Nayla Al-Khaja, generally acknowledged as the UAE's pioneering independent female filmmaker, is set to captivate audiences at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah with her inaugural feature-length film, a psychological horror entitled "Three."
The narrative revolves around Ahmed (Saud Alzarooni), a young boy believed to be possessed, who faces torment at school and exhibits peculiar behavior, prompting his mother Maryam to suspect a curse. Seeking help from a traditional healer only exacerbates his condition. In a last-ditch attempt to save the youngster a sceptic British physician (Jefferson Hall) fully immerses himself in the boy's culture.
Debuting THREE amid the challenges of COVID, my team & I passionately addressed mental health in our first feature film. It's more than a debut; it's years of hard work. Grateful to my amazing team for trusting me. Thanks to the dedicated cast & crew. #worldpremiere @RedSeaFilm pic.twitter.com/oRg3hGFbUD— Nayla Al Khaja (@NaylaAlkhaja) November 14, 2023
Renowned for short films like "The Neighbor," "Malal," "Animal," and "The Shadow," the director emphasized her enduring desire to create a feature film. However, financial difficulties in the emerging UAE film industry hindered her debut project. Al-Khaja grappled with challenges like fundraising and producer selection. Undeterred, she closed her company pre-pandemic, prioritizing content creation. Amidst the global crisis, Al-Khaja seized the opportunity to advance her feature film, "Three," navigating hurdles and showcasing resilience in an industry still finding its footing.
Describing herself as an all-rounder, Al-Khaja excels not only as a director but also as a producer and fundraiser. She efficiently reduced the budget by half without compromising the film's value by adjusting the script length and changing shooting locations.
Opting for a horror genre, she explained that it offers a unique avenue for storytelling in the Arab world. Unlike comedy and drama, horror doesn't necessitate a star-studded cast, making it a viable option for low-budget productions. Al-Khaja expressed a desire to pioneer horror in Arab cinema and highlighted its potential to break barriers.
The film explores themes deeply rooted in Arab culture, such as jinns and black magic, drawing on elements not widely explored internationally. Al-Khaja recognized the significance of addressing exorcism in Islam, an untouched area in global cinema.
The film features a standout performance by teenage newcomer Saud Alzarooni, praised for his agility, sensitivity, and impressive portrayal of a challenging role. Additionally, Jefferson Hall, known for his role in "Game of Thrones," adds seasoned expertise to the cast.
Al-Khaja, undeterred by intimidation, lauded Hall's seamless fit into the role, emphasizing his close-up moments on screen. Currently working on her next feature, "Baab," with the acclaimed AR Rahman composing the score, Al-Khaja envisions a groundbreaking shift in perceptions of foreign language films, driven by the changing dynamics of streaming platforms.
Jeddah's audience can anticipate a psychological horror with depth in "Three," exploring uncharted territories within the genre and shedding light on culturally significant themes.