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By admin Dec1,2023

‘Three’ director Nayla Al-Khaja on why she is forging ahead with horror films

JEDDAH: Widely recognized as the UAE’s first independent female filmmaker, Nayla Al-Khaja is heading to Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival to thrill audiences with her latest psychological horror movie “Three,” which is also her debut feature-length film.

“Three” follows a young boy who is believed to be possessed. Ahmed (Saud Alzarooni) is being bullied at school and starts behaving strangely, leading his mother Maryam to believe he must be cursed. She takes him to a traditional healer, after which his condition worsens. A British doctor (Jefferson Hall) is initially skeptical but soon immerses himself in the boy’s culture in a bid to save the child’s life.

The director’s previous work includes short films “The Neighbor,” “Malal,” “Animal,” and “The Shadow,” and she spoke to Arab News about why this was the right time for her first feature, which boasts a running time of 94 minutes and features a mix of English and Arabic on screen.

“All my life, all I wanted to do is do a feature film, but there was never a story where I felt passionate enough to take that first step,” she said, adding the major hurdles she faced initially were not creative, but financial.

“We live in the UAE. We don’t really have a very robust local film (industry). Where do you begin? How do you raise money? How do you find the right producer? How do you package the film so it has a chance to succeed? The deals, sales agents, pre-sales, all that stuff that no one ever teaches you.”

Widely recognized as the UAE’s first independent female filmmaker, Nayla Al-Khaja is heading to Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival. (Supplied)

Just before the pandemic, Al-Khaja pulled the plug on her own company, giving her the space and time to create content.

“This huge weight was off my chest. I was starting to write … and at that point, I had already shot the concept film of ‘Three,’ which is called ‘The Shadow,’ which is running on Netflix right now,” she said.

“I already had a concept film, which obviously made it a little bit easier to raise funds. So once that happened, COVID-19 hit, the world took a massive pause. It was a catastrophe for many people. But as a new mom, it was the perfect timing. So, I took that time to flesh out my feature film.”

Overcoming obstacles seems to be a pastime for Al-Khaja, who wears many hats, from director to producer to fundraiser.

“I’m an all-rounder. I’m actually very good at raising funds,” she said, before detailing how she managed to “slash the budget by half without slashing the value of the film and the quality … by simply changing a few things.”

Nayla Al-Khaja on the set of ‘Three.’ (Supplied)

She added: “The first thing was going from 123 pages to 98 pages and then changing countries altogether. Taking a leap of faith and shooting in Bangkok — that slashed our budget.”

Considering the blood, sweat and tears that went into her first feature film, it is telling that Al-Khaja opted for a spine-tingling thriller.

“Pure entertainment,” she laughed, when asked why she chose the horror genre.

“I think it’s really new in the sense that we don’t have a big body of horror work. I think Arab comedy is very popular, and … drama, but not horror. And yes, definitely I would like to pioneer this.

“With horror, you don’t need a cast. You don’t need … these famous people. You can do it very low budget. So, the chances of actually a horror (film) making its money back is quite high.

“And I think there will come (a time when) a horror (film) will break the glass ceiling,” she said, adding that historically film distributors may not have had faith that “foreign language horror would travel like English films do.”

Jefferson Hall in ‘Three.’ (Supplied)

She said: “I think that the whole shift of streamers coming on board buying foreign language (films) is probably changing the face of how one perceives a foreign film, whatever the genre may be.

“It’s such an important part of Arab culture — like the jinns and black magic.

“We’ve always had exorcism in Christianity and other different religions, but never in my own. We didn’t want to label it as exorcism in Islam. But if you speak to any sales agent outside the UAE and you say ‘exorcism in Islam,’ they all raise their eyebrows. That shows you that it’s an area that’s never been really tapped into internationally.”

Al-Khaja heaped praise on teenage newcomer Alzarooni.

She said: “He’s eager, he is prepared, agile, sensitive, just beautiful … I mean, he was 13 when we were rolling and … this is not an easy role.

“When we’re doing the exorcism scenes, there were no special effects, it was just his face. The way he shifts from one look to the other look, it was quite impressive.”

Newcomer Saud Alzarooni stars in ‘Three.’ (Supplied)

The power in this film, however, is the star of “Game of Thrones,” Jefferson Hall.

Al-Khaja said: “I was intimidated because he’s very seasoned. Christopher Nolan directed him in ‘Oppenheimer.’

“He fits the role so beautifully. The camera loves his close-ups.”

Al-Khaja is now working on her next feature film “Baab,” for which Oscar-winning Indian composer AR Rahman is creating the score.

Meanwhile, audiences in Jeddah can look forward to a psychological horror with heart in “Three.”

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