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Zooming In On Saudi Game-Changer Nayla Al-Khaja

What would bring an illusionist, a Mixed Martial Arts fighter, luxe furniture designers, the youngest Arab to conquer Mount Everest and an emerging women’s basketball player together? Nayla Al-Khaja’s “HAKAWI Ambitious Saudi” series reflects the passions and interests of six young Saudi game-changers who wish to shape their country through their adrenalin-fuelled activities, unconventional occupations and cultural achievements. Roula Allam talks to the Emirati filmmaker about the exciting five-part series and what keeps her creative juices flowing.

What/who were some of your major influences when you first started out as a filmmaker?
As a child I grew up watching my father’s private film collection, mainly these black and white Indian feature films. At that point I was too young to notice this would have a major impact on my personal choices that would lead me to filmmaking and a deep passion for storytelling.

There’s one film I can never forget, probably no one has heard of it, but it’s a black and white Indian film, “Boot Polish.” It’s a beautiful film about a sister and a brother, and it kind of reflected my relationship with my brother. It’s just one of those films that was made at a time before Bollywood, with beautiful, character driven, rich stories, back in the golden age of cinema in the 50s and 60s. It is something that has impacted me deeply.

Another one, which I was much too young to watch, was the “The Exorcist.” It just came out, my parents had left, and I watch the whole thing by myself. It was absolutely terrifying, but it’s ironic, because after that, I collected a lot of dark, suspense, thriller genres, which is basically the road I am taking right now for my first feature film. It’s influenced my passion of creating an atmosphere – these beautiful, character driven and visual stories – films like “The Revenant” or “The Others” with Nicole Kidman. I’m a very visual person and film gives me the opportunity to create these stories.

You were thrust into the limelight after your documentary “Unveiling Dubai” garnered critical acclaim. How successful do you feel you were in getting your message across?
​I owe my media attention to H.H. Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, who was, at that time, the Minister of Higher Education. He completely shocked me when he landed in his chopper and attended the opening night. We’re talking about 10 or 12 years ago now, when there was no social media and he did an amazing speech that acknowledged me being the first female filmmaker in UAE’s history. That just really hit home in my heart, and he has been a complete support, one of my number one supporters and it brought the film to media attention. His presence gave me a big boost and that definitely helped spread the word.

So what was your vision while directing Quest Arabiya’s “HAKAWI: Ambitious Saudi?”
For Quest Arabiya’s “HAKAWI: Ambitious Saudi” series I really wanted to focus on what triggers their passions and ambition, but also make sure that it’s real. I wanted to humanise the whole process and bring the negative and positive together. I was lucky enough to get candidates that were very open and could share interesting insights. My aim was to highlight these ambitious Saudi’s in a very candid way and to give them a different image than what we’re used to seeing them in the media.

The series features a Mixed Martial Arts fighter, a mountaineer, founders of luxe brand Oil Barrel, an illusionist and a basketball player. How difficult was it to choose the different talents you needed to make this vision come alive?
All five of them were very different, their stories and backgrounds, but they all had one common thread. All five of them were super ambitious in what they were doing. For example, the Oil Barrel duo is already on the “Forbes” list and under 25; Raha has been on 19 mountains, six summits and did Everest. I think the one thing that’s tied them all together is how far they’ve pushed their careers in Saudi Arabia, despite having, in many cases, a lack of infrastructure to do what they do best, yet they’ve managed to accomplish these achievements on an international arena.

These six Saudis obviously have very different, impressive abilities, but which qualities and dreams did you feel they share while uncovering their stories?
They all wanted to show the world what they are capable of. All five of them have reached international success, so for me, they’ve already done that, but to them, it’s just the beginning of their journeys. Ahmed Makki, the MMA fighter, he’s just won an international competition in Milan, Raha’s been doing international expeditions for years, the illusionist has performed all around the world and won international awards, Oil Barrel’s taking off in London and the Jeddah United team is the only female basketball team in Saudi, which is a huge deal, and won an international game in the Maldives.

What makes them united is that they all want to showcase KSA as a space where we get fine talent and ambitious people who can compete on a world arena, and break from the stereotype that has been stuck on Saudi for a very long time.

Do you think their passions and hopes for Saudi resonated with the youth in the UAE and what they desire?
No, they’re very different. What Saudi youth list as challenges, needs and desires are very different from youth in the UAE and their desires and needs.

From my observations, Saudi’s nature or culture is a much better demographic balance, UAE’s on the other hand has a huge demographic imbalance, in that approximately 10-12 percent of the population are local Emiratis, in a very expat driven country. For me, it has a different national sense as they don’t have the exposure on the international level the UAE has. For me it was quite refreshing, and KSA’s culture and strong sense of identity was the one thing that stood out in a very unique way.

It’s great to see two female success stories in the cast.  What did you feel Raha Moharrak and Rawan Amoudi wanted other women to know the most?
With Raha, she’s not so gender-oriented. She wants to prove to the world that if you focus on something, you will get to your goal and nothing can stop you from reaching it. She competes against herself and is very self-driven, but also very proud to represent the Saudi woman in a very unorthodox and daring setting, literally on top of the world.

Whereas with Jeddah United, what I loved about them, is the parents. They want to show other parents that being in this field is good for women and a very vital role in women’s empowerment. What I liked about the story is that the parents wanted to be inspiring role models to other parents. A lot of these girls started playing when they were really young, so obviously they couldn’t make that decision if they didn’t have their families.

You’ve won several awards and made it to the ’50 Most Powerful Personalities in Arab Cinema,’ making you quite a pioneer yourself. What advice do you have?
It’s always a cliché, but I would say don’t let anyone clip your wings. For me, it was my parents. I love them to death, but they tried everything to get in my way, even though they now completely support me.

It’s about recognising that thing that’s stopping you from reaching your goals, it could be a friend, a negative atmosphere, or even yourself, you can be the one doing it and face it instead of running away from it. 

Why do you think there are so few women in filmmaking?
Simply because of the timeline, we started really late in the game. It’s a very male dominated industry worldwide and we haven’t really been in the front line long. The percentage is shocking, in 2015 there was a study released that said there’s only 7 percent female directors in the world who have had work published. That said, at Cannes Film Festival one juror actually said to me they had more female directors coming out of the Middle East than any other place in the world, which I found ironic. However, I think a lot of women are proving you can have a very successful career being an artist.

I also think with social media and YouTube, it’s making it easier to find your voice, to push the boundaries and speak out loud. But we still have a long way to go before we have that perfect balance.  

What do you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?
Not so much about filmmaking, as I do it at a pace that makes sense to me. But if there’s one thing, I wish I would have stopped spending all my money when I was younger. It’s more about having the financial stability at a younger age so that I could invest in films myself or finance myself earlier.

We all hear about the lack of original stories in the world. How do you keep your ideas fresh?
I can have an idea that’s been brewing in my mind for five or 10 years. I could have concept or subject line that I can carry for years. For me it’s when you start filming it, the way you go to film it will be different. It will be impacted by who you are at that point in life, what the world is going through, the technical part, like the new techniques in film making, and all that will impact the way you shoot the film. The treatment of the film will be very different, but if the idea is strong it will last decades.

How much do you have to compromise as a filmmaker working in the region?
Unfortunately I still have restrictions, and I think this question resonates really well not just in my domain but also in the arts and media in general. Looking at it positively, it has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. We can toe the line, but there are still a lot of restrictions shooting a film here in the UAE. The good news is that film is a mobile medium, you don’t necessarily have to shoot here. UAE can be a good base, so if it’s a subject your passionate about, it’s a versatile medium that you can actually film anywhere in the world, and still get your project out there. That’s why it doesn’t deter what I do, film has that flexibility that comes with it.

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