From stage to screen: Singer-songwriter Layla Kaylif shoots her first feature film

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Layla Kaylif on the set of her debut movie.
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Eslam Al-Kawarit in ‘The Letter Writer.’
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Layla Kaylif
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Updated 07 July 2018

From stage to screen: Singer-songwriter Layla Kaylif shoots her first feature film

  • The British-Emirati musician talks to Arab News about her recently wrapped directorial debut, “The Letter Writer.”
  • Set in 1960s Dubai, “The Letter Writer” tells the story of a young boy who works as a professional letter writer for illiterate members of the community and falls in love with the object of one of his customer’s affections.

DUBAI: The director Layla Kaylif is sitting in an air-conditioned room in the Al Sheyoukh neighbourhood of Sharjah. In front of her are a large monitor and a set of headphones. Just outside, a scene from her debut movie “The Letter Writer” is beginning to unfold in the stifling heat of early June.

The film’s young star, played by the Syrian actor Eslam Al-Kawarit, is cycling through the city’s compact historic district, singing the pan-Arab nationalist song “Al Watan Al Akbar” as he goes. He can only travel for a short distance before a modern high-rise spoils the view.

“He’s a superstar,” says Kaylif of Al-Kawarit, who pops in every now and then to have his hair and make-up attended to. He has a baby face with a thin, pencil-like moustache. “Eslam was the first person to respond when I put out a request for audition tapes and he’s been wonderful. One of my other leads was a waiter I found in a restaurant. Never acted in his life.”

It is the penultimate day of a 24-day shoot and Kaylif is tired. Filming, she has discovered, is not as glamorous as it sounds.

“Film is such a weird art form. I can’t tell you if the film has worked,” she admits a few days after shooting has finished. “There’s no way of knowing if it works emotionally until I’ve seen a rough cut of the edit, or until I’ve sat down with the editor. You can direct pretty pictures and you can say ‘That scene was fantastic,’ but does that mean anything? Does this film work emotionally? Does this film take you on a journey? Is it cathartic? At the end of it, do you feel something? To me, if you don’t then the film’s failed.”

The editor responsible for helping Kaylif answer some of these questions will be Eyas Salman, best known for editing Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s “Omar” and “The Idol.” Post-production is due to begin in London later this year.  

Set in 1960s Dubai, “The Letter Writer” tells the story of a young boy who works as a professional letter writer for illiterate members of the community and falls in love with the object of one of his customer’s affections. It is a storyline that has been tweaked and rewritten over the course of a number of years. 

“The original storyline was much simpler, much more focused on the main plotline,” says Kaylif, who also plays the boy’s mother in the film. “And then I rewrote it and created more of a pan-Arab context. But none of those arcs are well-developed. There’s a lot going on that might not resolve itself in an interesting way, so I might end up losing all of that. Which is fine by me. I’m not worried if a lot of it ends up on the cutting room floor. For me it has to work emotionally.”

Producer Chris Buschek assembled an accomplished crew for the shoot, including the London-based Venezuelan cinematographer Arturo Vasquez and Jordanian script supervisor Alia Hatough. The latter previously worked on Naji Abu Nowar’s BAFTA-winner “Theeb.” Filming took place in Sharjah and Dubai, particularly at Meraas’ Al Seef development.  

“There’s this idea of what making a film is, even by film people, and everything gets dragged out,” says Kaylif, who wanted to bring a European cinematic sensibility to the film’s aesthetic. “I’m a very organized person and I’m a very responsible person, so I don’t need a zillion people faffing around. And filmmaking feels like that. I’m not interested in diving into a complicated life situation. There’s so many people, there’s so many egos, there’s so much drama.

“But this was very clean. Once Chris was onboard it was boom, boom, boom. I set up the office here, he put together the team, I fed everyone lunch every day, we prepped, we made the film and went home.”

Talking to Kaylif, a British-Emirati singer-songwriter, is an unusual experience. There’s no ego, no self-aggrandizement, no bombast, just an endearing self-effacement that borders on the detrimental.  

“I started this project with very low expectations to be honest,” she says candidly. “But I put everything into it. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked. I just didn’t have unrealistic expectations. I can’t be disappointed, but I can be pleasantly surprised.

“Don’t get me wrong, I can have vanity like anybody else, but it doesn’t sustain me. I rarely post on social media. I’m not interested in that existence. I feel like everything nowadays is led through the prism of social media and self-glorification.

“It took me a long time to be comfortable with defining myself as a singer-songwriter. In the sense that I’ve been doing it for many, many years. I don’t like accolades. I come from a generation where accolades are a by-product of having done a good job, or having done something of value. So I’m against this generation of ‘Let’s celebrate something before I’ve done it.’”

That the film is being made at all is partly thanks to the IWC Filmmaker Award, which Kaylif won at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2015. However, she received only half of the $100,000 because the film was not made within 24 months of the award being granted. As a consequence, development of the film has been tough, particularly in relation to funding.

“My biggest struggles have not been in this part of the world creatively, they’ve been in the Western world.”


“Because the British film industry is racist. That’s why they’ve suddenly been forced into this push for diversity. Over the course of my career I’ve found that the English don’t mind you being an oppressed person they can save. But if you’re an educated peer, they hate you. There’s this kind of repugnance to someone like me.”

As an Arab?

“As a person who comes from a privileged background. People like to put you in boxes. I don’t fit into any boxes. The reason I speak English the way I do is because my mother tongue is English. It’s not because I’m some kind of aspirational, self-hating Arab. I’m actually very proud to be Arab.”

At the heart of much of Kaylif’s humility lies a disappointment with her music career. She last released an album in 2008, although she has penned the theme song for “The Letter Writer” and is looking to produce new work. She has been hamstrung, she says, by her circumstances: too conservative for the pop world, yet, simply by being a singer, too outrageous for some of her relatives.

“I still have a lot of passion for my music career. I want to do a folk-country record with Sufi-esque themes. So imagine Rumi lyrics in a country song. Does that sound appealing?” she asks with a laugh.

“I haven’t quite reached a point where I can say that I’ve fulfilled my musical vision. That still hasn’t happened. Maybe it won’t happen, I don’t know. But it’s still the main driver and not something I’m going to give up easily.”

Highlights: Next-gen designs from the Global Grad Show

The Global Grad Show at Dubai Design Week 2018. (Arab News)
Updated 19 November 2018

Highlights: Next-gen designs from the Global Grad Show

  • The Global Grad Show at Dubai Design Week showcased 150 innovative designs created by students from around the world
  • Designs ranged from high-tech solutions to simple objects

DUBAI: Highlights from the Global Grad Show at Dubai Design Week, which showcased 150 innovative and potentially life-changing designs created by students from around the world, ranging from high-tech scientific solutions to conceptually simple physical objects.

Ukranian designer Olga Zelenska says her work “focuses on simplicity, sustainability and aesthetics of design,” and “From Nowhere With Love” delivers on all three. It’s a set of biodegradable postcards, designed for “migrants and modern nomads” to allow them to take a piece of their homeland’s nature with them wherever they travel. The postcards contain seeds specific to the plant life of the country or area in which they are bought. Those seeds can then be planted wherever the buyer — or the recipient of the postcard — wishes. (We’re not sure they’re guaranteed to grow well, but you get the idea…)

Yara Ahmed Rady is a product design student at the German University in Cairo. Her GGS project “Dyslexia Learning Difficulty” is designed to help dyslexic children learn Arabic through a series of exercises that use conventional teaching techniques which Rady has transformed into educational games using digital technology and engaging all five senses, thereby, she wrote in her project description “offering alternative routes to literacy.”

One of the questions that GGS was attempting to answer this year was “How do we do more with less?” South Korean designer Yesul Jang, currently studying in Switzerland, came up with a product which addresses the needs of the ever-growing number of people living alone in small apartments or rented rooms in urban spaces. “Tiny Home Bed” is a raised bed with storage space — covered by a sliding fabric curtain allowing easier access than drawers — beneath. The frame is constructed of lightweight wood and is, Jang insists, “easy to construct.” Just as importantly, it’s not an eyesore.

After several years of working in the sportswear industry, London-based designer Jen Keane wanted to come up with a more sustainable way to make products. By combining digital and biological technology, she created a strong, lightweight, hybrid shoe that is made partly from bacteria. “I weave fibers into the shape and the bacteria grows around it,” Keane explained to Arab News. “It’s kind of a scaffold.” Keane added that she created the shoe in her kitchen at home. “I don’t have a lab,” she said. “I don’t have a [science] background. I learned how to do this by reading a lot, experimenting and talking to biologists. It’s totally doable.”

Sustainability also factored into Christian Hammer Juhl’s thinking when the Netherlands-based Danish designer was creating his inflatable furniture collection “10:01.” Made from dense foam material, the furniture can compress down to 10 percent of its original size (through a process similar to vacuum packing). So it’s not only ideal for modern transient lifestyles, but also means that transport from factory to retailer is more sustainable too.

Billed as “clothing that can save your life,” David Bursell’s “Tardigrade” is the jacket you’re going to want to be wearing when the zombie apocalypse hit. Or, you know, a more conventional kind of Armageddon (Bursell says it was “inspired by climate change and the increasingly extreme natural and social crises it will trigger”). “Tardigrade” can be transformed into a shelter, a shoulder bag, a hammock, and any number of other things. It’s detatchable pockets can be used to collect water and other material. A warning though: at the moment, the jacket aids survival for “three to seven days,” so you might want to invest in several if things get really bad.

“It’s flying lighting for urban safety,” designer Jiabao Li told Arab News about “Twinkle,” which she co-designed with fellow Harvard student Honghao Deng. Basically, flying drones clamp themselves to lampposts during the day to recharge their batteries, and at night they head to poorly lit neighborhoods. “They fly off to follow people around and provide sufficient lighting to guide their way. Like fireflies,” she explained. Both designers describe their creations as “living” creatures. “They’re curious animals,” said Deng. “We don’t think they should be owned. They should just be living around the place.” Li and Deng are currently talking to various governments trying to get permission for a trial run.

Developed by a team of students from the Art University of Isfahan, “Naji” is an ingenious product designed to provide assistance in times of severe flooding. In normal situations, the device — four rectangles constructed of ethylene vinyl acetate (“resilient and buoyant”) with holes in — forms part of the base of streetlights, and the designers claim it will fit into existing infrastructure without the need for additional construction. If an area floods, however, the device floats to the surface of the water and provides a place for people to sit safely in one of the squares, strap in and await rescue.

Another team project, this time from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, “Acorn” is designed, according to the team’s statement “to be entirely beneficial to the environment.” Lead designer Zhang Liye told Arab News that the project is specifically intended for use in desert cities like those in the Gulf “because the soil lacks minerals and nutrition.” “Acorn” is an easy-to-assemble biodegradable plant base made from compressed crop waste that you simply bury in soil so that it can provide that missing nutrition to your plant.

A great example of how designers at GGS tackled another question: “How can technology make us more human?” In other words, how can we make life easier for people in tough situations? “Sahayak” is designed for porters working on railway platforms in India, who traditionally carry luggage on their heads, which can create several long-term health issues. “Sahayak” is a backpack that transfers the weight of their loads from their heads to their shoulders and protects the spine. “The design uses an inexpensive torsion spring to distribute the load throughout the backpack’s frame, reducing the load borne by the user’s head and neck by 75 percent,” designer Risbagh Singh claimed in his GGS statement.