Nayla Al Khaja, featured in Concierge Magazine during DIFF 2017, talks gender equality and gives advice to the future generation of Emirati filmmakers

During Dubai International Film Festival in December 2017, the Dubai Edition of Concierge Magazine (#158) published an article highlighting the Emirati filmmakers transforming the local scene, and featuring Nayla Al Khaja as a pioneer among Emirati women filmmakers. Extracts.

[About the IWC Filmmaker Award, for which Nayla Al Khaja’s Animal was nominated] Al Khaja finds it interesting that the short list is comprised of three Middle Eastern women filmmakers and just one man, and believes that cinema is one area in the UAE where women are thriving in the field. “I feel as if, at the moment, there is a growing wave of women’s empowerment in the region. I feel like women’s voices are being amplified and heard, especially in the realm of film,” she says.
Al Khaja notes that the balance between the number of male directors and female directors is far more even in the UAE than in Hollywood, where women are still woefully underrepresented.
“I feel like we have achieved this ahead of the Western world, because Western cinema had a 100-year head-start – but it was started by men. Hollywood was, and is, very much a boys’ club. In the UAE, where our local film industry is just taking off, it’s really great that we can establish a greater sense of gender equality from the early stages, and set that as a precedent.”
The issue of censorship is one that every filmmaker in this region however must address, although Al Khaja notes approvingly that DIFF has never censored any of its screenings.
“We do have certain limitations compared to the West in one sense, simply because of the cultural identity of the country. So, I suppose in that sense, my painting palette as a filmmaker is perhaps more limited than if I was somewhere else. But I believe that my voice, as an Arab woman, is much stronger here than it would be in the Hollywood mainstream film industry.
“Sometimes, limitations can force you to be more creative. If I can’t say a certain thing or shoot a certain scene, it forces me to find another way to get my message across. I think for now I will continue to ride this wave and see how far UAE filmmakers can go when it comes to pushing boundaries.”

[About the young generation of Emirati filmmakers] Like [Ali] Mostafa and [Ahmed] Zain, Al Khaja has advice for young artists who aspire to participate at DIFF themselves one day. “Telling you to ‘follow your dreams’ is easy to say, but hard to do, so I like to offer practical advice. First, find out which productions are happening in the country – contact the Dubai Film and TV Commission – then volunteer to be an intern on set. Try out different departments so that you can really understand which part of the industry you want to join. Learn from the professionals. The experience will be invaluable.”