengths and passion for filmmaking.”

Three will premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival on December 5 and will be screened at Vox Cinemas at Red Sea Mall in Jeddah on December 7. The film will be released across the GCC in February

Updated: November 16, 2023, 2:44 PM