Shooting at 5,000 feet above sea level in the lush forests of Munnar, a small hill station in the south of India can be a dramatically different and challenging experience from filming in the desert sands, 32-year old Nayla Al Khajia learnt on her most recent shoot. The Emirati filmmaker wrapped up the production of […]
Shooting at 5,000 feet above sea level in the lush forests of Munnar, a small hill station in the south of India can be a dramatically different and challenging experience from filming in the desert sands, 32-year old Nayla Al Khajia learnt on her most recent shoot.
The Emirati filmmaker wrapped up the production of Mallal, a short film set in Kerala, last month. This shoot signals, in many ways, the end of one phase of Al Khaja’s career as a filmmaker and the beginning of the next.
“Mallal is my fifth short and it will be my last before I embark on making my first feature-length film,” she says. “But I did not expect the production to be so different from my previous shoots. It was perhaps, the greatest learning experience of my life,” she says.
Mallal, which means “bored” was conceived out of sheer boredom on a rainy day in a Sharjah hotel room by Al Khaja although the production itself was anything but boring.
“I wrote this script while I was sitting in a hotel in Sharjah last year and bored out of my brains,” she says.
“I had gone to speak at an event and the rains struck. The power kept going on and off. We couldn’t use the elevators. The lobby was flooded and I had nothing else to do so I took a sheet of paper and began to write a script. I called the story Mallal because I was bored. Little did I know then that I’d win a cash prize of US $13,500 for the script at the Gulf Film Festival. It never crossed my mind that I should enter the competition but a friend recommended that I submit my script and we managed to get it in just before the deadline. I was speechless when I learnt at the event that I had won the first place so ‘thank you Sharjah’, I guess,” says Al Khaja.
“The award helped me to put a fresh spurt of energy into the project and I received funds from several government entities.”
Abu Dhabi-based twofour54, which has actively promoted the production of Arabic content, provided 70% of the budget for the film and offered post production support at its intaj facility; Al Khaja put in 15% and other entities helped with the remaining bits and pieces, she says.
The next stage involved filming in Munnar, an experience Al Khaja is not likely to forget in a hurry. As the journey to Munnar involves driving through long and narrow serpentine roads, Al Khaja quickly discovered that travelling with 83 crew members, trucks, dollies, tracks and tons of equipment can be truly daunting. That, however, was only the beginning of other surprises – taxes, natural toilets, weak signals, leeches, and a few others.
“Shooting outside the UAE, which is our comfort zone, was a huge learning experience. It was not just the logistics, but the culture, the taxes, the weather conditions and just about everything,” she confides.
Set in Kerala, Mallal is the story of a newly-wed wife who is on her honeymoon but bored in her “arranged” marriage. The film takes place on the last day of the honeymoon.
“Little did I know when I set out to shoot in Kerala that it would be a logistical nightmare. I was inspired by an Indian film that I had seen the previous year at GFF and it was set in Kerala. I found a hotel right in the middle of the jungle and it had just the perfect shades of colours that I wanted,” explains Khaja.
Perhaps the most interesting element of this shoot was that the film had 83 crew members for a 15-minute shoot.
“It was a big crew but I learnt that things are done very differently in India. There are taxes and unions to deal with — something we have never had in the UAE and, therefore, did not budget for. We went through Mumbia-based Pukka Pukka Films, who were our line producers. We couldn’t hire people individually for our shoot. Apparently, they come as a team. We also respected the Union hours that India has, which is 12 hours with an hour’s break. It’s a very good thing. We always work crazy hours on our shoots in Dubai and on my last project, we worked non-stop for 17 hours so this was very different.”
Besides the question of what and whom to hire, shooting in the forest can be both “scary and unpredictable”, says the filmmaker.
“As night falls, the forest takes another form and character altogether. Besides this, we had to work with the weather. The monsoons were just tapering off in Kerala, which means we had a bit of dry and wet weather. As continuity is crucial in filmmaking, the rains did sometimes get in the way and we couldn’t shoot on one day. So instead of five days, we had to make do with four days,” explains Al Khaja.
Interestingly, the filmmaker had her first experience in a vanity van with a makeup artist, assistant et al in true Bollywood style at this shoot. All of the standard kit that one would expect such as tracks, dollies, Jimmy Jibs, cranes and so on was part of the project. “We’ve never done a shoot on such a large scale in Dubai. Our resources were always limited,” she says.
The filmmaker also found that the Indian team was very quick with lighting.
“I have never seen lights moved so fast in any other part of the world. Only in India have I got the lighting changed in five minutes and we were quite lucky on that front. My DoP called it magic because we had 17 people shifting lights when we needed only six. I’ve shot in Toronto, France, London and
Spain but it’s never been so quick,” she adds.
Filming in Munnar meant having to deal with leeches as well.
“We were not prepared for the leeches and they were everywhere. I had six or seven all over my legs and I was wearing sandals the first day so that didn’t help matters. We learnt about the oil and salt remedies only on the second day. Some of my male crew members resorted to wearing stockings. Anything was acceptable to keep the leeches away. We all bought gum boots eventually,” adds Al Khaja.
Al Khaja’s long-term friend and DoP Daniel Grant who had worked with her on her first documentary Unveiling Dubai joined her for this shoot. Together, they decided to shoot this film with the RED One camera although Al Khaja has often favoured celluloid over digital in previous shoots.
“We had a long debate on whether to shoot on 16, 35 mm or the RED One. At the end of the day, it all boils down to money. If I had the flexibility, I’d shoot on 35 mm. But if you’re shooting in a remote area, where there are no labs and you have to fly to Mumbai every day to develop the rolls … to see the rushes, I won’t dare touch film. It’s too risky when you don’t have that much budget and it’s a short. Super 16 would have been adequate as well; only 35 was a bit more. But if you’re shooting in a jungle as an independent filmmaker, it’s difficult to go back and forth.
“Also, Grant has worked on the RED so the decision was easy. With the RED, I’d get 4k and perfect colour correction. I am also delighted that I’d be the first to experience the Baselight system, which twofour54 acquired recently,” adds Al Khaja.
Mallal is presently in the post production phase and the final cut is scheduled for December.
“We may go to the Dubai International Film Festival but we are aiming to be ready for the Berlin Film Festival,” explains Al Khaja.
Although the Emirati filmmaker has done the festival circuit several times over, she claims that it has never been her aim to make “festival films”.
“I want to make a film that is commercially successful and which has cinematic appeal. I’d like it to be shown in cinemas and come out on DVDs. My long-term vision is to have a feature film studio here that can produce about three or four feature films annually in different genres like horror, action, comedy and so on. It’s, of course, a long term goal. For now, I’m very excited to begin my first feature.
“It will be a horror movie. I love this genre and it will have a very Middle Eastern flavour as it will feature the jinn as we know it, not as the West understands it. It will be a relatively low-budget feature – just US $1.5 million.”
In the last eight years, Al Khaja has slowly but steadily honed her skills in different areas of filmmaking and experimented with different genres and technologies in the hope that she would one day have enough know-how to undertake the challenge of making a feature film.
But besides nurturing her personal ambitions, she has launched several initiatives in the country to help other aspiring players in the industry.
“I will do what I think will give aspiring filmmakers the opportunities that I had to create for myself. The last eight years, however, have helped me immensely and I am now ready to venture into making feature films. For me, this is the beginning of a new learning experience but I have big dreams on how I want to see the UAE become a hotspot for filmmakers,” Al Khaja says.