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Digital Cover featuring Nayla Al Khaja

Arabian Moda x Nayla Al Khaja
Nayla Al Khaja is wearing Chopard earrings in 18-carat white gold featuring 26.82-carats of diamonds, a necklace in 18-carat white gold featuring 58.75-carats of pear-shaped and round-shaped diamonds and a ring in 18-carat white gold featuring a round brilliant-cut diamond and diamonds, all from the Haute Joaillerie Collection. 

In a very male-dominated Arab filmmaking industry, the passionate and visionary Nayla Al Khaja was determined to cut through the status quo and establish a name for her own.

As she works on her two upcoming feature films that include award-winning veterans, Al Khaja pushes storytelling to the next level in the Middle East. Her persistence on having an all-female cast and tackling taboo topics will make of her new projects, Three and Baab, a heated debate on the festival circuit.

Arabian Moda sat down with Nayla to discuss her take on Arab cinema, breaking stereotypes and sharing local authentic stories for the world to see. 

Fashion Editor: Victor Concepto
Photographer: Joy Strotz

AM: Nayla you are known as the first female filmmaker in the United Arab Emirates. How fond are you of this title? And do you think that our industry needs to look beyond that?
It’s an honor to be recognized as the first female filmmaker in the UAE, however, I have broken many other barriers and glass ceilings that unfortunately people don’t always acknowledge. For instance, I wrote a treatment for a series called the Stinger Sisters, which in our region is known as Raya and Sakina, and that developed into an international series called The Alexandria Killings, picked up by Oscar-winning Director Terry George. There are many major milestones in my life, but people like to focus on the first. This makes me push myself constantly and challenge my previous accomplishments.

AM: What is your mission in the cinema industry?
I am hoping that as an Arab filmmaker I will bring something new and fresh to the table. I want to have a strong and genuine voice in the Arab region and internationally, and to create films that travel around the world and break stereotypes about Arab women. I am proud that the heroines of my two upcoming films will achieve that with respect and class, they are women who have complex characters and are part of our everyday society.

Arabian Moda x Nayla Al Khaja

AM: And what are some of these stereotypes that you are tired of seeing?
We are seen as the 3Bs: billionaires, belly dancers and bombers which is really pathetic. We need to stop pushing that agenda. The Arab female is always portrayed as someone who needs help and rescue, even people around me look at me with sorrow when I say I am Middle Eastern. Little do they know that in the Arab world we are way ahead. The gender balance in film is much higher here than the rest of the world; it’s almost 50% whereas in Hollywood it’s only 9%.

I am also tired of hearing the question of whether I hired strong women in my films, nobody ever asks that about male actors. What’s more relevant is to inquire about the characters regardless of gender. One day I would love to cast an Arab serial killer role that is a woman, simply because I want to show our society from a different perspective.

AM: In your opinion, why do we not see enough Emirati talents at international film festivals?
It’s really something we need to work on. Festivals and sponsors need to support the underdogs, the women who have been creating films, projects and stories that are pushing boundaries, those who are shooting films and are making a change. My goal is to discover an Emirati actress and introduce her to the international scene.  

AM: How much of a struggle was it to break into the film industry?
The issue is in the infrastructure. It’s expensive to shoot in our region because of the lack of crew and low number of films being shot. Filmmaking is not a priority. The UAE has a thing that when it sets its heart and mind into something it delivers the best result, take Expo 2020 Dubai or Burj Khalifa as an example. I am sure that when they realize the power of storytelling, they will place it at the forefront. In the meantime, we’ll have to navigate our ways through the forest. For example, in my upcoming feature film I am shooting four weeks in Bangkok and only one week in Dubai because of the financial incentives Thailand has to offer. 

AM: As a filmmaker which narratives interest you the most?
I am very interested in the human psyche and a lot of my movies work with complex characters and situations. My first feature film Three is about exorcism in Islam so it’s quite heavy and based on a true-life story in the 1990s. My following film Baab, is an art-house fantasy and has the two-time Oscar-winning music director A. R. Rahman onboard with an-all female orchestra. 

Arabian Moda x Nayla Al KhajaAM: What kind of actors do you favor?
I like street casting and films with a very soulful atmosphere.

AM: Is commercial success something that you seek?
100%. I am a businesswoman by nature, I run my company Nayla Al Khaja Films, for over 18 years now. I am tight on how and why I spend money. Dominantly I am a producer, the director comes second. We need to give investors what they pay for and hence they will come back, otherwise we lose them.

AM: Has your family been supportive of your choice of profession? And how are you able to juggle motherhood and a career?
At the very beginning my family said they would be supportive as long as I didn’t study film. They gave me a middle ground and told me I can only shoot documentaries, which are less glamorous and more informational. Being the rebel I am, I followed my dream and they eventually got accustomed to my job. As for motherhood, it’s been difficult and challenging. But I am lucky to have a supporting husband who has a more stable 9-to-5 kind of job.

AM: A piece of advice to film enthusiasts who look up to you?
A practical advice is to volunteer, go on film sets and shadow established directors. Visit all the departments and talk to all the crew, this will help you find out where you fit in the best.

AM: Finally, tell us more about your upcoming film Three
Three is scheduled to be out in December 2022. It is about how far a mother would go to save her son against all adversities and obstacles. The son has a medical condition diagnosed as a possession. She resorts to a western doctor to navigate the madness. There is a love story underlined and a melting pot of nationalities and religions. The subtext is tolerance and the ending has a big twist, with an-all Emirati cast, a fully female driven film.