Nayla Al Khaja – OCTOBER 2014

By Kate Hazell

We talk diamonds, cake and a burgeoning regional art scene with film-maker Nayla Al Khaja…

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Vibrant Emirati film-maker Nayla Al Khaja, is someone who enjoys luxury but prefers to hang out in less polished surrounds. As she begins work on her first feature film, Khaja candidly reveals some of her city's biggest secrets to Cherry Pickers, including where to find the biggest diamond vault in the Middle East and how to get yourself a good price once you're inside.


What are you working on right now?

I'm currently working on my first feature film. The title is A Child Never Forgotten and the theme is how far a mother would go to save her son. It's about fake adoption centres in the world. We're going to be filming in the Republic of Congo and New York but it's a brand new project. It came to my attention a month ago. We have a script and we are in the process of finding a script writer to add my voice. It will be in association with my company D7. It might take a year for us to get funding and then after that (if we move fast) we could start looking at principle photography next year in November. It's exciting.


Who inspired you growing up?

I'm inspired by film characters from the 1960s in Bollywood, before Bollywood was even named Bollywood. It was the age of black and white Indian films and they were less dramatic and more story driven than they are today. I also think my mother is a good role model for me because she built herself from nothing and she's done extremely well for herself. I think she's way ahead of her time and that's been a huge inspiration, to grow up with someone so free spirited and spontaneous, and she's such a go-getter, so I think I get a lot of my energy from her.


What does she do?

She's an entrepreneur and is involved in everything from real estate to investing in businesses. She's a self-made multi-million dollar baby and for me that's a story in itself, I mean she started with a tiny salary in the 80s and built herself an empire, which is really inspiring. My parents aren't together so she was my mum and dad both.


What do you think of the current regional film industry?

There's a huge wave of Arab cinema at the moment, especially after the Arab Spring and you can see there's a hunger for less censorship and more expression of ideas. After turmoil or an unsettling situation in peoples countries, you can see the best art work develop from it. Egyptian cinema has taken a completely different line of film making and they're producing some wonderful films and tackling some really controversial issues. I'd also say the quality of Arab cinema has really risen and you can see the evidence in a lot of film festivals like Berlin and Venice and even from Wajdja (Saudi Arabian–German film, written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour) being put forward for an Oscar. There's a very interesting movement which you never would have heard of 10 years ago. I'm very lucky as I feel like I'm at the right place at the right time and I really need to make sure that I make my mark and move forward from there.


How would you like to make a mark?

Just by simply making films that cause and stir some kind of emotion in people. I just want to tell beautiful stories that I feel are close to my heart and eventually mature my cinematic sense and find my rhythm of film making. Then tell the story of my own people, because at that stage when I'm 50 or 60 I'll be a much better film maker and I will have all the skill sets to really do epic films. I have a film that's set in 1923 and it’s an incredible story that's based on real life in this region, but for me to direct that I need to do at least two or three features first. It's a timeless medium.


How is it being a woman in the industry?

I feel like I have more opportunities. There's a government mandate to empower women and they're very supportive of the arts and the leadership of this country is forever empowering women. I mean I'm doing something that's quite unorthodox and out of the norm and being the first female feature film maker in the country doesn't really mean a lot unless I make really good films that people are going to talk about. For me I want to compete against my last work but also look at international films and aspire to reach that standard. I also find it exciting as a woman, that I can be an ambassador for my country through my movies because my movies hopefully will speak volumes, like what Wajdja did for Saudi.


What do you like to do, where do you like to hang out?

Usually I love to chill with my best friend who has a lovely house on The Palm, so we chill by the water. I also really love going to lounges, when it's cooler. I stay away from the sun which is why I'm wrinkle free at 36. There's an awesome café in JLT, it's called Bakers Treat and the whole design feels very English. I love going there for tea and cake, it's really cute. I also run The Scene Club every month, which is where I hang out mostly. We bring in independent movies from festivals and screen them across Dubai. We hold around 245 events a year and we show really beautiful movies. Last month we showed My Beautiful Country, a Serbian film that's really moving. It's super overbooked, we have to turn people away at screenings sometimes, so it's exciting.


Anything else we should know about?

There's a place where they serve fish on the beach, Bu Qtair, that's so unique. If you haven't been you have to. Local fisherman cook up their catch for the day and you sit on plastic chairs and eat with your hands. It's awesome. I love ghetto places like that. Also, people don't know this but the largest diamond vault in the Middle East is in Jumeirah Lake Towers. It's in the Damas Building and it's not a retail store, but if you go into the building they'll give you a membership which entitles you to 50 per cent off everything inside the vault. It's stunning. It's just as you drive into JLT, on the right, it's like an Aladdin's cave.


Who else in the region should we look out for?

I adore and love my friend, film maker Abdul Al Kabi. He's a very interesting Emirati, he’s actually from Fujairah and speaks fluent French, he studied film in Paris and his work is beautiful. It's very avant garde, very eccentric and larger than life, he's only young (25) but he's a very talented film maker. He's already shot a film with John Renno, it's called The Philosopher.