Nayla Al Khaja: The UAE's First Female Film Director & Producer

Meet Nayla Al Khaja

We love celebrating strong, successful women here at The Caviar Spoon, which is why we’ve created ReBelles. These are the women who are working it and owning it in life, work, and everything in between. Our newest #rebelleboss is Nayla Al Khaja, the UAE’s first female film director and producer.

Walking into the office, Nayla was just one big aura of positive energy. A true conversationalist whose first concern wasn’t preening for an interview or attempting to be someone she wasn’t but to do the first thing that counts - have manners.

She asked if I was comfortable, was the AC fine, and what kind of tea would I like. I wasn’t sure so I asked for her opinion and I’m so glad I did, as I was presented with my all-time favourite white tea (which, by the way, is very good for you).

On top of Nayla’s addictive persona was her instant kindness and trust. Even though we had only emailed prior to meeting, she welcomed me like I was an old friend. Upon commenting on some of the stunning pieces in the office like a gold gorilla and the most incredible and drool-worthy desk made from part of a plane, she immediately went hunting for her card to ensure I would and could receive a “Nayla’s friends and family” discount.

This kind of attitude is one of the many, many reasons why Nayla has and continues to succeed with grace. I’ve spent hours and hours studying neuroscience and profiling successful brains and there’s one trait that always comes up - humility. Without this, we’re a flash in the pan or, perhaps worse, super successful with a following but no respect.

We then chatted about intermittent fasting and the like before finally cracking on to talk about her journey to date and let’s just say, what a journey!

The ambitious, creative, and humble Nayla Al Khaja  (photo supplied)

The ambitious, creative, and humble Nayla Al Khaja

(photo supplied)

Nayla was always exposed to films - not the Disney type but “real” ones from around the world. Her father was a film enthusiast so she used to sneak into his collection and soak them all up, learning about the world and the amazing possibilities that existed.

Her original passion was visual arts, which almost led her to Dundee (Scotland) but instead took her to a local college to study mass communications. A project about e-comms somehow led to her cutting footage and when Nayla realised her true passion, she went to study Image Studies and Filmmaking in Toronto. 

After graduating, Nayla came back to Dubai where she started her own production house (D-Seven Motion Pictures, now called Nayla Al Khaja Films) and has spent the last 12 years in Media City.

Sometimes the path may not make any sense but falling into things DOES work! Just say yes if it feels right (or at least doesn’t feel wrong) and just go with it. (Convincing her parents of this is another story. Although they support their daughter, they don’t necessarily approve of her being a filmmaker.)

Of course, a major milestone for Nayla has been becoming the first Emirati female film director and producer - a notable title in an industry that has such stark figures of global gender inequality (both in front and behind the camera). But Nayla will be the first to say that it wasn’t the hardest achievement since the UAE doesn’t have much of a film industry to begin with, at least not a sustainable one, but it does seem to have a stronger representation of women.

A win is a win, though, no matter how small, and it’s what you do with it that matters.

Not one to shy away from difficult subjects, Nayla has focused on child abuse in a couple of her works, tackling it with sensitivity without diluting the serious nature. It’s a risky topic for the conservative culture of the Middle East but she knew it needed more attention and that she could use film as a platform to build awareness around it. 

Her first commissioned short film Arabana focused on this topic. She touched on the subject again in her short Animal, which Nayla is now turning into a feature film after it was accepted for funding by the Producers’ Network (of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival).

Behind the scenes look on the set of Nayla’s short film “Animal”  (photo supplied)

Behind the scenes look on the set of Nayla’s short film “Animal”

(photo supplied)

Also in her extensive portfolio of works is a documentary for Etihad inflight entertainment, as well as Heroes of the Nation, a series of five short films about inspiring people who are making a positive impact both locally and internationally.

As any entrepreneur knows, raising money to get a project off the ground is half the battle. There was Arabana, which she was able to make under the umbrella of UNICEF. And for her debut documentary Unveiling Dubai, Nayla raised funding through privately owned companies which, at that time, were booming in Dubai. 

See, with brand comes weight, and when you have no leverage, that weight works. Nayla is a firm believer in this, which is exactly the whole concept around the brand matchmaking work of The Caviar Spoon ReBelle. 

Whatever you do, think of how you can link up with a name that holds clout. It’ll become your key to opening many doors.

The more I spoke with her, the more I understood how Nayla has managed to come so far. She’s incredibly savvy about PR and knows that smart PR and brand equity are key. She’s also strategic in how she handles her business and dedicates one day each week to catch-ups, sales, marketing, networking emails, and social media. A hell of a lot goes into building and sustaining her brand (we know firsthand).

A tip for anyone who needs to amp up PR for their business: we ALL have to network and not get caught up in the weeds. Meetings, networks - who knows who you will meet. It needs to be a non-negotiable part of your business if you want to grow and succeed.

Nayla doesn’t believe in the need for sprawling offices with a huge team of full-time staff. She prefers to work with freelancers on an as-needed basis, which makes sense in an industry like hers where work needs are always fluctuating and evolving. 

Beyond film, Nayla also works as a motivational speaker (we’d sign up in a second to hear her speak!), a brand partner, and a cultural consultant. 

If you think she’s a natural, she actually overcame her fear of speaking while working in radio. Her then-boss gave her a quick tip to imagine speaking to a teddy bear because it keeps you focused and subliminally conjures up the childhood image of bears being safe and friendly. This trick works when addressing a crowd, too, and while the butterflies will never go away, you just have to keep practising.

Speaking of fears, Nayla wishes she had done more instead of letting fear stop her. This is the one thing she’d change in a heartbeat if she could rewind her career to date.

But other than that? I don’t think Nayla has many regrets.

She is the kind of woman who lives fully, embracing her passion with gusto and never apologising for her ambition or who she is. And that is what we call a #rebelleboss!

Working on her short “The Neighbour”  (photo credit: Charney Magri)

Working on her short “The Neighbour”

(photo credit: Charney Magri)

Q&A With Nayla

Ed. note: some answers have been edited for clarity

Has fear stopped you from trying out an idea where you missed an opportunity? If so, what were your learnings from this?

I grew up in fear as I had strict parents and was always walking on eggs so yes, it does take a while to reverse those emotions. But what I did is I embraced my fear so I can handle it better and combat it by using courage and, most importantly, a very healthy environment of people around me. 

That to me makes a vast difference - to surround oneself with people who elevate you. I missed being on a TV show once as I was worried about society’s reaction. That was 20 years ago but that one missed opportunity taught me to never start from a point of fear ever again because the losses encountered could be great. 

Do you worry about what people think of you?

Not anymore, but that doesn’t mean a green card to behave in a way that’s disrespectful to my people and culture. I find balance to be a wonderful thing. So if I do push the envelope I find an elegant way of exhibiting it - it’s like poking without stabbing. As even if I’m an advocate for change like leniency in film censorship, I do it through setting an example by filming taboo topics through the usage of symbolism. I still get my message across without rocking the boat heavily. 

When has someone told you that you can’t do something and you have proven them wrong in business?

I was told that I can’t start a film club, that it would fail. Well, I did and we became the largest film club in the region for 22 thousand registered members. We ran it for ten years straight and now instead of screening films, we are in the process of developing feature films. So always trust your passion and gut feeling but do your research and plan really thoroughly to avoid complications. Even failing is a good thing; otherwise, how else are we to learn. Not doing something at all is the worse sin.

Nayla with her Swiss husband Christian Peter  (photo supplied)

Nayla with her Swiss husband Christian Peter

(photo supplied)

What does success look like to you?

Success to me is a state of mind - where peace and love live in harmony. Success to me is putting my whole self out there and being transparent with my work and people that matter. Embracing oneself to the core of our being, emotionally, physically and spiritually. 

3 goals you have set for 2019

To have my first baby. 

To make my first feature film. 

To reach the best body shape of my life.

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