The tale of how Nayla Al Khaja became the United Arab Emirate's first female independent film maker is like the script of a drama itself, filled with hidden ambition, sacrifices and heartbreak.
As a student at Dubai's Women College, Al Khaja graduated with honors and briefly hosted a travel show on the Arabian Radio Network. But she then discovered documentary filmmaking, and realized that was where her true passion lay. "In film you can be an entrepreneur, business woman, and work with painters, artists, fashion designers, and musician," she said.
Al Khaja, 33, was thrilled to receive a full scholarship to study film at Ryerson University's prestigious School of Radio and Television Arts in Toronto, Canada. There was one problem: Her parents told her they wouldn't allow her to study abroad without being married. She felt their resistance partly stemmed from a negative view of the film industry.
Rather than battling with her parents to change their minds, she managed to convince a male friend who believed in her talent and film dreams to marry her with the understanding it was only so she could study abroad. After the wedding, they went to Toronto, but just six days later, her husband received a phone call with a job offer to join Dubai's police force. Not wanting to turn down the opportunity, he moved back. Even so, he continued to financially support her. Al Khaja earned her degree, and the couple afterwards parted ways, but still remain friends.
The pursuit was worth the difficult effort, Al Khaja said, noting there is "the other side of filmmaking that's extremely inspiring, bringing people together and believe it or not, promoting world peace."
After overcoming the obstacles Al Khaja faced in choosing to study abroad, she dealt with new challenges upon returning home. Recalling six years ago when she launched her production company that is now known as D-SEVEN, she initially struggled to bring in clients. Al Khaja said that being a woman in her mid-20s at the time, potential clients would often ask where her manager was when she entered a meeting.
She decided to reach out to an old professor who was in his mid-40s, who was "blond, tall and very built," and asked to hire him to attend meetings with her. The only instruction she gave him was to nod his head occasionally. "You wouldn't believe it, within three to four months, I was able to nail a very big client by having this man with me," she said. To the client, he was a visual concept, although in reality her product was available regardless of him being there. To Al Khaja it was just another example of how "everyone needs to be creative and find your own solution, there is no problem on the planet that can't be solved."
In 2004, Al Khaja's Unveiling Dubai premiered at the Dubai Film Festival. In the film, acclaimed German filmmaker Nicolas Doldinger plays a western tourist who is unfamiliar with the Middle East and guided around Dubai by Al-Khaja. As the first film ever made by an Emirati woman, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the UAE's Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, attended its premiere.
Al Khaja is not afraid to touch on taboo topics. Her short film Arabana focused on child abuse in the UAE. Her next film, Once, was about the secret dating lives of Emirati women.Malal was her last short film that showcased challenges an Emirati couple faced after an arranged marriage. She is currently working on her first feature film based on a story of a young Arab woman and her chance meeting with a British traveler in Hatta during the 1960s.
Al Khaja says it is exciting to be a pioneer in the Emirates' film industry, which she describes as embryonic. The country has much to offer as a hub for film shoots, she says, noting that within 15 minutes, there are location shots of oceans, mountains, and skyscrapers, and consistently sunny skies.
With location and weather in its favor, Al Khaja believes the UAE government should do everything it can to help grow the industry. "In just a month or two, shooting a single film can bring over $20 million to a local economy. Imagine if we have a series of these films coming in all the time," she said.
Al Khaja calls for the government and private sector to join together and think of incentives that could be offered to encourage the UAE to become the regional hub for filmmaking. Some ideas she has is offering major discounts on hotels and finding ways to bring down film making costs. "If my films costs $10 million but you tell me through a government incentive package, it can be cut down to $7 million. As a producer, I would jump at the chance and shoot my film in the UAE," she said.
Another critical factor is to ensure that the UAE has enough local talent from gaffers, electricians and art directors to support a film industry as flying in a large crew is very costly. She provided the example of Germany, which established a five-year, 300 Million Euro ($393 million) film fund. The grants supported 520 film productions and have been credited as a key factor in boosting the competitiveness of Germany and its film employees in the industry. "Once you train people on the ground, they'll be equipped to attract international producers to come and spend the real hardcore money," she explained.
She mentions Tom Cruise, who was credited boosting tourism and interest in Dubai after performing spectacular stunt scenes outside the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower, for the film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Awesome birds-eye perspectives of the city are shown as Cruise dangles from the 124th floor of tower, showcasing the city's sea, desert and downtown area.
Not only are film productions a huge boost for the economy, it gives local filmmakers the opportunity to be like ambassadors of their country when they travel overseas. "This is something we can't underestimate the value of in showing our values and traditions," she said. "It shouldn't be just through one film but through a whole series of films, there's a huge potential both culturally and financially."
Al Khaja says that despite its relatively recent history, the Gulf film industry has evolved over the past decade. "When I was 24, there was never mention of a film, but today we have so many, along with different channels and major film festivals in our country."
This story was previously published in Arabic Knowledge@Wharton