Screenwriter, director, and producer Nayla Al Khaja. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja, who will roll out her debut feature film ‘Three’ in UAE cinemas on February 1, sees her psychological horror movie as the proverbial underdog amidst a sea of cinematic giants like ‘Oppenheimer,’ which re-released in local cinemas after it secured a whopping 13 Oscar nods.

“I am absolutely 120 per cent, the underdog here, and that’s why please promote and support my film. Incidentally, we do have the British actor Jefferson Hall, who is also in ‘Oppenheimer,’ playing Dr. Mark Holly in my film. So that’s a super cool connection there,” said Nayla Al Khaja in an interview with Gulf News.

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She describes ‘Three’, which premiered at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia last month, as a mother’s desperate quest to save her son “against all adversities.”

“It’s about exorcism… But more than that, it’s about mental health – a taboo topic that’s packaged in a way that’s respectful but also very eerie,” added Al Khaja.

The movie chronicles the life of the 13-year-old Ahmed — played efficiently by Emirati actor Saud Alzarooni — who suddenly begins acting strange, prompting his desperate mother Maryam (an on-point Faten Ahmed) to seek help from a Western doctor and traditional exorcists. The push and pull in a mother who’s willing to try traditional and modern methods to save her son from his own inner demons, the helplessness that a family experiences are tapped into. Al Khaja explores such complex themes, including mental health, superstition, helplessness, and the battle between Western medicine and cultural beliefs with a deft hand.

“This movie will make you think twice, and I think the ending will surprise you… ‘Three’ is a different kind of a psychological horror film in the sense that you don’t know when the dread will come or what’s going to happen to the characters. The characters shift dramatically… My style of filmmaking has always been slow burn before it goes into a massive crescendo with that big reveal,” said Al Khaja with a wink.

This spunky filmmaker is one of the biggest female filmmaking cultural exports from this region. Her short films ‘Animal’ and ‘The Shadow’ (The idea of culling out ‘Three’ took shape with this short film) are now streaming on Netflix and have been the toast of film festivals. With her debut feature ‘Three’, she has amped up the scale and ambitions by a few notches and is intent on creating a suspenseful feature that doesn’t rely on the usual horror film tropes like campy storylines and not-so-subtle jumpscares.

‘Three’ is meditative slow-burn film that’s high on atmospherics with a generous dose of eerie thrown in.

Like most filmmakers who describe moviemaking as an incredibly tough and competitive field, Al Khaja also admits that making this film was far from easy.

Shot in the UAE and Bangkok over a period of 24 days during COVID-19 wave, Al Khaja filmed ‘Three’ when restrictions on a movie set to curb possible outbreaks were at an all-time high.

The movie chronicles the life of the 13-year-old Ahmed — played efficiently by Emirati actor Saud Alzarooni.

“When I shot this film, the horror of testing daily some 200-plus crew and all those PCR tests was scarier than making a horror film … Remember if one actor in the A zone fell ill, it meant we had to shut down for ten days and the whole production would have been in the water. So, carrying that burden on my shoulder and just hoping, praying to God that we stay safe was probably the biggest miracle that happened to this film,” said Al Khaja.

Emirati content creator AbdulRazzaq Al Khaja, who makes his acting debut with ‘Three’, couldn’t agree more. In a separate interview, the talent who goes by the handle Abdokhj was all praise for his director for being a complete trooper. He plays the son of a religious exorcist.

“She handled all the stress on her during peak COVID-19 like total pro … She did such a great job of really taking in all that stress, as actors we barely felt it … Every day was like some 10 to 12 days of shoot in Thailand. It was tiring and we had come back exhausted, but we all went to sleep with a smile on our faces … It was marvelous,” said AbdulRazzaq, admitting that the acting bug has bitten him solidly.

Apart from the thrills and scares, the film also boasts a diverse cast. Apart from the young Emirati lead Saud, ‘Three’ also features Saudi actor Mohannad Huthail and Welsh-Thai actress Kelly B.

“It’s a cross-cultural horror film … I had to find a cast who can speak English and Arabic, and not the other way round. It was a very big challenge to find the main character as well - a 13-year-old who can embody so many different personalities in the film and have these different nuances that look striking-yet-believable,” said Al Khaja.

And a fun trivia about training the lens on Saud, the troubled boy in the film?

Scene from the movie 'Three'

“A lot of people don’t know this, but we had two body doubles for him because it was exhausting for just one to do all those nightmarish scenes … But I have always loved a good challenge,” said Al Khaja.

All that hard work seems to have paid off. During a special screening of ‘Three’ to select journalists and industry members in Dubai’s Vox Cinemas last week, Al Khaja’s film was met with a standing ovation. ‘Three’ isn’t her last stab at feature films either. Al Khaja’s next feature project ‘Baab’ a fantasy film, will see Oscar-winner AR Rahman compose its music.

So, how difficult is it to be a female filmmaker in this region? Does gender come into play when it comes to opportunities in filmmaking?

“Let me tell you something. It’s not easy for a female director and it’s not easy for a male director. For me, it’s about being a professional and working extremely hard so that that the glass will crack at some point. Having that spirit of perseverance, and not giving up is one of the key factors to making it in this industry. It’s not for the faint hearted.”

True to her word, Al Khaja has been in the industry for more than a decade now producing and directing stories that are rooted to this region and beyond.

And there are a few people who share her vision. Co-producer of ‘Three’, Saeed Al Darmaki, told Gulf News that he hopes to elevate independent and mainstream Arabic cinema to global standards.

A scene from the movie 'Three' Image Credit:

“I have been working in the film industry for over 12 years in the US and UK. But this is my first film that I produced in my home country that’s releasing in the theatres … And what made me back the project was the dedication and bravery I saw in Nayla. Filmmaking is a scary animal, and the film industry is one of the most ungrateful industries in the world and it is only meant for people who are brave and go the extra mile. Nayla went that extra mile and 10,000 miles more,” said Al Darmaki, who had also worked with Al Khaja in ‘Shadow’.

And their combined philosophy of how filmmaking isn’t for the faint-hearted also rings true to their latest horror production.

Al Khaja, who counts Roman Polanski’s iconic horror flick ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ as one of her favourite horror films (she likes his art, but not anything more she clarifies) and grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King/Dean Koontz horror novels, hopes her viewers will find her brand of ‘calm horror’ satisfying.

“And I want to make it super clear that this is a film not just for Arabs, but it’s a cross cultural film that really made for everyone. You will hear a lot of English and Arabic and it’s properly sub-titled. It’s very easy to follow … So, I hope you all enjoy the ride.”

Don’t Miss It: ‘Three’ is out in UAE cinemas now on Feb 1