UAE's first female filmmaker gearing up for feature film

Being the UAE's first female producer and director is definitely a title to celebrate, but Nayla Al Khaja is still nowhere close to the ambitions she seeks to reach. As her short film Animal just got selected for the Jury Special Prize for 'Best Short Fiction' at the 9th Italian Movie Award in Pompeii among 70 other global short films, Al Khaja became the first and only Emirati director to receive two international awards. Her previous short film The Neighbor bagged Best Film at the Middle East Film Festival in Florence in 2014.

After 15 years in the film industry, the filmmaker and entrepreneur is gearing up to shoot her first feature film - the complete version of Animal. The dark psychological thriller, inspired by a true story dating back to the early 1980s, portrays a "sociopath and narcissist" father who dominates over his timid wife and innocent child causing an aura of horror at home. It zooms into how the family, especially the 7-year-old child, copes with living under such circumstances with a touch of occasional dark humour.

The decision to make her first feature film, she said, came after long years of overcoming obstacles and learning to master her cinematic sense and knowledge. The film's story hit certain strings in her heart. "I want to show how growing up in a house held by an iron-fisted parent can shape people's lives in a destructive, yet incredibly amazing way," the CEO of Nayla Al Khaja Films said. "It shows how the family uses comedy to break out of this fear. The father's atrocities and strong presence shape the children's imagination, making them extra creative, fun and mad."

The innocence of children is juxtaposed against narcissism, creating a massive clash between two different worlds. "My main message is that even if you had a dark upbringing, you can have a positive ending to your life," said Al Khaja who set a budget of $1.4 million (Dh4.2 million) for the feature film to be shot in Dubai and Ukraine. She said she hopes through the film's characters that somehow relate to the audience, people would be inspired to deal with narcissistic and controlling personalities in their lives.

The 13-minute short film premiered at last year's Dubai International Film Festival, and was nominated for the Muhr Emirati Awards. It is currently being circulated across film festivals around the world. Al Khaja said filmmakers must consider allocating budgets for distribution even before starting a project. "People make a film, then what? That's the question. You spend a lot of money on a film, then what? Distribution is a sensitive process that is not taken care of unfortunately," said Al Khaja, highlighting that there's a large scope around the world for short films.

The Dh80,000 short Animal had an extra expense of Dh15,000 for distribution, which, she said, was worth every penny.

"Find an agent or sales distributor who will represent you in all festivals around the world. If your film made it to 40 of them, it means you have a great project," said Al Khaja, who's aiming to raise enough funds through the short film to start the feature.

Government film funding needed

Although the UAE film industry has "incredibly bloomed with talents and infrastructure", challenges remain ahead of local filmmakers.

Al Khaja said aspiring directors need incubation or a course to train them on developing a concept into a script. A government film fund or a "cultural grant" is also needed to help finance at least top three Emirati scripts a year that can reach international festivals.

"There's almost no Emirati films screened until today in big and small international festivals, which really hurts," said Al Khaja.

She added that while Dubai has recently become an attractive set for international Hollywood blockbusters like Star Trek and Mission Impossible, it is time to display local talents abroad.

"Authorities must think about those films as cultural ambassadors to the country. It will be a return of cultural investment that will raise UAE's profile in international cinema."

Additionally, the lack of experienced producers is an obstacle hindering the development of local films. Al Khaja said the government could help link creative people with professional producers who can package films financially. Known for her previous controversial stories, Al Khaja advised aspiring filmmakers to avoid letting cultural barriers hinder their careers.

"As long as you're not insulting your culture, religion or leaders then your films will never backfire. Symbolism can be used to tell a meaningful message as sometimes you need only few colours to make a beautiful canvas instead of a whole palette."

She said filmmakers must focus on developing the emotional aspect of their stories rather than the technical side. "Learn the crafts of filmmaking. Anyone can make a stunning image but not everyone can tell a stunning story."

Nayla Al Khaja's long journey in Emirati cinema

Nayla Al Khaja produced, wrote and directed award-winning films. Besides being the first and only Emirati director to be rewarded twice in international film festivals, she holds many accolades including 'Best Emirati Filmmaker' (DIFF 2007 and 2011). Her short film Malal received the Muhr Emirati Award at DIFF 2010 and The Neighbor was awarded Best Emirati Film at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Film Festival. To date, her films have participated in over 42 festivals worldwide. Being the CEO of Nayla Al Khaja Films, she is also founder of The Scene, Dubai's first film club. She was ranked among the Top 50 most powerful personalities in Arab Cinema and 100 most powerful Arabs under 40 by Arabian Business Magazine..