Pioneer spirit

One of an inspirational new generation of young Emirati filmmakers and the UAE’s first female producer, Nayla Al Khaja talks about truth, taboo and the power of the motion picture

Nayla Al Khaja is an explorer and she’s taking me on a guided tour through the lesser-known reaches of the Arab world. “My films are targeted at people who want to look into Arab themes and get to know more about them,” she explains. “Women dating in secret because it is taboo, arranged marriages, and what happens if you marry the wrong guy and get bored out of your brain on your honeymoon are some of the themes.”

Igniting hot topics and cooking up the occasional cultural storm is all part of daily life for the feisty filmmaker. On paper, this attractive young woman from Dubai is living a charmed existence. Before she was even 30 she had already received the accolade of best Emirati filmmaker after her film Arabana, a short dealing with the theme of child abuse, was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival. At 32, she has spent six years as head of D-Seven Motion Pictures, a production company that creates both commercial and documentary films and has a major feature film in the making.

As the old adage goes, there is no inspiration without perspiration and Al Khaja doesn’t fight shy of telling me about the long days and nights she ploughs into her work and the ambitions she has yet to fulfil. “I am naturally a problem solver and I find ways to get out because I am a believer,” she says. “I haven’t reached my breakthrough but I believe that will happen because I will push until I die.”

Although she protests it is all blood, sweat and tears, there is most definitely a feel of effortless glamour about Nayla Al Khaja, of someone in control of their destiny. Born in Dubai, she had a privileged childhood with parents who nurtured her interest in the arts to the point of building her a studio of her own in the hope it would define her career path. However, she realised early on that life as a genteel lady artist was not her calling.

Al Khaja’s light bulb moment came at the age of 20 in the middle of her degree in mass communications at Dubai Women’s College. “I was asked to make a documentary, which gave me so much pleasure,” she explains. “I didn’t know what I was doing but I was producing and it was the best feeling ever – fun, exciting and full of energy.”

As there was no degree in film available in the UAE at the time (a situation that has since changed), Al Khaja applied to study in Canada. Her chosen profession was, and still is, regarded by her parents as a seedy, disreputable business. Going against the grain of social mores has meant she has become a trailblazer, the UAE’s first female film producer. “I never thought I would come back to my country and be appreciated as the first [female] filmmaker,” she laughs. “That was funny and daunting at the same time because there is a feeling of expectation around me to prove myself – suddenly I am a role model for a lot of young girls who all want to know how you do it.”

Al Khaja’s next project, her first feature film, is a survival story about an indigenous Bedouin family. “Based on a true story, it is about a modernized Emirati girl in the desert, how she gets lost, how she survives and how she encounters a tribe,” she explains. Rahma, meaning ‘mercy’ in Arabic, is a powerful character study and an analysis of cultural identity, which sets out to achieve a new insight into Dubai’s native people. “They have never been captured on film – no-one has ever made a movie about them,” she says. “They are so different, even the Arabic they speak is different; it is very pure.”

Excited about this work in progress, Al Khaja is buoyed up by what she refers to as a new buzz around film and filmmaking in the region. In April this year, the UAE’s first homegrown film, City of Life, directed by Dubai native Ali Mostafa, was released countrywide. “It is a case study of sorts,” comments Al Khaja. “Ali has in many ways paved the way for other Emiratis to do the 
same.” Another welcome inspiration and Emirati contemporary is Nawaf Al-Janahi whose feature film The Circle (2009) addresses the relationship between death and destiny. His next project, out next year, is a reflection of the multicultural reality of Dubai.

Al Khaja is keen that the new generation of filmmakers will grow and develop and eventually convene with other regions of the Arab world to build something that offers an alternative to standard Hollywood and Bollywood fare. She supports two initiatives designed to foster new talent and appreciation: The Scene Club and Bloom. The Scene Club, in partnership with the Dubai International Film Festival, has a remit to spread the culture of film awareness and to create a film community where people can physically go and network.

With a laid-back atmosphere, it focuses on the inspiration rather than the perspiration. “We fly in directors every month, so if we were hosting a Spanish film, we would get the director to come and talk about it,” she explains. “They range from Oscar nominees to upcoming directors and documentary filmmakers.” The Scene Club recently hosted Ashvin Kumar, who was nominated for the film Little Terrorist, as well as Jean-Michel Vecchiet for his acclaimed documentary Iran: The Hundred Year War.

The second project is Bloom, designed for anybody who wants to make their very first short film and has no idea where to start. Local people are invited to approach the foundation in order to access free consultation and introductions to the five other partners in the Bloom initiative. “I didn’t have that kind of help when I started, it was difficult,” Al Khaja recalls. “If you are a student you get 70 per cent off equipment as a way to get access.”

Despite the early challenges she en-countered, Al Khaja has a strong attachment to Dubai. It is the city which nurtured her and she believes it is the place from where she will ‘make it’ as a film director. It is also the location of her fiercest and dearest champions. “My mum brought me up on her own because she was separated from my father,” comments Al Khaja. “She is my inspiration, not just because of her strength but because she has a lot of patience and persistence.” The creative businesswoman welcomes people into her life who keep her strong and determined including the man she plans to marry. “He is incredible and extremely supportive of what I do,” she says. “Having him in my life is enhancing it. I think he is an artist but he doesn’t know it.”

Revealing truths is a favourite pastime and recurring theme in her work. Al Khaja’s documentary Unveiling Dubai (2004) was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival and neatly demonstrated to the event’s high-profile global audience that there is a lot more to the city than people actually realise.

Film, she argues, is a powerful branding tool and one that the Arab world can – and should – use shrewdly to build a cultural connection with other territories. “The Western media pounds you with images of war and violence – there is a lot of bullshit about us in the foreign media,” she argues. “The Arab world needs to develop further in the media sector, create a bridge through media and be responsible for the ways in which others see us.”