Film and TV

Behind the Camera with the UAE's First Female Filmmaker

Nayla Al Khaja has two internationally streaming horror films and big plans ahead.



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I’M HERE TO scare people,” says Nayla Al Khaja with a bright smile in her Dubai home. She’s the United Arab Emirates’ first female filmmaker and her warm, welcoming personality is unexpected, given the darkness that weaves through her work. In anticipation of our meeting, I rewatched Al Khaja’s two short films — “Animal” and “The Shadow” — and still have adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Both films are set in the United Arab Emirates. “Animal” is a semi-autobiographical thriller about a domineering father that culminates in a horrifying denouement. “The Shadow,” which is being developed into Al Khaja’s first feature-length film, “Three,” is an homage to the classic horror genre and follows a nine-year-old boy who is believed to be possessed. “You have science and religion going head to head, and in the middle is this child who’s going off the deep end,” she says. “But if I look at it from a distance, it’s really about mental health.” Both films are currently streaming worldwide on Netflix.

Filmmaking wasn’t an obvious career choice for Al Khaja. There was barely any infrastructure in place to support the industry in the U.A.E. at the time, and she faced resistance from her family. “I chose a field that pretty much didn’t exist in the U.A.E. 25 years ago,” she says. “I was the only female, so there was no benchmark for them to understand what I was getting myself into.”



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'I have young adults, boys and girls, sending me emails saying they find me inspiring and that they’ve decided to study film because of my story, and that’s amazing.'

Originally a painter, Al Khaja dabbled in filmmaking as a teenager. Her first 8mm film, “Sweet Sixteen,” starred her sister, a painted cow borrowed from a neighbor, and a belly dancer. She now describes it as “terrible” but says that she had great fun making it. It wasn’t until she was working as a teaching assistant at Dubai Women’s College that she discovered her true passion for the medium.

“I was 18 or 19 at the time and was helping media students make a documentary about e-commerce. I thought: This is brilliant because I can bring all my love for painting into film through not just one picture but a series of them,” she says.

Today, Al Khaja’s films are clearly inspired by her background in fine art, lingering on chiaroscuro scenes that are painterly in their construction. “With film, you can paint with light, and you make an atmosphere that’s eerie and uncomfortable,” she says. “A painting can inspire you, but a film can really hit you hard in the gut if you do it right. I think that’s what I love about it — that I’m able to evoke such emotions in the viewers.”

Her films also have an impeccable sense of timing, moving at a deceptively slow pace that creates a feeling of unease. Al Khaja attributes the tension that pervades her films to her difficult childhood. “I had a really rough one, and I feel that never went away. I grew up in an atmosphere that was packed with fear,” she says. “Now I thank my childhood because I’m able to feel these things viscerally.” Conversely, Al Khaja has become a role model to a new generation of aspiring filmmakers. “I have young adults, boys and girls, sending me emails saying they find me inspiring and that they’ve decided to study film because of my story, and that’s amazing,” she says. But it’s also a great responsibility.


“I was at a cafe a few weeks back with a group of boys, and they said something that made my heart sink. They said, ‘Please make sure your first feature film breaks every glass ceiling and makes noise so that we get a chance to make our films. If you create a big splash, it will get investors and other people looking at other filmmakers in the region.’”

Having run her own production company for nearly 20 years, Al Khaja is doing her best to answer their request. She understands the practical and fiscal sides of filmmaking, as well as the artistic elements. “My long-term vision is to establish a production house that produces films from the MENA [Middle East/North Africa] region, specifically Gulf-centric stories, for the rest of the world,” she says.

For now, she’s focusing on releasing “Three” and starting work on her second feature film, “Baab,” which she describes as “a dark fantasy about forbidden love, jealousy, rage, murder, shame, and unresolved grief.” She begins shooting it in December 2023 and is collaborating with two-time Oscar-winning composer A. R. Rahman on the soundtrack, which will be performed by Dubai’s Firdaus Orchestra, an all-female group that accompanied Beyoncé at the recent opening of the Atlantis The Royal hotel.

Al Khaja is also working on a young adult adventure movie that she describes as “The Goonies” meets “Indiana Jones.” She says, “It’s not a genre I’m well known for, but I’m really excited. As a mother [of three-year-old twins], I feel that when my kids grow up, they can watch it and I can feel very proud of it.”

At the age of 45, and with so many ambitious projects in the pipeline, plus a commitment to amplifying filmmaking voices from the region, Al Khaja is set to keep audiences on the edge of their seats for years to come. But she’s in no hurry. “My mum says I live in a different time zone and that my time zone doesn’t move,” she laughs. “I have energy, but I like to perfect things. If something takes me four years to make, I don’t care. I’ll take that time.”

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Our Contributors

Nicola Chilton Writer

Nicola Chilton has lived and worked in six countries and currently makes the United Arab Emirates home. She writes about people and places for a number of major publications in the U.S., Europe, Middle East, and Asia.

Prod Antzoulis Photographer

Prod Antzoulis is a Cypriot-born photographer and creative director raised in Dubai. With an aesthetic firmly rooted in the Middle East, Antzoulis captures the lifestyle and consumer culture while attempting to narrate his journey, mapping reference points which allow him to decipher his cross-cultural identity.


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