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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Against the grain

The UAE fillmmaker Nayla al Khaja talks about her new project in Kerala and the strains her career has put on her relationship with her traditionally-minded parents.
Nayla al Khaja, a UAE filmmaker who also owns and runs her own production company, acknowledges the sacrifices she's made for her work but wouldn't have it any other way.
Nayla al Khaja, a UAE filmmaker who also owns and runs her own production company, acknowledges the sacrifices she's made for her work but wouldn't have it any other way.

If Nayla al Khaja is feeling the weight of responsibility for her latest film project, it doesn't show. At 3 am today, she and 10 cast and crew members are due to board a flight for Kerala, India, to start shooting a new short movie. Her BlackBerry is abuzz with messages and she's interrupted every few minutes with an administrative query from a member of staff, but she deals with it all in a cool, methodical way as she makes her final preparations.

If anything, she appears to thrive on the multitude of decisions she has to make, meetings she has to fit in before she departs and irritating administrative details that need to be ironed out - visas to apply for, hotels to book. Today, she's close to a deal with a television channel on a documentary her company made earlier this year; she's also been helping a friend sell one of their films, and ideas for projects scheduled for later are jostling for attention in her head.

It's just a normal day for the boss of a production company. The current short movie that's taking al Khaja to India is about a day in the life of a young bride who finds herself bored and alone on her honeymoon and experiences a life-changing encounter with a stranger. It sounds like controversial material, and it's certainly challenging, although al Khaja insists there is no infidelity involved; it's more of an emotional journey for the young female character.

It's also a testing project for its 32-year-old producer and director. Already well established as the UAE's only full-time female Emirati film producer, al Khaja's own professional journey has been even more challenging than that of her fictional heroine. The filmmaker has made considerable sacrifices in order to pursue her dream. It has not been easy to convince her parents that movie-making is a respectable line of work for a young Emirati woman. In fact, she admits that even after nine years of learning about the film business, setting up her own company and producing several short films, television advertisements and corporate videos, it remains difficult.

"Aspects of the movie business go against our traditions - especially if you are in a key position. Women travelling alone, working crazy hours, attending late-night events and mixing with strange people - it's not the ideal life for a daughter. If an Emirati woman wants to be a film editor, then it's more acceptable. "I love my parents very much and respect the fact they are very traditional and very conservative. They are both entrepreneurs in their 60s. My mother was a great inspiration - she was responsible for building a school - but neither of my parents is happy about the path I've chosen. They always wanted me to be a doctor.

"I understand how difficult it is for them because there has been so much change in such a short time here. They have had to get used to change very quickly, and it takes time to assimilate it all. They haven't had time to settle. "The other thing is that they have had to deal with the fact that I'm the first Emirati woman to make filmmaking her full-time profession. There's nobody to compare me with."

Al Khaja has inadvertently become a role model for literally hundreds of young Emiratis who want to follow in her footsteps. Every time she appears on television or radio she receives a fresh flood of e-mails asking for help and telling her what an inspiration she is. In fact, she has had to set up a second Facebook page because her "friends" have passed the allocated 5,000 mark. Al Khaja, who was a pupil at Latifa School, graduated from Dubai Women's College with a higher diploma in mass communications.

After her marriage at the age of 22, she attended Ryerson University in Toronto and gained a degree in film studies, majoring in production. Sadly, her marriage ended after four years. Although she worked as a radio presenter for the Arabian Radio Network for several years and had her own travel show, her heart was not in it. She did, however, discover she had a talent for pulling in sponsors, which stood her in good stead when it came to setting up her own business.

"Somehow radio was more acceptable to my parents, as it was just my voice and not my face. I got sponsors for my show, and the network wanted me to work in the marketing department instead of being a presenter. I'm not a shy person and I connect things together and am good at working out why a company might like to support a certain show. But I wasn't happy being a radio jockey. I wanted more." When she decided to set up her own production company, D-Seven Motion Pictures eight years ago, al Khaja says, there were no gender issues. What was missing, however, were work opportunities in the fledgling UAE movie industry.

"When I was starting there wasn't much going on in the film world, so we did a lot of ads and corporate videos. You have to in order to survive. It pays the bills," she says. Her documentaries have included Unveiling Dubai, a 40-minute film about living in the city viewed through the eyes of a young westerner, guided by an Emirati woman who helps the young man adjust his preconceptions. Another, titled High Goal, features the Al Habtoor Polo Team and their efforts to promote the sport.

A project in development features an Emirates air hostess who went to Dakar for her birthday, was touched by the plight of orphaned children there and has dedicated five years of her life to raising money to help them. Al Khaja is clearly proud of the more difficult subjects she has chosen to highlight, such as child abuse and secret dating. In her short film Once, a young Arab teenager, Hamda, plans to meet her boyfriend for the first time. Her best friend covers for her and Hamda herself lies to her father but can't resist the thrill of the secret romance.

"The choice of subjects is controversial, but these things need to be addressed. All the films have one common denominator and that's the lack of communication between the people who are supposed to be closest to each other, the teenagers who can't speak to their families for example," she says. Al Khaja's current project, called Mallal, which means "bored", was conceived during a wet afternoon in Sharjah where the filmmaker was attending a conference. "I wrote my script during a lull at a conference. It was pouring with rain, and I was staying at a not very nice three-star hotel that felt like something from the 1930s. The whole script just came out of nowhere.

"I spotted the location I wanted when I was watching other films at the Gulf Film Festival and went on a locations recce in May when I found a similar hotel at Munar near Kerala, where the story is set. It's famous for its luscious settings and tea plantations and is a favourite destination for honeymooners. It's a gutsy script about a bored and irritated woman whose new husband is a nice guy but doesn't give her the attention she needs.

"I know quite a few people like that, but of course it's very much exaggerated. [The character] is trying her best, but their expectations of marriage are too high. In her limited experience men and women don't connect." The core of the story centres on a platonic but nonetheless significant relationship that the bride forms with a young Indian man she meets one afternoon when her husband is called away on business and she is left alone.

"Something happens and she is left alone for a day and has the best time of her life. There is no infidelity but a lot of sexual tension with the person she meets. When she goes back to her husband she is ready to accept her life," says al Khaja. The film is being funded by twofour54, the Abu Dhabi-based, government-backed company dedicated to establishing a sustainable Arabic media and entertainment industry.

The company is also funding two young UAE trainees to accompany al Khaja for the duration of the shoot, where they will receive hands-on training in the art of filmmaking. They will be making their own behind-the-scenes video and taking stills as part of their training. Wayne Borg, chief operating officer at twofour54, describes al Khaja as "an outstanding talent". "She is well on her way already, and we want to help develop the skills she needs in order to realise her ambitions," he says.

Al Khaja, who will be on location for 11 days and shooting for five, faces tough conditions in India with uphill climbs through rough forest areas. She will link up with another 20 locally hired production crew, but it will be far from the glamorous life of a Hollywood producer. The team's basic accommodation is a three-star budget hotel. Al Khaja is hoping her film will be ready to be shown in the autumn.

She auditioned locally for actors to play the three main roles and says she is "excited" about the talent she has discovered. "We advertised auditions on TV, radio and via social websites like Facebook and Twitter to find the three main actors - the young honeymooners and a young Indian man. None of them are full-time actors. "It will be hard work, and of course it is Ramadan, so there will be a special food plan for Muslims who are fasting and there will be a doctor on the set."

When she is not directing movies and documentaries, al Khaja is constantly on the move, talking to potential backers at film festivals and trying to sell her films to television channels. She is hoping to embark on a full-length feature film before too long and has been developing a script, based on a true story, about a nine-year-old girl, Rahma (which means "mercy"), who gets lost in the desert and then meets a Bedouin who teaches her survival skills and the art of falconry.

Al Khaja has already made a name for herself in the industry and won several awards. Earlier this year she was invited by the US state department to join a group of 17 filmmakers from around the world on a visit to Los Angeles. "It was a wonderful experience, and I met people from Kosovo, Palestine, Israel, Tibet and Ghana. But I have no desire to make a career [in the US]. I want to create something here that can be exported to the West. I would like to discover the next Angelina Jolie. Hopefully, it won't be long before there are a lot of supporting bodies like film schools and acting schools in the UAE. Education is key.

"There are many Emiratis who have the talent and the ideas, but have lacked the infrastructure that is required to turn their ideas into reality. However, that is changing fast and they are now being given the right support and opportunities." Al Khaja's ultimate ambition is to produce darker psychological films - her favourite is Stanley Kubrick's thriller A Clockwork Orange. She acknowledges, however, that it will be some time before she reaches that goal.

In the meantime, she is struggling to fulfill all of her dreams. "I would love to get married again and have children, but unless a man is very open-minded, he wouldn't last seven hours with me. Filmmaking is a central part of my life. I can see the impact of it long term, and I realise I'm in a very fortunate situation with the support I have received, but I have also sacrificed so much for this - like having a nice, comfortable life. Today I'm a self-employed Emirati woman making a fraction of what I could have made, but I'm living my dream."