Emirati Film Writer, Director and Producer Nayla Al Khaja Discusses Her Upcoming Feature Film

Lindsay Judge   |   06-06-2023

Nayla Al Khaja has had quite an impressive career, with her films being screened at more than 42 film festivals worldwide. Nayla is passionate about sharing deep and emotional stories through her work and has been widely recognised for her honest and open approach to producing. This year, Nayla will achieve one of her biggest goals, producing her own feature film. Titled “Three,” the film will depict a true story about the struggles of a child and his family.


Having run a production company in the UAE for over 15 years, Nayla has a 360-degree perspective on requirements to deliver a successful production in addition to an appreciation for both the creative and fiscal, and she plans to use all this experience to make the best possible success of her upcoming film. Ahead of the press launch for “Three” in Dubai, we met Nayla to find out what to expect.



We know you are working on an exciting project, “Three” – tell us about this film, what it’s about, and what it means to you.

Three is my debut feature film, a lifelong dream. It was challenging to make this project happen. I was initially ready to go ahead in 2019, but then the pandemic hit, and everything paused for a year and a half, and then I had to kick-start it again. I didn’t raise enough funds to shoot the film, so I was stuck in a situation where if I didn’t raise the entire amount, I had to decide whether to return the money to the investors or try to make them wait longer until I find more investment. It was a challenging place to be in. Then a good friend of my husband’s suggested I shoot somewhere else in the world. My film was ninety percent indoors, so it didn’t have to be shot in the UAE; I could easily shoot somewhere cheaper. So I decided to go to Thailand. I started working with a location scout, and when the numbers started coming in, we were shocked by how far the budget could stretch in Thailand. I didn’t realise there would be such an incredible calibre of crew there. There are some incredibly talented people, and they film a lot of content there, so I was fortunate to work with a very experienced team who were used to working on Hollywood films.


What can you tell us about the story and genre of the movie?

It’s a film about mental health, a very relevant topic, but it’s also about exorcism in Islam. Looking at two schools of thought and the ideology of treating people through spiritual and religious healing, and also looking at it from a medical perspective. And this time, we decided to take our character on both routes and the clash, so things get quite controversial, and it’s an interesting journey. The character goes on a journey of self-confusion, and we also see the journey of his mother working through this. It’s based on a true story, and I wanted to really depict the emotional journey of this mother and her son, as it’s a very human story.

All of the exteriors were shot in the UAE, and the interiors in Bangkok. I’m returning to Thailand next week to finish the post- production, working on the sound design and music composition until I bring the film to its final stage. I have officially submitted it to the Toronto Film Festival, and I plan to send it to the Venice Film Festival and Sundance to see where my luck is! I also plan to send it to the Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia. It’s exciting to see what the reaction will be, it’s impossible to predict, but as a team, we did everything we could to mitigate the risk and ensure the film gets the best chance possible.

I worked alongside a very experienced producer and was in excellent hands. My husband also produced the film with me, and the people that really touched my heart were the investors because they believed in me. I’m particularly pleased about my female investor because she has never put money into a film before, but she does support women with getting education scholarships which is amazing. I owe both of my investors so much; they made my dream come true! The film will be ready in July, and hopefully, the minute it is released at a festival, we will start to get attention from buyers, etc.



And this movie is based on a short film that you already produced?

Yes, the film is based on my short film called “The Shadow”, which was bought by Netflix for worldwide release. It was around fifteen minutes long, and I wrote and produced it. My new film “Three” is based on the concept of “The Shadow.” I am happy to say that in the production of “The Shadow” we had one of the highest percentages of women working on set behind the scenes of any film production. It was almost forty per cent women, which was brilliant to watch. And even with “Three.,” we had a lot of women on set, which I’m very happy about.


How would you assess the development of the number of women in the film industry, and what still needs to be done?

Unfortunately, the numbers are still very bleak; we are at twelve per cent of women worldwide. Cinematographers have it the worst, with just three per cent women. It’s twelve per cent for female directors, so slightly more but not fantastic. What’s interesting, however, is that when it comes to producers, there are over thirty per cent female producers worldwide, which is better, but it still needs to increase. Today, studios especially are very male-orientated, and the bigger the money, the lesser the chances of women getting the role, and unfortunately, that is still the reality. Things are changing, but it will take time, remember, it only really started to change with the Me-Too movement, so we need quite a few more years to see a balance.

In the Middle East, there is around a fifty-fifty balance of male and female directors. This is quite surprising, but I think the reason is that we started much later in the game compared with other parts of the world. By then, there were already developments and awareness of the gender imbalance, as well as men and women starting around the same time in the Middle East, compared with the rest of the world where men have been working in the industry for decades before the women arrived.



Tell us about your upcoming movie BAAB.

“BAAB” is more of an arthouse than “Three”. It’s a story about the five stages of death in random order, and it’s about a sister and her twin and the story of grief. One of the sisters discovers a secret about the other who has passed away, and that’s when the mystery starts unravelling, and it’s quite exciting. I worked with two-time Oscar-winning composer A.R Rahman on this film as the primary composer, and I’m very proud to say that he is planning to use an all-female orchestra of over 40 musicians.


The subjects you cover in your films are quite deep, emotional topics – is this a pattern you like to follow with your works?

Yes, I do. I like to tell stories about coming of age, especially with young boys. I think that’s because I saw my brother go through trauma as a child, and I don’t think I ever got past that. So I feel like a lot of my stories cover topics such as divorce, dysfunctional families, and young children dealing with abandonment issues. I come from a divorced home, so there is a sense of that in my stories. It’s almost like therapy! But it’s also a great way to raise awareness.



The latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival has taken place in France, what do you think is the importance of events and festivals such as these for the industry?

They are extremely important because that is where all the big sales happen. They are still very robust and thriving. As a filmmaker, you can meet all the important people, including representatives from streaming platforms, theatrical distributors etc. It’s imperative to work with a sales agent that’s well prepared and make the most of these opportunities and if the film does well at the festival, then you’re set!

Toronto Film Festival, for example, gets 4,000 film submissions each year; from that 4,000, only seven per cent get selected. The chance of your film being showcased is tough. Sometimes your movie might not get chosen, but it’s not because your film isn’t good enough, it could depend on if there’s a political agenda happening in the world, or the theme of the festival, there are so many elements that play into it, including some good luck!


What is something you would still like to achieve in your career?

I would like to be one of the most successful film studios in the Middle East that can produce films for the rest of the world. I want to be able to produce two to three movies a year and I would also like to produce films for other directors.

What more would you like to see done in the film industry in the region?

I always say this, but I truly believe that the UAE desperately needs a film grant. We need treaties with other countries, and we absolutely need government incentives and grants invested in the film industry

because it’s impossible here. Finding investors is the only way to produce a film here, but it is so difficult. If you look at a Canadian film or an American film, for example, you will see that for a two-million- dollar film; they only have to raise a small part of the budget in cash; the rest is supplemented in a variety of different ways – cashback, incentive, government grants – we don’t have that option here, and that’s why my film was 100 per cent self-funded. It’s also very risky doing it that way, but I had no other choice. I don’t understand why nothing has happened yet; I don’t think they see the potential; I think it might take one or two films to break the mould for them to take notice.


What is the one film you love to watch over and over again?

That’s a tough one! I have a lot of films that I love, but I don’t know if I have one particular favourite. If I had to pick a genre, it’s easy – I love psychological thrillers, anything very dark! I also appreciate a lot of directors’ work, such as Roman Polanski’s, I like Wes Anderson, and in the Middle East, I like Nadine Labaki’s work.



Who would play you in a movie about yourself?

Helena Bonham Carter combined with Cate Blanchett! The seriousness of Cate mixed with the quirkiness of Helena.


Where do you like to travel, and where is a place that inspires you?

I like to travel to Cape Town; it’s beautiful, very relaxing, a place where I find a lot of stunning visuals, and I feel very at peace there. Interestingly, a place that inspires me is Bangkok; I like the energy there.


What else is in the pipeline for the coming year?

As you know, I’m finishing off “Three,” my first feature film, and I’m working on “BAAB”, my second feature film, and I’m already thinking about my third. Two of my sisters are screenplay writers, and they are helping me think of the third, and it might be a horror-comedy, a genre I’ve never explored before but I’m very interested in. My first two films are very heavy and emotional, so I think it would be nice to do something light and fun that will also show my range of directing. I’m also hoping that once I’m finished with the first film that, I get an offer to have an agent represent me in a wonderful management company in The United States.


What message would you send our readers and your fans about your upcoming movie?

I think this is the first time in the history of filmmaking where an Englishman is portrayed at the heart of an Emirati family. He has full access to this family, and you see him become wholly immersed and integrated with them. The mix of East and West is so beautifully done, showing the authenticity of the cultures and personalities. There is a coming together of religions and colliding ideologies, and it’s about how people from very different lives come together to try and help this child. What’s beautiful about the film is how the wonderful cast comes together, and we see Arabs portrayed in a genuine way. It will be different from anything else you’ve seen.