By Ed Attwood
Nayla Al Khaja, the UAE's first female filmmaker, on why the Gulf state's fledgling film industry is in dire need of more cash
I would say the majority support what I do,” says Nayla Al Khaja. “It’s only a few people that are upset, but then you can’t make everyone happy. And that’s not my goal anyway, so that’s fine.”
Shy is probably not an adjective you would use to describe Al Khaja. As the UAE’s first ever female filmmaker, the diminutive Emirati has encountered plenty of prejudice, partly because of her sex, and partly due to her willingness to tackle taboo subjects.
In a short but eventful career so far, Al Khaja has completed three short films — one of which won a prize at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2007 — set up her own production company (D-SEVEN), and heads up the UAE’s first official film club. The work may be coming in thick and fast now, but the filmmaker — who has produced, directed, written and even starred in many of her features — has had to overcome huge obstacles to get her career started a decade ago.
“My parents were completely against me getting into film — there aren’t any other women filmmakers in the country, so there’s no-one else to look at as an example,” Al Khaja recalls. “They were very worried, and my dad insisted that I make documentaries, rather than narratives. But narratives are all that I’m interested in.”
It took a journey away from the UAE to Canada, where she studied filmmaking at Ryerson University, for Al Khaja to achieve her dream, but that came at the cost of the relationship with some members of her family. Happily, those ties now look to have been repaired.
“My parents get phone calls from their friends saying congratulations on the awards,” she admits. “They do feel happy — they don’t really show it — but they don’t say anything negative about it. Now they don’t question me. I’m completely independent; I run my own business, I travel when I want, and I’m completely on my own.”
But it’s not just at home where Al Khaja has faced opposition. She smiles as she remembers the early days, when she had to ask male friends to sit with her in meetings to add credibility when she was pitching for investment.
“And in the past, I have had a few issues with the censorship board,” Al Khaja adds. “They don’t like me very much there. But it’s ok now — we get along really well. But at the beginning, again, it was always about pushing. I got a few horrible comments from nationals — I completely ignored them. I would say that 90 percent of UAE nationals — looking at me as a national — were very supportive.”
As Al Khaja’s influence on the fledgling industry in the UAE has grown, she has become a powerful supporter of locally produced film. Although she was drafted in as a cultural adviser to ‘Djinn’ — an ‘Emirati’ film based in Ras Al Khaimah and funded by Abu Dhabi’s Image Nation — Al Khaja walked off set in protest at the lack of local input into the production.
“I was the only Emirati on set — all the key players weren’t,” she says. “It’s nothing against the people at all, it’s just that you couldn’t call it an Emirati film. Obviously it’s a movie, and they have to exaggerate and create stuff, but for me, only the second film they made — ‘Sea Shadow’ — was Emirati.”
The ‘Djinn’ controversy is all part of what the filmmaker believes is a misplaced focus on the part of Gulf film producers. Image Nation, for example, has a dual role; funding projects at home, and putting money into Hollywood productions. As a result, filmgoers worldwide may have noticed the Image Nation branding on global hits such as disaster movie ‘Contagion’ and 1960s drama ‘The Help’. But there is a worry that not enough focus is being put on building up grassroots talent at home.
“I hope the same mistakes don’t happen in other GCC countries, because I am noticing the same trends, where the GCC takes money and throws it into Hollywood, without really focusing on the local industry,” Al Khaja says. “I think that’s a bit dangerous. I understand there has to be some sort of balance. I understand you have to make profits. But I don’t think Hollywood needs our money.”
From a wider perspective, it’s obvious that film can play a wider part in fast-tracking understanding of the UAE to a global level. One only has to look at ‘Mission Impossible 4’, which has grossed a whopping $376m worldwide, and in which Dubai’s Burj Khalifa plays a starring role.
“Film is an incredible medium,” says Al Khaja. “In a cultural sense, it does capture a period of time, an essence of place. If we create lots and lots of content that is good from here and export it elsewhere, it helps educate people about who we are. There are lots of perceptions about Emiratis; a lot of them are true and a lot of them are untrue.”
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Looking around the rest of the Arab world and the nearby region, and it’s immediately clear that this is an area in which the Gulf has fallen far behind its peers. Egypt’s film industry has been churning out flicks since the 1920s. Hany Abu Assad’s ‘Paradise Now’ — a Palestinian film that looked at the conflicting emotions of suicide bombers — picked up a Golden Globe for the best foreign language film in 2005. India’s Bollywood makes more films on an annual basis than Hollywood. Even Iran has globally recognised filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami.
The answer, Al Khaja says bluntly, is money.
“It’s not easy to go out and raise money, which is a major problem that we have right now,” she continues. “There is a lack of producers, so if you don’t have a producer, you have to raise money on your own. That shouldn’t be your job as a director — you should focus on the creative part of filmmaking.”
“At the moment, it’s difficult to go out there to investors and say — hey, I want a million dollars. They’ll say that you don’t have a track record, you’ve never done a feature film, so how do I know whether I’m going to get my money back?”
The responsibility lies with the government to provide sufficient funding for local talent, Al Khaja adds.
“They don’t have to do it randomly — they can have a team of people who are experienced, who know how to read scripts, and so on. People can then pitch for their concepts, and a few of those concepts will be produced. And then I think we will have really beautiful films.”
Thus far, Al Khaja has focused on short films, which are generally based on subjects that are considered taboo. Her first short film — entitled ‘Arabana’ — deals with the thorny issue of child abuse in the UAE. Based on true events, the black-and-white feature told the story of a young girl who is neglected by her parents, and ends up being abused by the family gardener. Critics praised the tale for shining the light on what is a surprisingly prevalent occurrence locally.
“It [the film] is all about spaces — local houses and villas are massive, and it’s very hard to monitor your kids,” Al Khaja says. “They are around male and female maids and workers the whole time, and there are a lot of paedophilia cases. So it’s not necessarily outside your house — it could be going on inside your house as well.”
If ‘Arabana’ was a tricky subject for some sections of the local audience to digest, Al Khaja’s next short film — ‘Once’ — raised the bar a little higher. Shot on a budget of $20,000 over five days in Dubai, the film examines the perils and pitfalls that Emirati girls face when going on a date.
“I went through that myself and it’s exciting, but it’s also really scary, because if you get caught, it’s not funny at all,” Al Khaja says. “So I wanted to show the whole dimension, the different emotions that a girl has to go through to meet a boyfriend, and what happens if she gets caught?”
Al Khaja’s last short film, which was released in 2010, took a look at the issues raised by arranged marriages. In ‘Malal’, a young Emirati couple visit Kerala on a honeymoon that is soured by the wife’s boredom with her new husband.
Looking back on the trio of films, Al Khaja thinks she has ‘mellowed’ somewhat, although it’s clear that her subject matter has never strayed far from controversy.
“‘Once’ had the best reviews from film critics, but the worst reaction from locals,” she recalls. “The first one people really liked because it was all about spreading awareness and protecting children. With ‘Malal’, the men absolutely hated it, but the women loved it.”
But, like most directors, Al Khaja has her heart set on setting her stamp on a full-length feature film. Her first feature — which tells the story of a young Arab girl and a British traveller’s chance meeting in the deserts near Hatta in the 1960s — is currently on the drawing board.
“It’s a little bit of an independent thriller,” she says. “I’ve finally found a producer I want to work with, and now we have to find a writer. Before I would have had hang ups about not having done my first feature yet, but I’ve been to festivals where a lot of the guys hadn’t done their first feature until their 40s, so I’m not that bothered.”
In a perfect world, and if money was no object, who would Al Khaja pick to play the male lead? She laughs.
“Daniel Day-Lewis,” she says, instantly. “But there’s no way I could direct him because I’m so amateur — he needs someone senior.”
For the future, Al Khaja thinks that the local film scene is in rude health, helped by the international success of Ali Mostafa’s ‘City of Life’, and the more recent ‘Sea Shadow’.
“I’m sure that Image Nation are going to be announcing lots of local initiatives,” she adds. “But I repeat that I think it’s the government’s job to create grants for filmmakers who want to make seriously good films with serious money. A lot has been done for short films, which is great, but I think they need to start thinking of two feature films a year, with healthy budgets.”
investors are only interested in return, pure and simple. the biggest part will lie in distribution... UAE is a small market. Even if 5 million people watched the movie at once, the numbers would be mediocre at most. combining the network of film distributors and DTCMs marketing expertise to have the movie appeal to mass audiences would have a tremendous impact.
There needs to be a "knowledge offset" programme in place when foreign "talent" is brought in or funded for doing productions.
This is so that imported companies simply don't come in, use the resources (read: cash), make a profit and leave.
The common excuse you hear is, that locals are not talented or motivated. To that the answer is look no further than the likes of Ms. Khaja and the small but fledgling community of local talent who are keen to learn but are stereotyped from the get go without being given a fair chance.
This phenomenon is not limited to this region alone, Singapore suffers a similar problem with producers from across "the pond" benefiting.
A compulsory knowledge offset programme is the way forward where companies are required to prove that they have invested in know-how sharing and educating local film talent.
Putting my money where my mouth is, I'm doing it with a 3D film training initiative for local students.