By Chris Newbould
Chris Newbould catches up with this year’s winner of the Digital Studio Best Production Award, D-Seven Motion Pictures’ Nayla Al Khaja, and finds himself wondering if he has just met the UAE’s hardest-working woman
I caught up with Nayla Al Khaja shortly after she collected this year’s Digital Studio Best Production Award for Malal. The film also took the Muhr Emirati Award at December’s Dubai International Film Festival, and has since been selected for the shorts section at April’s Tribeca festival in New York. Not unreasonably, I half expected to find the director/producer still basking in the glory, and gearing up for a year of relaxing and dining out on Malal’s success. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The world of Nayla Al Khaja, it seems, is one with little room for resting on laurels. Far from basking, Al Khaja was like a whirlwind as she filled us in on the busy few weeks for her and her company, D-Seven, since our last conversation, following the DIFF success at the end of 2010.
“I’ve just finished shooting the pilot for my new TV show, and I’m about to start pitching it to the networks,” she explained. “It’s been a really intense few months, but I think this new show is really pushing the boundaries of what people expect from a reality TV show.”
The new pilot is for what, if all goes according to plan, will be Al Khaja’s first steps into reality TV stardom. Nayla’s 100 sees Al Khaja, this time as presenter, following a 100 Dirham note on its travels. As the note is spent and passed on, Al Khaja follows the new holder until they in turn pass it on to the next subject in a blend of documentary, reality show, cultural education and light entertainment.
“We were shooting the pilot for a week,” she continues. “We had the producer/director of Biggest Loser and America’s Got Talent on board, and I genuinely went into each situation totally blind with no knowledge of who the next character would be until I met them. As you can imagine, even in the course of just a half hour pilot, I met a really diverse mix of people in the process, in every way imaginable. We also made the pilot in both English and Arabic, so we can pitch to both sets of networks.
“Right now, we’re finishing off the colour correction at D-Seven’s studios, and we’re due to start pitching at the beginning of March. The pilot was shot using D5, which is unusual for a reality show – it has a real cinematic look to it. One worry we had was how the sound would come out, but it proved unfounded. We used a digital clapperboard, and we found that once we got into post, the sound synched fine with the clapper.”
Al Khaja’s relationship with Canon did not end with the pilot shoot. As we went to press, she had just been named as the camera giant’s regional brand ambassador, while Canon and her own D-Seven productions had announced their headline sponsorship of the BLOOM! Cine Startup initiative, aimed at taking aspiring film makers in the region through the tentative steps of shooting their first feature.
Under the initiative, Canon will supply camera equipment, while D-Seven provide the editing and post equipment and expertise. Al Khaja explains that three further sponsors, as well as experienced script doctors, will ensure the process is as painless as possible for aspiring directors and producers: “We’ve struck a deal with Gamma Engineering for equipment and freelance staff at a 50 per cent discount, Ashraf Ghori’s Xpanse CGI are also on board to supply graphics and credits and Kodak have made a very good offer for Super 16 film for those that may want to experience working with film.”
The BLOOM! Initiative has already shot its first five-minute film, a soft-launch before the official announcement was made. As reported in this month’s news, the film, shot across five countries, was made for around 20 per cent of its market cost thanks to the initiative, and Al Khaja was also impressed with the film makers’ own efforts to raise money: “We couldn’t pay for tickets or hotels for the location shooting under the initiative, but the guys were really on it, and brought another sponsor on board to cover that side of things. Ultimately, the film cost them nothing, and impressively they’ve already found a buyer for the finished film. It’s a great start, and the second film for this year is already in the preparatory stages.”
The plan is for BLOOM! to make four films a year, and as the face of both BLOOM! and Canon, Al Khaja is pleased to report that not only does she receive publicity for both her own and others’ work, but she also gets to meet the next generation of film makers – vital if she is to fulfil her goal of becoming a full-time film producer.
Barely stopping for breath, Al Khaja moves onto the state of play of her own next feature – “a seventies desert survivor story of a woman who gets lost for nine days in the desert around Hatta, and meets a man escaping a murder case, based on a true story.”
An incredible story, and one that seemingly may not need too much work from any ‘script doctors’. Al Khaja has already found her first investor – none other than the brother of the real life protagonist, and now intends to spend the rest of this year raising further finance with a view to entering pre-production in March 2012.
It’s probably already apparent that Al Khaja doesn’t like to be understretched, so it’s no surprise to learn that when she mentions ‘spending the whole year’ raising funds, this won’t be to the exclusion of any other projects: “I’ve got about two weeks breathing space till the beginning of March,” she explains. “Then I start work with Imagenation on the filming of Djinn. I’ll be assisting director Toby Hooper, working as cultural consultant on the film. Everything relating to costume, jewellery, accent, body language comes through me. Shooting starts on March 13th and is scheduled to last four weeks.”
D-Seven itself remains as busy as ever meanwhile. A new Mercedes commercial, featuring a bank robber in the world’s slowest car chase (so as not to scratch his prized motor) and partly filmed on 5D from a helicopter, is the latest completed project, and Al Khaja is pleased to have the production company there both as an artistic avenue, and, quite simply, a day job: “There are a lot more female Emirati film makers coming through now,” she says. “But it can be so hard for them, having to work a full time job and make films and market the films and themselves in their spare time, or use their annual holidays. I’m really very lucky to be running a production company that gives me the freedom to push myself every day.”
Al Khaja also still runs The Scene Club, dedicated to bringing the best underground and world cinema to the UAE (www.thesceneclub.com). When we spoke, she was anticipating the release of funds to the club by Dubai Culture which should ensure a new season of films, while it is already part way through a season showing Emirati and British films in conjunction with the British Council.
For someone who has achieved such success in the five years since D-Seven launched, Al Khaja remains refreshingly modest, and adds: “I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received over the years. The media have been incredibly supportive in the seven years or so since I started out, and Dubai Media City has been behind me from the start, too. This last year or so, there’s been a really big push from twofour54 for me, with help for both Malal and the TV pilot, and I’m really grateful to every one of them.”