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April 9, 2015

Interview: Emirati film director Nayla Al Khaja

Emirati Nayla Al Khaja overcame obstacles to become an award-winning filmmaker. She tells SM about never giving up and how she feels the past 12 years have been just a warm up…

After graduating from Dubai Women’s College with a degree in mass communication in 1999, Al Khaja hosted a travel show on the Arabian Radio Network. She then graduated in image studies and filmmaking from Canada’s Ryerson University in 2005. Unveiling Dubai, her first documentary, premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival and in 2006, she produced and directed Arabana, a six-minute film on child abuse, a taboo subject in the Middle East, for which she won best Emirati filmmaker. She won the UAE International Young Screen Entrepreneur Award, the British Council’s International Young Screen Entrepreneur Award and the LloydsTSB Bank Inspirational Leader Prize and was named Woman of the Year by Emirates Woman. She talks to SM

Why become a director and producer?
I love telling stories about people and film is larger than life. It’s also chaotic – I have a short attention span, so it keeps me entertained.

What do you like/dislike about filming?
I like the creative process; I don’t like the admin. I am very patient when it comes to finishing a film, (despite my attention span) and I don’t mind spending a year or two on one project if it’s worth it.

You’re seen as being bold…
I have tackled subjects I deem important here in the UAE and that are important for us, taboo or not. If it’s interesting, I film it.

What’s your secret to success?
It’s resilience and wanting something so much. I’m quite slow, I take my time because I want the finished product to be great. I have not reached even 40 per cent of my dreams, but I will be pursuing them until the end. I’m at the beginning – the past 12 years have just been warming up.

Is it more difficult as a woman in business?
Business has nothing to do with gender although there are some difficulties being female. I couldn’t study film because of my gender but I found a way. It’s important not to deny women an education. Also, people tend to say “let’s support her because she’s female” and I don’t like that. I would rather be supported because I am a professional.

What does an ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ mean to you and can anyone foster it?
I know different types of entrepreneurs  – including introverts. They have drive and persistence. If something doesn’t work they go back and try again.

How do you source for your films?
If I am directing a producer does that for me. They package everything from sourcing equipment to finding casting directors. If I am producing I help my producer ensure everything is done. One of the biggest assets of being a UAE national is knowing how to manoeuvre my way through government.

How do you control costs?
I don’t use modelling agencies to find actors. It’s kind of raw casting. Sometimes we use social media or I walk through a mall and just find people. I also use senior students for assisting roles, some of them are brilliant. You’ll be amazed what you can do to keep costs down. You can create package deals. For example, if you have an editor you like you can give them more than one project to get a better rate.

How do you inspire others?
I work with my heart and try to be as real as possible. Being honest with yourself helps you to be transparent. Being free-spirited and uninhibited can go a long way.
What inspires people is that you are fearless, that’s the key.

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