Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja back to push movie limits

Chris Newbould talks to the Emirati film director Nayla Al Khaja, whose next feature is set to court controversy.

Nayla Al Khaja’s films regularly tackle taboos. Fatima Al Marzouqi / The National
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The Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja has entered into development on her debut feature and, in typical Al Khaja fashion, she’s avoiding the safe topics again. The director’s films have previously dealt with issues including child abuse (Arabana, 2006), teenage dating in Dubai (Once, 2009) and arranged marriage (Malal, 2010).

Fans may have thought she was losing her edge with her most recent film, 2013’s The Neighbour. The film won the Dubai International Film Festival’s Muhr Emitrati award in December, but, by Al Khaja’s standards, the heartwarming tale of a British expat who clashes with her Emirati neighbour before the two women form a comedic, Lost in Translation-style bond because of their mutual loneliness does lack a certain central “issue”.

Al Khaja admits that this was probably “my safest film to date”. She jokingly adds: “Because it was commissioned by Dubai Culture.”

It sounds like she won’t be pulling any punches with her latest, as-yet-untitled film, however.

“It’s about how far a mother is prepared to go to save her son,” she says. “I guess it’s going to be a bit controversial. In three words it’s about exorcism in Islam, and what a family did to exorcise their son.”

Al Khaja is not seeking controversy for its own sake. She explains that, despite the dramatic subject matter, the film is essentially a family story, based on families that she actually knows, including one whose child died because of an exorcism gone wrong.

She adds that this story of ancient practices and the parents’ clashing belief systems is a significant one in a rapidly developing city such as Dubai.

“It’s a very old practice still taking place in a cosmopolitan city like Dubai. Exorcism is still practised across the Arab world every day because the djinn are in the Quran and so they’re believed in. I think it’ll be a great film to make because of that contrast. I think it’ll bring up a lot of questions.”

Al Khaja adds that the film is still in its very early developmental stages and could be two or three years away from completion. However, a co-production partnership between Paris and Dubai is already taking shape, with Al Khaja hopeful of attaining further funding from Doha.

She will be writing the script in Amsterdam in collaboration with a Dutch-Tunisian screenwriter, who she notes is “the right guy for the job”.