Film feeds the monster in me, says Emirati pioneer

Nayla Al Khaja is the first female Emirati director of narrative films, and the first female Emirati producer. Her films look at topics that are sometimes seen as taboo in the region.

‘I always say that I push, but don’t stab,’ says film director Nayla Al Khaja. Reem Mohammed / The National
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DUBAI // Despite having won many awards, Nayla Al Khaja feels that her greatest achievement lies in the impact she has had on the younger generation in the UAE.

Al Khaja, an acclaimed Emirati director, producer and screenwriter, constantly receives emails from girls between the ages of 10 and 16, pleading that she meet their parents to convince them that studying film is a good career path.

“It’s one of the greatest achievements to be able to impact young girls’ choices in careers, to stand up and push boundaries, to do what they really want,” said Al Khaja, who launched the UAE’s first independent film club in 2007.

“We launched The Scene Club with just over 50 members and now have about 9,000,” she said. “The club brings people together, locals and expats, promoting understanding and melting down stereotypes.”

Al Khaja said she wanted to create a formula that works in the Middle East, which is important in relaying an accurate image of the region.

“We’re always on television, whether it’s positively or negatively, but we haven’t created enough content from this part of the world to export,” she said, adding that English should remain the dominant language because it is universal.

The lack of a film industry in the UAE was an advantage and a curse, she said.

“Film is a very new field, and the awareness and education is still missing. But it’s growing little by little,” she said. “To get people to believe in your film-related concept is way more challenging than if it were a banking-related idea. When it comes to film, people are not sure about it. They think it’s a risk.”

But Al Khaja believes that the UAE is warming up to the idea of a film industry by hosting international film festivals.

“We now at least hear of Emirati feature films. There’s not much production going on, something like one film a year, but it’s still something,” she said. “Ten years ago there was not a single film. Now I think there are six or seven UAE-made features.”

Her films have dealt with controversial issues – such as arranged marriages, abuse and teenage dating – and are viewed as bold in a region where discussion of such topics is often taboo.

“These are real stories, real social issues that are not necessarily negative, but people don’t want to talk about them,” she said. “For example, locals here are about 12 per cent of the community and are exposed to expats every single day. It’s bound to be the case that Emirati women will meet foreign men.

“What happens when these kinds of marriages take place? Like any city, we have issues, good ones and bad ones, and film is just a way to create a snapshot of some of these issues.”

The director said that the “red line” in the region was sometimes unclear, and there had been instances in which she felt she needed to take that into consideration.

“It’s common sense. I always say that I push, but I don’t stab,” she said. “However, I’m very impressed that at festivals they don’t censor anything.”

Al Khaja never thought she would get into film production.

“I fell into this by accident when I was 19, and I absolutely loved the energy that came with it,” she said. “I liked the business that was attached to it because although I’m an artist, there’s a big entrepreneur inside me.

“Film has that madness and chaos that I’m attracted to. It’s a very risky business to be in but that’s why I love doing it.

“I love living on the edge and I think film feeds that monster inside me.”

She said her parents’ disapproval of her career when she started was to be expected.

“They did not want me to leave to study abroad. They’re very religious and conservative, and I expected them not to immediately understand, which was fine,” said Al Khaja. “They’ve now taken a super-neutral stance. Whenever I get an award, though, they call and congratulate me, which is nice.”

The director gained most of her experience in Canada, when she went to study film there, which has helped to shape who she is.

“It was not just simply about filmmaking but also about being out of my comfort zone. I’m living alone for the first time, feeling independent, finding a part-time job while I studied. All of that has helped build who I am,” she said.