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

‘Three’ director Nayla Al-Khaja on why she is forging ahead with horror films
Psychological horror ‘Three’ stars newcomer Saud Alzarooni as a child who is believed to be possessed. (Supplied)
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Updated 02 December 2023
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‘Three’ director Nayla Al-Khaja on why she is forging ahead with horror films

‘Three’ director Nayla Al-Khaja on why she is forging ahead with horror films
  • The psychological horror stars ‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ actor Jefferson Hall and newcomer Saud Alzarooni
  • Nayla Al-Khaja is heading to Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival to thrill audiences with ‘Three’

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.”


Liverpool Arab Arts Festival’s return showcases entertaining agenda

Liverpool Arab Arts Festival’s return showcases entertaining agenda
Updated 1 min ago
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Liverpool Arab Arts Festival’s return showcases entertaining agenda

Liverpool Arab Arts Festival’s return showcases entertaining agenda
  • Vibrant mix of art, theater, music, literature, workshops

LONDON: The Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, the UK’s longest-running festival celebrating Arab arts and culture, runs until July 21 and showcases a vibrant mix of art, theater, music, literature, and workshops.

Founded in 1998, the festival has become a cornerstone of Liverpool’s cultural calendar.

This year’s program features a diverse lineup of artists from Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, offering a dynamic interplay between traditional and contemporary Arab art forms.

Laura Brown, creative producer of the festival, told Arab News: “Artists are dealing with contemporary ideas and art forms, but often the conversations and themes they are tapping into are something Arab communities have been talking about for generations, like migration, identity and conflict.”

One of the highlights will be the festival’s tribute to Palestine. A special screening of “At Home in Gaza and London” will be held on Monday, with ticket proceeds benefiting collaborators in Gaza.

“Oranges and Stones,” a wordless play told through physical action and music, on Thursday will depict 75 years of occupation and settlement in Palestine. Marina Barham, general director of Al-Harah Theater in Bethlehem, will also speak about the therapeutic role of theater in addressing community trauma.

Port city Liverpool has fostered diverse and multicultural communities, with Arabic reportedly being the city’s second most-spoken language.

Brown said: “What’s really important to us is that we work with the community to ensure everyone feels represented. We talk to the community about artists they like and who they want to see, to bring them over. It was a conversation with members of the Somali community that introduced us to Aar Maanta.”

As an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organization, the festival is part of the 2023-26 investment program.

Brown added: “Being an NPO is something the whole team is incredibly proud of and it is something we take very seriously.

“The arts landscape is very challenging and the ability to be able to know your festival is secured for several years in advance allows you to build relationships with venues and creatives to develop programs and projects further.”
 


Review: Nicolas Cage-starring horror-mystery ‘Longlegs’ falls flat

Review: Nicolas Cage-starring horror-mystery ‘Longlegs’ falls flat
Updated 14 July 2024
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Review: Nicolas Cage-starring horror-mystery ‘Longlegs’ falls flat

Review: Nicolas Cage-starring horror-mystery ‘Longlegs’ falls flat

CHENNAI: If one were to walk into a theater to watch “Longlegs” in the hopes of finding something even remotely novel or different from the dozens of horror films that have played in cinemas over the years, disappointment awaits.

Set to be released in Saudi cinemas on July 18, the film is set in 1990s Oregon where mist and fog creep across a deserted, snow-covered landscape. Despite the sometimes eerie set, the movie does not manage to create a sense of sheer terror. Writer-director Osgood Perkins’ work appears clumsy, relying mostly on mood and atmosphere rather than on a substantial core as it follows FBI agent Lee Harker (Maika Monroe) on the trail of a notorious serial killer, played by Nicolas Cage.

Cage is completely hidden under a heavy disguise, with his expressions impossible to fathom, which is a pity because love him or hate him, he is an emotive performer.

Leaving behind coded notes signed as Longlegs — notes that Harker manages to crack as she tries to capture him — the devil on the prowl convinces fathers to murder their wives and children and then commit suicide. Dozens of families are wiped out, but the case itself is a mystery with details that do not add up to a believable whole.

Perkins has a penchant for style over substance — it’s a calling card that has marked his career, beginning with his 2015 debut “The Blackcoat's Daughter.” The director seems to lose his grip over the narrative and lets it sink into nonsensical oblivion. The dialogue is clumsy and the plot is peppered with plot holes.

If there is one plus point in the entire 101 minutes it is Monroe, who rises above a shoddily written part to convince audiences that she can offer a semblance of excellence in a story that seems to go nowhere.

 


Rita Ora paints the town red in Elie Saab look at Disney premiere

Rita Ora paints the town red in Elie Saab look at Disney premiere
Updated 14 July 2024
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Rita Ora paints the town red in Elie Saab look at Disney premiere

Rita Ora paints the town red in Elie Saab look at Disney premiere

DUBAI: British singer and actress Rita Ora attended the premiere of Disney’s “Descendants: The Rise Of Red” in California wearing an on theme scarlet gown by Lebanese couturier Elie Saab.

Featuring draped material on the bodice and a thigh-high slit, the look hailed from Saab’s Autumn/Winter 2010 Haute Couture collection.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by ELIE SAAB (@eliesaabworld)

The musical fantasy film follows Red, daughter of the Queen of Hearts, and Chloe, daughter of Cinderella, as they team up to save their home by traveling back in time to stop an event that would cause grave consequences.

Directed by Jennifer Phang, the cast includes Brandy, Rita Ora, Kylie Cantrall, Malia Baker, China Anne McClain, Jeremy Swift, Dara Reneé, Ruby Rose Turner, Morgan Dudley, Paolo Montalban, Melanie Paxson and Leonardo Nam.

Ora and Brandy, both pop singers, star together in the fourth installment of the “Descendants” movie franchise about the children of iconic Disney characters. They both play the mothers to the two main characters.

 “I Will Never Let You Down” hitmaker Ora plays the role of the Queen of Hearts and Brandy reprises her role from 1997’s “Cinderella” to play Cinderella.

“Oh my gosh, it's crazy — I did a movie with Brandy!” Ora told Entertainment Tonight ahead of the release of the film.

“I mean, I love her so much. I loved her music growing up. She was one of the vocalists that I would try and imitate every day in my bedroom. And watching her ‘Cinderella’ with Whitney Houston was so iconic for so many reasons. It made me believe in myself — like, 'Oh my goodness, I can do this too,’” Ora added, referring to superstar Whitney Houston who played Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother in the 1997 film.

Meanwhile, Elie Saab has been in the spotlight this weekend, with British actress Daisy Ridley showing off an understated look by the designer while presenting at the 2024 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles on Thursday.

The ESPY Awards, the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly, is an event honoring the top athletes and sport performances of the year.

Ridley wore a sleeveless cobalt-blue gown from Lebanese designer Elie Saab. The actress had her hair pulled back into a tight bun as she accessorized the look with blue gem earrings. She completed the ensemble with black heels.


‘This has been a journey for me,’ Kevin Costner says of passion project

‘This has been a journey for me,’ Kevin Costner says of passion project
Updated 13 July 2024
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‘This has been a journey for me,’ Kevin Costner says of passion project

‘This has been a journey for me,’ Kevin Costner says of passion project

LOS ANGELES: Oscar-winner Kevin Costner brought his passion project "Horizon: An American Saga" to the big screen this summer. A labor of love since 1988, Costner wrote, produced, financed, starred in, and directed the film.

His dedication paid off at the Cannes Film Festival, where it received an 11-minute standing ovation. Despite a lukewarm international box office take, the second part of the saga is on the horizon and will be released at an unspecified date.

“This has been a journey for me and for the people to stand and clap and not stop. And I basically shut out the noise for a while and walked my life backwards and thought about my journey professionally and the journey for ‘Horizon.’ And I was just really grateful at the end of the day that I stayed true to it,” Costner said of the lengthy standing ovation at Cannes.

Costner tells a Western story and focuses on the experiences of Indigenous Americans during colonization. The film meticulously explores a 12-year span during which white settlers encroached upon indigenous lands. With a diverse cast, the narrative offers a rich tapestry of perspectives on exploring new frontiers.

“We're just playing dress ups and telling a story version. But, you know, the frontier was actually founded on people taking wagon trains across through these uncharted territory. So you really get a bit of empathy towards what actually happened,” actor Sam Worthington said.

"Horizon: An American Saga" takes its time to set the tone for an engaging journey into a pivotal era of American history, told with passion and precision. Despite its three-hour runtime and slow pace, British actress Sienna Miller says she enjoyed the process. 

“I realized there were a lot of characters and there were long scenes and people had long monologues. But I like that,” Miller said.

“It was a massive, epic ... sized film to be doing. It’s like hundreds of actors and cattle everywhere, and we're in the elements. But then as an actor, he just slides into the scene. He's got this deep relaxation about the way that he works,” actress Abbey Lee said, with co-star Isabelle Fuhrman adding: “He knows this story backwards and forwards. I mean, it's been long enough for him to finally be on set doing this.”


Daisy Ridley takes a chic turn in Elie Saab

Daisy Ridley takes a chic turn in Elie Saab
Updated 13 July 2024
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Daisy Ridley takes a chic turn in Elie Saab

Daisy Ridley takes a chic turn in Elie Saab

DUBAI: British actress Daisy Ridley stunned in an elegant Elie Saab look while presenting at the 2024 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles on Thursday.

The ESPY Awards, the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly, is an event honoring the top athletes and sport performances of the year.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Daisy Ridley (@daisyridley)

The 32-year-old “Star Wars” actress skipped the red carpet at the ceremony, held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

She did take the stage, though, to present an award with Buffalo Bills player, Damar Hamlin, during the telecast.

Ridley wore a sleeveless cobalt-blue gown from Lebanese designer Elie Saab. The actress had her hair pulled back into a tight bun as she accessorized the look with blue gem earrings. She completed the ensemble with black heels.

In an interview with Reuters last month, Ridley talked about reprising her role as Jedi hero, Rey, and said that it feels “exciting and nerve-racking” as she returns to the “Star Wars” franchise for a new film.

Walt Disney Co, which purchased Star Wars producer Lucasfilm in 2012 and released three movies starring Ridley from 2015 to 2019 as well as a different TV series, announced new plans for the franchise last year.

“I’m very excited, it feels like a new adventure,” Ridley told Reuters at the London premiere of another Disney film, “Young Woman and the Sea.”

“It’s a world that I’m familiar with, I’m coming back to, but also it feels like a new start. So, it feels exciting and nerve-racking and I’m excited.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Daisy Ridley (@daisyridley)

In “Young Woman and the Sea” Ridley plays American swimmer Gertrude Trudy Ederle, an Olympic gold medalist who became the first woman to swim the English Channel.

In 1926, Ederle set off from northern France for the southern English coast, making the crossing in 14 hours, 31 minutes, and beating the men’s world record by one hour and 59 minutes.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Daisy Ridley (@daisyridley)

Despite a huge celebratory parade in New York on her return, Ederle’s name and accomplishments are not as well known to the public as those of other sports figures. Ederle died in 2003.

“Playing someone who is determined and resilient ... who has a real joy for what they’re doing, is wonderful,” Ridley said, adding that she had undergone a “pretty gruelling” swimming training schedule for the role.