Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja teams up with Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman on new movie

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja teams up with Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman on new movie
Rahman will score Al-Khaja’s upcoming feature film “Baab,” which she describes as her first “art-house” movie.
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Updated 26 May 2022

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja teams up with Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman on new movie

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja teams up with Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman on new movie
  • The Emirati filmmaker and the two-time Academy Award-winning composer will collaborate on her upcoming feature, ‘Baab’

CANNES: UAE filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja has teamed up with the multi-award-winning Indian composer A.R. Rahman for her upcoming feature film “Baab.”

“This means the world to me, I feel like he is going to do something extremely unique and unprecedented and I need to match that with a picture, my camera language, and to be honest with my work,” Al-Khaja, herself the winner of multiple awards, told Arab News at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

Rahman — the Oscar-, BAFTA-, Golden Globe-, and Grammy-winning composer of more than 145 film scores — will score Al-Khaja’s upcoming feature film “Baab,” which she describes as her first “art-house” movie.




Al-Khaja (right) on the set of her short film 'The Shadow.' (Supplied)

Al-Khaja is widely recognized as the UAE’s first independent female filmmaker. Her previous work includes short films “The Neighbor,” “Malal,” “Animal,” and “The Shadow.” She co-wrote “Baab” with Masoud Amralla Al-Ali.

“People like her coming and laying the road for younger women is a fantastic thing to do and being a part of it is legendary,” Rahman said. “BAAB” will be his first Middle Eastern project, and he explained why he was immediately attracted to the proposed collaboration.

“For me, it feels like I’m just starting out,” he said. “It feels like it’s the first film for me, because she has a very new vision and she comes from a different place, which I have not been to before. And I always feel good about a clean piece of paper that has nothing written on it.”

The collaboration came about by chance, Al-Khaja explained, sparked by a spur-of-the-moment coincidence that led to a dream partnership.




A. R. Rahman with his two Oscars for 'Slumdog Millionaire.' (Supplied)

“The truth is, (this happened because of) Instagram,” she said. One day — having seen one of Al-Khaja’s Instagram stories in which she mentioned Rahman — her driver jokingly said to her, “Imagine if, one day, he called you.”

“He just put it out into the universe. It was just a casual remark, but two days later I got a call arranging a meeting,” Al-Khaja continued.

The pair both agree that the best collaborations often arise from such spontaneous connections.

“It was completely unplanned,” Al-Khaja said. “But I don’t want to say it was an accident. It was born out of an honest and real place.”

Rahman explained what initially drew him to the production. “I like the nuances,” he said. “There are open and unexplored parts of working with a filmmaker, which is great.”

He went on to explain his composition process: “Talking to a director, I find out the dos and don’ts — their inspiration and level of realism. I do a little bit of research to find sounds, sometimes I use them and sometimes I throw them away. Having it and discarding it is better than not having it when producing,” he said.

Al-Khaja bills the film, which — Variety has reported — follows a girl called Wahida as she investigates the mysterious death of her twin sister, as “100 percent art-house fantasy, and borderline horror.”




Both Al-Khaja and Rahman are hopeful that the film will be something special. (Supplied)

“It’s hard to define,” she said. “It’s intense. There are some creepy parts where it’s extremely uncomfortable. I don’t know that I can classify it (entirely) as a a horror movie, but we have maybe two or three scenes that are over that line. But for the most part, I’d say it’s art-house fantasy.”

One of those “uncomfortable” scenes comes towards the end of the movie, she explained, where one of the characters is hanging inches away from the ceiling.

“She’s tied by her arms and legs with a rope. The ceiling is almost touching (her face) for the whole scene, then (suddenly) one rope rips and she’s hanging there a long time and she’s breathing against the ceiling, it’s quiet and then it snaps. That’s right at the end,” Al-Khaja said.

Shooting on “BAAB” will commence in Ras Al-Khaimah in March, and both Al-Khaja and Rahman are hopeful that the film will be something special — not just in terms of storyline and performance, but with costume design, production, and music.

“We really want to push this as far as we can,” Al-Khaja said.

Decoder

Baab

Baab is an upcoming feature film by multi-awarded Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al-Khaja, in partnership with Indian composer A.R. Rahman, himself a winner of multiple awards. The film tells the story of a girl named Wahida, who investigates the mysterious death of her twin sister. Shooting on “BAAB” will start in Ras Al-Khaimah, UAE, in March.


What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Updated 01 July 2022

What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

What We Are Reading Today: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest works of literature. 
The novel, first published as a complete work in 1878, is centered around a love affair between Anna and Vronsky, a Russian military officer, with the book’s characters highlighting the conflict between socially accepted norms and human desire.  
Despite being married to Alexie Karenin, Anna has a scandalous affair with Vronsky and moves to Moscow with him. There they live together as a married couple. 
When he finds out about the affair, Anna’s husband gives her an ultimatum: Leave Vronsky and keep the family’s reputation intact — or never see her son again. 
Tolstoy is still revered as one of history’s greatest authors. 
Born to an aristocratic Russian family in 1828, he was a master of realist fiction, and produced plays, essays and short stories. 
His most famous works include “War and Peace,” “Resurrection,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” 
Tolstoy received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906, and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909.


Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
Updated 01 July 2022

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
  • The award-winning Egyptian filmmaker on his moving refugee doc ‘Captains of Zaatari’ and future plans

DUBAI: Nearly 10 years ago, Egyptian filmmaker Ali El-Arabi, the award-winning documentarian behind “Captains of Zaatari,” which hits Netflix this month, made a promise. He was in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the largest temporary settlement of displaced Syrians in the world, and a teenaged boy he had just met named Fawzi Qatleesh asked if he could speak his truth to the camera.

“On the first day I arrived, he asked me, ‘Ali, can you film me? I want to say something to the people outside of this camp.’ The second he started to talk, I said to myself, ‘This boy is my hero,’” El-Arabi tells Arab News.

Qatleesh had dreams. He wanted to become a professional footballer. More importantly, he wanted the people outside those fences to know the truth of the refugee experience. He didn’t want pity, he told El-Arabi, he only wanted opportunity. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

As the film hits Netflix this month in the Middle East, El-Arabi is overjoyed. Finally, after seven years of filming and a years-long global festival tour, his promise is fulfilled.

“I lost a lot of money, to be honest, because I refused to sell the film to a smaller platform that might limit its reach. That was for Fawzi — because of that promise I made him on the first day. I told him to say what was in his heart, and I would tell everyone in the world his story. That has been my mission ever since,” says El-Arabi.

El-Arabi knew what it felt like to have a message that people needed to hear. He was himself once an athlete, a dedicated and successful martial artist, even winning Egypt’s national kickboxing championship. During the Egyptian revolution, however, El-Arabi abandoned any future he might have in sport, instead turning towards filmmaking.

“Captains of Zaatari” is on Netflix. (Supplied)

“I started to feel I had something to say, but I couldn’t say it with my voice,” he says. “I realized filmmaking was the way I could say it. I started making small documentaries about what was happening and screening them in the street. One day, the police came and I took my film and I ran. That made me realize the power of what I could say with a camera.” 

El-Arabi left Egypt, partnering with the ZDF TV channel to film documentaries in war zones including Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. War reporting, however, was unfulfilling, as it so often stripped away the humanity of those caught in its horrors.

“Refugees and the victims in the war were all just numbers. It was the news, and the news just wanted statistics,” El-Arabi says. “I couldn’t process it that way. These were people, and I knew there was more going on than the news could report.” 

After meeting Qatleesh and his friend Mahmoud Dagher — the two boys he would ultimately follow from the refugee camp in Jordan all the way to an elite soccer program in the Gulf — El-Arabi filmed them for seven years before whittling their story down to a scant 75 minutes, resulting in a story that showed their incredible journey while also refusing to gloss over the realities of refugee life.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

Nonetheless, the film is bursting with hope, and El-Arabi’s proudest moments have come showing the film not to the outside world, as he originally intended, but to those in similar circumstances to Dagher and Qatleesh when he first found them.

“We screened it at a refugee camp in Lebanon, and person after person came up to me to tell me that, for the first time, they could think about the future. They said the film showed them that they could not only have dreams, they could achieve them. I will never forget that,” El-Arabi says.

Since its limited release in 2021, the film has already transformed the lives of both young men whose story it follows.

“They’re stars now. They feel it. Even some football clubs have watched the film and want to give them opportunities,” El-Arabi says. “The government of Jordan and the leaders in the camps respect them. Children in the camps are looking to them as role models. I speak to them all the time, and it’s wonderful to watch, even though they also feel the pressure from their families that they need to start delivering on their promise as soon as possible, and transforming their situation too.”

A still from El-Arabi's upcoming project “Ashish’s Journey.” (Supplied)

While he may be done telling their story, El-Arabi has been hard at work over the last few years on another — “Ashish’s Journey” — about the upcoming FIFA World Cup. It is inspired by a man who approached him in Qatar as he filmed “Captains of Zaatari.” 

“An Indian man came to me one day and asked if he could take a picture with me. He thought I was a soccer player, and he told me he wanted to send the picture back to his family,” El-Arabi explains. “He told me, ‘I came here to watch the World Cup. But I didn’t have money to come, so I came here to work now, so that I could meet the famous players one day. I thought you were one of them.’”

The more time El-Arabi spent with the man, the more his innocent aspirations intrigued him, leading him to not only film Ashish in Qatar, but to follow him and his family back to India, even adding fictional elements (with Ashish playing himself) inspired by the classic French satirical novella “Candide” to the docu-film.

“He’s actually a very good actor,” El-Arabi says.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

While El-Arabi knows that he will finish filming later this year at the World Cup, chronicling Ashish’s adventures during the games, he does not plan to rush the film out in the immediate aftermath of the event. 

“I want to savor the material. I don’t want to rush it for a big festival. I love working on this film. I don’t want to kill the process — kill everything I’ve put into this — just to have something done fast,” he says. 

El-Arabi has other projects in the works as well. He’s currently producing a film about Algeria and discussing producing an upcoming project with his best friend Mohamed Diab, the director of Marvel’s “Moon Knight.” Closest to his heart, though, is the fiction film he has in the works between Los Angeles and Egypt, inspired by both his own history in boxing and his relationship with his father. 

“We’re talking to major international stars (about) it,” he says. “It’s a story that takes a lot from my own experiences with my family, and nearly every time I pitch it to people they cry. One person I work closely with, as soon as I finished, said they had to leave room to call their father.”

While telling Arab stories will remain a key part of El-Arabi’s career moving forward, ultimately what drives him is not capturing his identity — it’s capturing his soul. 

“I will tell Arab stories, but I don’t think a lot about telling stories about the Arab world,” he says. “I think about humans. That’s all I’m interested in.”


The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos
Updated 01 July 2022

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

PARIS: A new exhibition at Paris’ Louvre Museum illustrates the longstanding cultural relationship between France and Lebanon.

“Byblos et le Louvre,” which runs until Sept. 11, is a unique display of archaeological artifacts from the Lebanese seaport town of Byblos (also known as Jbeil), one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. 

Visitors will find ceramic jars, small figurines, cuneiform tablets, and ancient weapons on display, some of which are thousands of years old. Despite their age, many of the items are in remarkably good condition. 

Ensemble figurines votives, Byblos Musée du Louvre, Raphaël Chipault. (Supplied)

“What is amazing is the pottery, which looks like it’s been made yesterday,” Tania Zaven, an archaeologist of Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, told Arab News. 

For Louvre archaeologist Julien Chanteau, who was on site during recent excavations, Byblos is a hugely significant site with a lot of stories to tell. 

“It’s a very small site, maybe six hectares. But you can read all the history of mankind there, from the Neolithic period until today,” Chanteau said. “Byblos is like a book. 

Byblos et le Louvre. (Supplied)

“You have all cultures and civilizations: The Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Greeks, and the Arabs have all left traces on this site,” he continued. “It’s very impressive for an archeologist to have such an amount of information. It’s like a chronicle of humanity.” 

Under Napoleon III, the first French-led excavations in Byblos began in 1860, led by scholar Ernest Renan. He brought many objects back to France, and released detailed publications of the excavation. 

Excavations have continued to the present day — although they were interrupted in the Seventies because of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2018, a scientific excavation program was relaunched, pairing archaeologists and experts from the Louvre Museum and the DGA. They have explored the area’s royal underground chambers, tombs, and temples. 

Byblos et le Louvre. (Supplied)

Zaven noted some of the challenges of undertaking archeological missions in Lebanon, including security and looting. “Every day we are working against illicit trafficking,” she said. “We wanted to have this exhibition to show that Lebanon is still here. We believe in our culture and we want our culture to stay alive.” 

In October, the exhibition will travel to a museum in the Dutch city of Leiden. It will also be exhibited, next spring, in an old house in Byblos, coming full circle. 


Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 
Updated 01 July 2022

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

DUBAI: Arab Men’s Fashion Week came to a close on Thursday with Dubai-based label Amato presenting the final show. 

This is Filipino designer Furne One’s ninth time closing an edition of the Dubai-based fashion week. 

The founder of the brand presented various designs in a spectrum of colors, inspired by the bold and bright hues of India. 

A complete turnaround from his previous men’s collection, which featured all-white ensembles, this season, the designer went back to the brand’s roots with colorful fabrics and experimental silhouettes.

Materials included lace, tulle, silk, cotton and leather. 

“I was fascinated by the idea of having a moment of realization and celebration,” One said in a released statement.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Maison Du Mec (@maisondumec)

His aim was to intensify the senses and make the audience look at the details of each garment — the silhouette, the neckline and the surface decoration — rather than focusing on “looks.” 

“I was also inspired by India’s diversity — from culture, religion, languages, geography and everything in between,” he added. “Their unique differences while building one nation really inspires me — I want to dig deeper and find out how this uniqueness made them create dimensional colors that we only see within our naked eyes.”

The event, which kicked off on June 28, presented the Spring/Summer 2023 collections of more than 10 regional and international designers, including Lebanese brand Maison du Mec, London-based label Permu, Beirut fashion house Tagueule and Dubai-based couturier Michael Cinco. 

The first day of the fashion week kicked off with a collaboration between Swiss tech accessories brand Ferronato and Maison du Mec that was a mash up between fashion and technology.

The collaboration featured soft leather backpacks, micro smartphone cases, multi-functional clutches and slouchy drawstring bags in shades of blue and burgundy. A life size robotic dog, representing Ferronato’s innovative accessories, closed the show.

For Permu, designers Heyun Pan and Jing Qian presented daily ensembles and occasion wear that featured skin-tight tops, bucket hats, backwards-facing blazers and jackets with cut slits, puffed sleeves and exaggerated shoulder pads. 

Tagueule’s silky trousers and shirts in monochrome shades were featured on the same runway as vests and cargo pants outfitted with utilitarian pockets and straps.

Cinco’s designs were marked by a sunset color gradient ranging from orange and yellow to black. Capes and kandoras were a salute to Emirati culture, while an array of smart, sporty sets spoke to a wider clientele.


The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region
Updated 01 July 2022

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region
  • From an Algerian indie veteran and Lebanese newcomers to Libyan trap-pop and Egyptian ‘mind-map art,’ here are six regional artists making waves with their work

Souad Massi

‘Dessine-Moi Un Pays’ 

The Algerian singer-songwriter’s first single from her upcoming tenth album “Sequana” is a deceptively simple folk-tinged ballad — stripped back but with a beautifully subtle acoustic guitar line over which Massi’s emotive, yearning vocals fit perfectly. Syrian flautist Naïssam Jalal adds an impressive solo. The song’s title translates as “Draw Me A Land,” and Massi said in a press release that it was inspired by exile. “Those people who (clung) to planes leaving Kabul when the Taliban returned — it was for them that I wrote this song,” she explained. “Whilst rooted in France, there is a sense the song is filled with memories of a lost Algeria and of her childhood,” the release states.

Yazan Abu Salameh

‘Bending Toward The Sun’

The Palestinian artist’s solo exhibition is available to view in 3D online until July 30, courtesy of Ramallah’s Zawyeh Gallery. The show’s title is a reference to how plants seek light, but Abu Salameh’s works are concerned with finding the light in Palestine’s densely built-up towns, where expansion is restricted by the occupation. His ink paintings reference Israel’s “Seperation Wall” and other military structures. The show includes “Gift Box 3,” shown here.

“The sun dominates Abu Salameh’s artworks and appears in the background overlooking structures of concrete,” the gallery’s press release explains. “The melancholy of the urban environment and the overwhelming presence of concrete as a byproduct of the military occupation overshadows the works.” Abu Salameh’s boxes of “congested buildings with little white windows” are left partly open “as if the towns desire to escape confinement.”  

Felula 

‘Seket’ (live)

Recorded during Felula’s performance for the 10th anniversary celebrations of Beirut Jam Sessions, this funky Arabic pop track shows off the duo’s knack for laying earworm-y hooks under Sara Abdo’s understated-but-powerful vocals. The show was actually Abdo and guitarist Roger Zouein’s first performance as Felula, but they played like they’d been doing it for years.