Nayla Al Khaja is the most sought-after woman in the UAE film industry. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival has roped her in to moderate some of the celebrity-filled panels it's hosting, while closer to home, she will be one of the headliners at Tropfest, billed the world's largest short film festival, being held in Abu Dhabi this month.
What is it about this pint-sized dynamo that has UAE film circles enthralled? It doesn't seem to matter that she's made just three short films so far. Nor is it of any consequence that her first feature film is still only in the planning stages. What matters is this: 33-year-old Nayla is the first female film producer in the UAE. "Maybe in all the GCC countries [Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE] - I am not sure," she smiles. Her modest attitude implies that she's not really bothered.
Her CV is impressive. Nayla's short film, Malal (Bored) began life as a treatment which won the Best Script Award in the Gulf Film Festival in 2010 and shortly after became the first Emirati-Indian film shot in Kerala. Nayla even starred in the film to save money. The film debuted at the Dubai International Film Festival in December the same year and, among 14 competitors, won first place in the Muhr Emirati category. It competed in the short film section at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this year, and has been accepted for the River to River Film Festival in Florence in December.
Nayla also won the British Council's International Young Screen Entrepreneur Award in 2010, competing against ten other finalists from around the world.
But Nayla is not fussed with records or titles. She's acquired a few on her own steam as CEO of her production company D-Seven Motion Pictures, and D-Seven FZ LLC, a marketing and design agency. D-Seven was established in 2005 and has completed a host of prestigious projects such as Bloom! Cine Startups, a joint venture with companies such as Canon and the Ministry of Culture and Community Development to promote independent film-making. She's also the guiding force behind The Scene Club, the UAE's first official film club featuring independent cinema. In short, she has a hand in every film pie in the UAE, and is now slowly spreading her wings in the region.
First foray into film-making
Nayla did a course in graphic design after majoring in mass communication at the Dubai Women's College, but that didn't hold her interest. "I wanted to do something more ambitious, more dynamic," she says. "I see film-making as a reflection of these characteristics of mine. Film as a medium is very unpredictable and chaotic, but it can also be organised and conservative. It can also be very controversial. There are so many shades and patterns and colours involved, it is a huge range of emotions and I think that's what attracted me to film-making. It's like a roller-coaster ride."
And Nayla loves that. "There's nothing like a routine. I can't do a nine-to-six job. For instance, today I came in at noon and will probably leave at midnight. I can't be put into a straitjacket; I'd die."
When she realised she wanted to make movies, Nayla enrolled at the Ryerson University in Toronto and majored in film directing with a minor in film producing. She made her first film, a documentary called Unveiling Dubai in 2004, a year before she graduated. The film premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF). "That was a very good exercise for me - dealing with real situations, real people," she says.
The fact that there was no film industry to speak of in the UAE did not slow Nayla down. After graduation she went about making short films. She hit the jackpot with her first, Arabana (2006), which won a lot of praise for its dark overtones and controversial subject matter. Veteran Hollywood producer Edward Pressman (Wall Street, American Psycho) called it "gorgeous and disturbing".
It touched on the sensitive topic of child abuse, and told the story effectively in less than six and a half minutes. "I am proud of Arabana, because I think it touched a lot of people somehow," she says. Unicef used it in one of its educational campaigns.
Nayla is a savvy marketing person too. She realised that she had to have a body of work to show future investors before she could get backing for her dream project - a feature film. So she went about making short films in various genres, targeting different audiences. Her second film, Once, about a girl out on her first date in Dubai, was targeted at 18-year olds. "My third, Malal, anybody can watch, it is about marriages," she says. The ploy worked. On board, raising the money, is French veteran Jean-Charles Levy (Walled In, Faces in the Crowd), who's producing her untitled film.
The movie is inspired by a true story that happened in the UAE in the 1960s. "It is a survival thriller, quite a human story, there's drama," Nayla says. "It is about a girl lost in the desert who meets a fugitive and they connect."
Nayla is looking for a writer in Arabic as she doesn't want to be burdened with too many duties on her first feature. If things go according to plan, filming should start in December 2012. "The script should be ready by March next year," she says.
Though the film will be in Arabic, Nayla is clearly targeting an international audience. "There isn't much dialogue because the fugitive can't speak Arabic and the girl can't speak English," she says. "They communicate through sign language. It's a very visual, atmospheric film. The audience I am looking at are the 40-somethings."
Projects in the pipeline
Typically though, making a full-length feature film, hasn't stopped Nayla from lining up other projects. She's working on a reality show, Nayla's 100, which will deal with the many different nationalities here in the UAE. The series will follow a Dh100 note as it changes hands, examining the characters who handle it. "Sometimes I feel people don't integrate very well. Everybody sticks to their own group. I wanted to link people together. Right now it is in the process of being commissioned so hopefully we should start shooting for a local channel soon."
She has Asif Zubairi, who worked on Australia's Got Talent and Big Brother fine-tuning the 14-episode series.
While her family enjoys her success now, it wasn't always the case. "They would have preferred me to be a doctor," she says diplomatically. "They had no issues with me making documentaries. But when it came to feature films and drama they got a bit wary because of the reputation surrounding the film industry. But now they've come around. They are neutral. When I received the award for Malal last year, they called to congratulate me. That's a good sign!"
Where does she see herself in ten years? "My long-term dream is to create a film fund, produce three to four genre films a year for all markets," Nayla says.
A Hollywood-style film mogul? Her cool gaze clearly says ‘Why not?' Indeed.