Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja on how film is changing in the Arab world

As the first female writer, director and producer from the UAE, Al Khaja has been at the forefront of the country's film industry for more than two decades

Nayla Al Khaja is the first female film writer, director and producer in the UAE. Victor Besa / The National
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Emirati film director Nayla Al Khaja always knew she was destined to tell stories. As a girl, she was captivated by her father’s film collection, in particular, his assortment of black and white Indian films, which she would watch over and over again.

“This was before the dance and colour came into pictures, just real stories that are very heart-wrenching, you know?” she tells The National. “I think it really impacted me as a child. I fell in love with storytelling through a film called Boot Polish. I watched that so many times, I think that was where the first trigger happened.”

As a young woman, Al Khaja had to break through several barriers to follow her dream, including moving overseas alone to study and marrying a Swiss man, Christian Peter. “To me, those were very normal things to want to do,” she says. “But obviously in the context of family parameters, they weren't.”

And Al Khaja, who spoke at this month's Forbes 30/50 Summit in Abu Dhabi, which focused on inspiring and powerful women who have achieved success in their relative fields, has continued to break barriers throughout her career. Not only is she the first female writer, director and producer from the UAE, but she is not afraid to tread unexplored waters in her storytelling.

Her short film, Arabana, for example centres on child abuse in the UAE, while Malal revolves around the challenges a young Emirati couple face after an arranged marriage.

Al Khaja’s works are evidence of just how much the region’s film industry has developed in the two decades since she started out.

“It's changed so much,” she says. “There's more tolerance to the kind of content I want to create. There's more bandwidth to be able to write stuff and shoot here. There are so many filmmakers now and many more females who have come after me that are also leaving a dent behind, so that's fantastic.”

Perhaps the biggest change to filmmaking in the region, though, says Al Khaja, is the rapid expansion of cinema in Saudi Arabia.

“Take Vox Cinemas. They're here, they're the dominant exhibitors. But because they now have so many new branches there, it means that instead of, for example, making a film for a million people, now I can make it for two, because I'm able to have enough theatres to sell tickets. It just really helps investors to get excited about the industry here as a business. And it then helps to ignite voices from this part of the world to be able to tell their stories. Because now there's enough people to watch your films.”

But as Al Khaja has recently learnt first-hand, it’s not only people in the Middle East who want to watch Arab films. In November, her first full-length feature film, The Shadow, and her 2016 short, Animal, were picked up by global streaming service Netflix, and have since been watched by audiences in more than 150 countries.

“I have had people messaging from Germany, from Tunisia, from all over,” she says. “The language of cinema is for everyone. You can watch a film that's not in your language and fall in love with it just as easily. Thanks to platforms like Netflix, we are exposed to so many more foreign films and series, and I have discovered so many amazing things because of it.

“Film is a very mobile medium. Film can travel like no other art form. Dance and paintings, for example, you'll find in a gallery or on a stage. But a film, you can have it on your phone in your pocket. That's why it's powerful, it's such a fluid medium. It finds its place in the most obscure lands, it has that power to spread so fast.”

Al Khaja is currently working on her forthcoming feature, a mystery thriller titled Baab, set in Ras Al Khaimah, for which she is teaming up with Oscar-winning composer A R Rahman, who earned global fame for his work on the soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire. He will score the music for the film, which is set to begin shooting this year.

Co-written by Al Khaja and writer Masoud Amralla Al Ali, Baab follows Wahida, who is haunted by the mysterious death of her twin sister. The discovery of hidden cassette tapes then leads her on a relentless pursuit to find answers and deal with her own grief.

Al Khaja announced the film together with Rahman at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Speaking at the time, Rahman said: "I’m delighted to be working with Nayla on her feature film. She’s a passionate and promising filmmaker and an important creative voice within the Gulf region.

“The script is enigmatic, thought-provoking and promises to be both visually and emotionally engaging for universal audiences. I’m looking forward to the journey.”

Despite her success, Al Khaja still feels the enormous weight of being a trailblazer for the region, a feeling she says is counteracted by an immense sense of pride.

“There's a big pressure to deliver and to succeed,” she says. “A pressure to be a role model to other younger girls and boys. I'm intrinsically and deeply in love with the medium of storytelling, but I'm also very much touched when I get letters from young adults, which I still do about how they chose film because of the films that I've made. And that's always a big responsibility, but I'm also extremely humbled and grateful for that.

“I am so proud as a UAE national and as the first female. I find myself as an ambassador for my country through the power of storytelling. I'm honoured to showcase the beauty of my land.”

Updated: March 22, 2023, 7:03 AM