Nayla Al Khaja could have horror gold on her hands.
The Emirati director — and self-proclaimed ‘queen of shorts’ — is developing her first full-length feature film, an Arabic-language supernatural thriller titled ‘The Shadow’.
The script is inspired by the ‘horrific’ real-life experience of her young relative who was ‘very, very sick’, leading family members to believe he’s possessed.
“Some of the stuff that we experienced was quite horrific. The family was divided — [half of them] thought it was possession and mainly [focused on] the topics of exorcism and Islam. The other half believed it was just a neurological issue,” said Al Khaja.
One incident in particular has been burned into the filmmaker’s memory.
As a young child, she watched through the balustrade as the teenaged boy in question — around 14 or 15 years old at the time — cried.
“Then he stopped, so we all thought he died for a second. [But] when the athan [call to prayer] happened, there was an infant sound that came out of him. It was like someone just delivered a baby and he started crying in a baby voice,” recalled Al Khaja.
“In real life, he does imitate voices, so there’s always a reason where you think, ‘OK, maybe this is not as romantic as we think.’ But it was a struggle. It was a year-and-a-half massive struggle [of] how far a mother would go to save her son.
“I was really interested in those incidents that happened in front of me — it was very visceral, so that’s what I would like to expand on in the future film, to make it as real as possible.”
‘The Shadow’ follows the desperate plight of young mum Maryam (Sara Al Aqeeli), who believes her nine-year-old son is unwell or possessed. Frantic for a solution, she visits Mulla Yousuf (Mohanned Huthail), a Muslim scholar who specialises in such cases.
But as the Mulla begins to question Maryam’s character, she discovers he may not be who he seems.
Al Khaja screened a 15-minute scene last week. In it, the Mulla interrogates Maryam about the strength of her faith, insinuating that she might have done something to anger a jinn-like entity, such as drop boiling water on the ground.
He then recounts a terrifying incident in Iraq, where a bedridden woman with menstrual cramps screams for her house help Hajjar to hurry up with a pot of hot water to relieve her pain. But Hajjer accidentally spills the hot liquid as she climbs up the stairs. A shadow appears. In a heart-stopping moment, Hajjar dunks her head into the scorching pot, reappearing with a blistering red face.
Perhaps even more chilling, however, is that Maryam’s tense consultation with the Mulla comes to an abrupt end when a small boy enters the room to tell her that the Mulla is now ready to see her. Perturbed, she looks over to see she’s been speaking to an empty chair.
“Sometimes you look at him as a good guy, and in another minute, you look at him as a bad guy. Balancing between the good and bad in the same character was a challenge for me,” said Dubai-based actor Huthail, who previously appeared in the UAE horror film ‘Djinn’ (2013).
Despite being Jordanian, Huthail practised the Emirati accent in order to portray an Emirati Mulla.
He also watched ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and studied Anthony Hopkin’s iconic performance in preparation for his own role, upon Al Khaja’s recommendation.
“I went over the script a hundred times, I delivered the lines in front of a mirror, as any actor would do,” said Huthail.
As for Al Khaja, her horror tastes lean more toward the subtle, such as Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning 1968 film.
“I really am attracted to films like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ — it’s not jump scares. It’s more psychological, it’s more eerie, it’s quieter. [It has] really deep characters and maybe a little shock here or there,” said Al Khaja.
The director’s multinational cast, many of them first-time actors, seem well-equipped for this brand of under-the-skin terror. In addition, Al Khaja proudly revealed that 40 per cent of her crew is made up of women.
Though only one scene of ‘The Shadow’ has been filmed so far — a foundation for a feature Al Khaja hopes to shoot in the coming months and release in 2020 — the production quality is already comparable to established film industries, with potential to wow audiences both at home and abroad.
“We’re raising money to help us make something rock solid,” said Al Khaja.
THE SHADOW CAST SPEAKS — CHALLENGES, STRANGE OCCURRENCES AND TABOOS
Sara Al Aqeeli, who plays desperate mum Maryam
“The most challenging part for me was welling up emotions that I didn’t really have. I’m not a mother, so seeing my son in front of me, I had to relate [it] to something else and constantly try to well up the tears in every take,” said Al Aqeeli.
Nayla Al Khaja on Mona Ragab, who plays house help Hajjar
“[Ragab] is probably the actress who really, really suffered, because that pot that she was carrying was at least seven to eight kilograms. The poor woman, for hours and hours, she was carrying it like, ‘Another take?’ Her whole arms were shivering. She was a champion,” said Al Khaja.
Miran Yazi, who plays bedridden Tamara
“I thought I was going to just act as a rich woman, sleeping on the bed and being spoiled. But I think the most challenging [part] for me, because it’s considered taboo in the Arab culture, is to show my period. Behind the scenes, I was telling Nayla this is the first time I walk and I’m not feeling shamed because of my blood. It was [also] challenging that I had to tap into the feeling that I have pain. I felt it,” Yazi said.
Director Nayla Al Khaja, on strange incidents on set
“This is actually really funny. It was very quiet in the room where they were talking [in the scene], and there were a lot of Islamic paintings everywhere. We were [immersed] in the scene, it was very intense, and suddenly, a big painting went ‘BOOV’ on the floor. [Mohanned] jumped like I’ve never seen anyone jump. I think we have it on tape. I don’t know how or why, but it happened,” said Al Khaja.
Mohannad Huthail, who plays the Mulla and appeared in Tobe Hooper’s ‘Djinn’ (2013)
“When you shoot an Arabic movie talking about [people’s] own beliefs, their own religion, their own jinn, and the stories that they used to hear about it, it’s a totally different picture [than a movie like ‘Djinn’], I believe. And when it’s subtitled in English, that can also deliver the message beyond, further than an English film,” said Huthail.