The first lady of film

The UAE's Nayla Al Khaja tells Madeleine Collins that the local film industry has got a long way to go.
The first lady of film
By Madeleine Collins
Fri 24 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

She may be known as the UAE's most prominent female filmmaker, but Nayla Al Khaja tells Madeleine Collins that the local film industry has got a long way to go.

Nayla Al Khaja's huge brown eyes flash excitement as she describes the latest film she is screening at her pioneering Dubai film forum, The Scene Club: "A bunch of young boys travel from Saudi to Bahrain to go to the theatre because they don't have cinemas where they come from," she explains of the Saudi Arabian documentary Cinema 500km.

"A culture that has no cinemas, so what do they do to watch a movie?" she exclaims. "Imagine driving a whole day to watch a movie and then drive all the way back to your country. That's ridiculous!"

Immediately upon meeting the woman lauded as the ‘UAE's first national female independent filmmaker' however, it is clear that she is someone for whom little falls into the category of ridiculous when it comes to pursuing dreams.

There's a sleepy feel in the cavernous lobby of Raffles hotel and it's been a long day of meetings for Al Khaja, but the 30-year-old movie producer is fired up.

For while the predicament of needing a passport to go to the cinema may seem a world away from the situation here in Dubai, it is the current state of the UAE film industry that Al Khaja is here to discuss. And she's well qualified to do so.

Earlier this year, amid much media fanfare, Al Khaja signed a multi-million dollar three picture deal with Italian production house Istar Films. The deal, in which she was hired to raise funds for the big budget projects, boosted her own profile and signaled a significant step forward for the GCC's integration into the world's movie industry.

Just months later however, Al Khaja decided to "part ways" with Istar to concentrate on independent film projects exclusive to the UAE.

"Istar were very ambitious and they did get money from other countries that had the formula and mechanics to do so," she says, explaining that each of the three movies was worth US$18 million alone. "Within the UAE it's a bit more challenging.

There is no personnel and no infrastructure yet. If the country were to invest in films they would need to know things like: Will the film make money? What benefits will it bring back here? If it's not money, is there any PR angle to the film? And if they can do that in the range of $8 million, why would they spend $18 million?

"A lot of people assume they can come here if they have the expertise and huge names on board and just tap into funds right away. That is not realistic," she says, revealing in large part why the partnership with Istar dissolved.

"Film is extremely new to the Gulf region. It's at an embryo stage. And it's all about content. If the content fails miserably, it's not a wise investment. And then you get your typical answer from investors: ‘I would rather invest in real estate or a football club' - something they are more comfortable with."

Al Khaja strongly believes that for the UAE to take off as a film hub in a similar way to Morocco, the emphasis has to be on promoting and pushing local talent. Hence, The Scene Club.

She created the non-profit organisation in association with the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) last year and workshops are taught in acting, directing and producing. Award winning directors are flown in for talks with aspiring filmmakers and the calibre of guests is impressive.

Ismael Ferroukhi was here in person to introduce Le Grand Voyage last month, which won the Luigi De Laurentiis award at the 2004 Venice Film Festival. So who inspired Al Khaja? "I love Stanley Kubrick" she smiles. "I'm very attracted to the dark side of things." Her favourite films include Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist and The Others, and it was her international film training that shaped her career.

At the age of 23, Al Khaja traveled to Canada to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film at Ryerson University. It was the worldly experience she yearned for, while the thriving Canadian film industry provided the perfect grounding for her filmmaking ambitions.

But this Emirati was always going to come home. Her pride in her homeland is absolute and her efforts to carve out a successful film and commercial business are remarkable.

In 2005, Al Khaja founded the marketing and design agency D-Seven FZ LLC, which works hand in hand with her film production company D-SEVEN Motion Pictures, and she has built up a solid body of work in both the commercial and independent arenas. Corporate clients include Nike, Global Village and the Dubai Special Olympics.

She is currently in the middle of filming a 2.7million AED feature-length documentary about polo, which has taken her to shoot locations including Spain, France and London. The trailer was screened at a glitzy affair in Rome earlier this month, but the film's final destination will fittingly be the beach polo tournament in Dubai, and the completed product will be ready in March.

Exciting stuff, but Al Khaja admits all of these ventures are ultimately undertaken to enable her to pursue her passion for independent filmmaking.

She first came to prominence in 2006 with her directorial debut, the short film Arabana, which dealt with the still taboo subject of child abuse. The film was premiered at the DIFF and received great reviews. "It was a true story that happened in my neighbourhood," she explains.

"A lot of people I know have experienced it firsthand. I wanted to take something and turn it into something positive."

Since then she has concentrated on developing independent feature projects. In between running her sister companies, Al Khaja writes her own film scripts which are inspired by local urban legends from her own childhood.

Born and raised in Dubai, she has four siblings, all of whom are or aspire to be in the design or arts world.

Although she gained a degree in mass communications from Dubai Women's College and worked as a radio presenter, Al Khaja knew she had to travel further afield in order to pursue her dreams, but her decision was not easy.

"My dad is extremely upset," she admits. "If there were 100 other Emirati filmmakers he wouldn't mind. But when you're pioneering something, venturing into something new it's always the toughest. I don't blame him, I know he's afraid for me - he's like ‘she's going to the dark side, I'm losing her'.

And I'm like, ‘Dad, I'm the producer remember - I pay them. They do stuff for me. I'm not an actress. I don't have to do anything for anyone'. So it's funny. I'm sure he'll come around one day. I really hope so."

Her mother on the other hand is "indifferent" to her career choice. "I've had to fight for my independence," she says. "I will prove to them that I'm working from my heart and am very sincere."

As for the stereotype that it is harder for women to break into the film industry: "I completely disagree," laughs Al Khaja.

"Being a woman has helped me a lot. This country wants to promote the image of women being liberated and open minded and I'm being used to promote that image, which I love. It's very beneficial if they have a female director or producer to promote and that public relations angle has really helped me.

"Some feel really sorry for me, and say, ‘Oh, she's a female, help her out'. Fine! I take advantage - if they're going to feel sorry for me but they're going to give me three free helicopters, I'm going to take those helicopters."

And of the future of the industry she is widely credited with helping nurture and evolve, Al Khaja says, "My dream scenario would be a couple of independent feature films from the UAE winning awards at international film festivals and being bought for world distribution, but I believe to reach that point it could take ten to fifteen years - and that's being optimistic."

Optimistic, maybe. But when that dream does come true, you can be sure Al Khaja's name will be up in lights.

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