Emirati Film Maker Nayla Al Khaja is living her dream as it was recently announced that Oscar-winning writer-director Terry George, whose work includes Hotel Rwanda and In the Name of the Father, will turn his creative hand to bring to life a concept she devised and wrote. The story of a real-life tale of death and deceit in early 20th century Egypt will be made into a series later this year. Nayla Al Khaja, will be Executive Producer for the series and is also being attached as a potential director for some of the episodes – something that she always dreamt of. This is the first big step into international work by Nayla but will not be her last.
The young filmmaker grew up in Dubai and studied film making in Canada before returning to the UAE with a vision of global success. In 2006 Khaja directed and produced the documentary Unveiling Dubai. Supported by Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE’s Minister of Higher Education, the film premiered at the 2006 Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) and she was officially announced as the first woman filmmaker in the UAE, being awarded the title of “Best Emirati Film Maker” in the same year. Nayla became the CEO of her own company Nayla Al Khaja Films and she plans to break the international boundaries of the film world with her upcoming projects. We discover more about her latest series and her plans for the future of her journey.
Tell us a little about the project with Terry George – how did it come about?
It is like a dream come true to see this riveting series being brought to life by Terry George. The story is about these sisters who were serial killers who received the first capital punishment sentence in the Arab World as women. The project “The Alexandria Killings” is a project that I have wanted to do for the longest time. As a matter of fact, I pitched it to another team first and was recommended to also pitch to another agency. I was then signed by Gianluca Chakra at Front Row and Rocket Science; and after receiving “created by” and “Executive Producer” credits, things progressed, and Terry George got attached to the project. It became larger than life at that point. I have submitted the material, the treatment, the concept and Terry George will now take this and develop it into the series.
What does it mean to you to have your work recognised on a global scale?
It means a lot of things: I was able to break the first glass ceiling, that is the international glass ceiling, which is incredibly difficult to do. It puts me in a more serious position – I shall be able to pitch for more international work with industry heavyweights, as well as create, develop and get global exposure for other interesting stories from the Middle East. I also have another project in the pipeline, which I cannot wait to package and pitch to companies. It’s very exciting because I have other international projects lined up too. It means that all of the hard work I have done over many years has proved worthwhile. I know that I am at the beginning of my journey and it will be a very interesting and rewarding road I will travel.
Tell us a little about the story and what we can expect from the series?
Set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 1920 when it was under British rule, the series will revolve around two real-life sisters Raya and Sakina Bint Hammam who pulled themselves out of poverty by running high-class brothels frequented by an influential circle of Egyptian and British officers, informants and statesmen. When profits from these infamous venues started to flag, they turned to petty crime, which led to the murder of 17 women. It will be a very interesting and exciting series to watch as the story develops and the drama unfolds.
Why do you think it’s important to share stories from the Middle East with the rest of the world?
I think it’s very important to share Middle Eastern stories globally from a regional perspective, as often these stories are told from a Western perspective. As it will be narrated through the Arab voice, this series will be very authentic because we have grown up with these stories. It will be much more real. Through the power of storytelling, I think you can break a lot of stereotypes and given the Middle East is a very controversial area of the world, I hope that this series and others will humanise the area and bring a better understanding of our region to the world.
What is the message you want to share with the world about living in the region?
The Middle East consists of more than 20 countries and so people should not paint the entire region with one colour – each country has different religions, tribes, its own cultural heritage and historic backgrounds – it is not one country centred on one idea, which is what some Westerners believe. This is something that really pains me. Unless you live here, you do not understand the diversity of the region – you are relying more or less on news, which is often packed with war or bloodshed and this is not the reality for most of the Arab world. Hopefully, stories that emerge from the region will provide a better understanding for global audiences. This is one of my main drives and why I am passionate to share Middle Eastern stories that move the heart and soul and provide a true insight into the Arab world. It is time to break the norm, crush stereotypes and really tell the truth about the region to global audiences and ultimately inspire people to celebrate what is common between them, not what is different.
What would you like to see happen with the film industry in the region moving forward?
I would love to see grants established from both private and government entities. The government could have an agenda to make funding available so that films can be made and can be presented in film festivals and screened in cinemas. These could be arthouse films or films that are more human-centric. Commercial ventures could benefit from private sector investment to ensure that Arabic and local stories have a chance to be told for artistic or commercial reasons. The birth of film funds in the Middle East would really benefit this industry.
What is the biggest challenge that you face in what you do?
There is a lack of an ecosystem for filming anything in the UAE but I know that is changing and developing. We really suffer from a lack of producers and writers – I don’t think this is solely a UAE problem, it is a GCC-wide problem. I hope that people take this field more seriously – it could provide a major economic boost to the region as it can be very lucrative. It’s important to remember that when there is an economic crisis, film does not get hit as badly as other industries so it is a very smart sector in which to invest.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, what are some of the struggles you face?
I believe we all share the same struggle – that is, a lack of financing. For any project, the higher the budget the less chance a woman will be at the helm. This is a simple and very sad fact. The ratio of men to women studying film at university is 50/50 but once the course is complete, not even 10% of these women have work. This comes down to the fact that those writing cheques are 99% male. This will only change when women take the pen in their hand, create their own narrative and create stories for themselves. We cannot wait for this to change; we need to drive the change.
What is something you would still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
I would love to create, write and direct my own film. This is currently in the pipeline and I am very excited about it. The other thing I would like to do is to start a film fund.
In your opinion what are the perquisites to being successful in film making?
Lots of patience, passion and immense perseverance. You need to have an authentic love because often it can take 20-25 years for that big break. I remember asking Morgan Freeman once over dinner how long it took him to break into the industry and he told me it was 23 years and that is why everyone really only remembers him with grey hair!
We know you are also working on a big-budget action film – can you tell us anything about that?
It is an adventure film for youngsters – it is The Goonies meet Indiana Jones. It is called “The Magic Carpet” and one of the Executive Producers is Bella Thorne. Right now we are casting for the main character, and this project is planned for end of this year or early next year, depending on COVID-19 restrictions.
Do you have an idol role model in the industry?
Nadine Labaki – the fact she took all these years to create her film Capharnaum and mortgaged her own house to raise funding for it is, some would say insane, but to me, it’s inspirational, as it got her an Oscar nomination. The self-belief she had was so strong and she was able to shatter every glass ceiling and that is incredible.
What is the motto that you live by?
Live and let live.
What is a film or series you would love to make and who would you select to star in it both on a regional and international basis?
I do have a series but I can’t speak about it because I am currently packaging it so I can pitch it! But the series I always dreamed about was The Alexandria Killings and that is coming to life so I am very excited. I would love to direct at least one episode and work with Terry George on this project in closer proximity. Egypt has a strong collection of writers and the studio system there has been up and running since 1923 so they have had a lot of time to hone their skills and create fantastic content so the series will be in very good hands with the Arab writers assigned to the project.
To what extent do you believe today that the stories that we see are a reflection of the reality we live in?
True life stories are now not being meddled within the way they have in the past because now the world is telling us a story as opposed to just Hollywood or Bollywood, thanks to streaming giants.
No longer do we have to go to a Film Festival to watch a foreign film – they are all in our homes thanks to the game-changing technology that has developed and allowed us to view subtitled, foreign films and each of these films enables us to view different perspectives. I think this is a trend that will continue. The fact an Asian woman won an Oscar this year – only two women have ever won Best Film in the history of the Oscars –reflects how male-dominated the industry is and how hard it is for women to penetrate but this win does provide hope that the industry is open to change.
What is your favourite memory of the UAE growing up?
Taking AED2 and buying all the unhealthiest junk food in the small grocer’s shop near when I lived and then sneaking it into the house so my mother and grandmother wouldn’t see it is a very clear memory! The city was simpler and a lot smaller when I was young, so I remember my grandmother cutting fresh fruit, playing in the neighbourhood and so on. I really miss that sense of intimacy and through a film called “Baab” that I plan to make in the future, I hope to capture this nostalgia and the beauty of growing up in the city when I was a child.
The UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – what is a message you would send to the country?
I was very fortunate to direct some material that was used to celebrate the 49th anniversary, including the orchestra for Expo 2020, which went viral and received great reviews. I would love to direct something for this year’s landmark anniversary – it would be a source of real pride and honour to direct something to mark the Golden Jubilee of my country.
What is your vision for your next 50 years?
I hope that we will all become more sustainable in our way of life so that we can effectively tackle climate change. When it comes to filmmaking, we can be exuberant so I am trying to be more mindful of sustainability in all areas whenever I can. On a personal level, I would love to establish film funds that allow the creation of films that offer insight into the Arab World and allow global audiences to appreciate the Middle East and see it through the eyes and hands of humans that live here. I would love for that to be my legacy.