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Can MENA horror films go mainstream? Yes, says Emirati filmmaker

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Can MENA horror films go mainstream? Yes, says Emirati filmmaker
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The genre of horror has not been much explored by filmmakers in the Middle East and North Africa to date, nor achieved mainstream success.

One movie producer hoping to change that is Nayla Al Khaja, the first female Emirati filmmaker.

She embarked upon her career in the UAE more than 15 years ago, when the industry was almost non-existent.

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja on set

“People didn’t have an awareness of cinema at all,” says Al Khaja, who is now working on her 13th film. “It was very difficult for me, because there was nothing to do. How do I start an industry, so to speak?”

Alongside a handful of other filmmakers, Al Khaja decided to tackle controversial subject matters in her work, often exploring the darker side of human nature.

As with Animal in 2016, a movie which takes the viewer inside the mind of a sociopathic father who torments his family.

To Al Khaja’s delight it became the first Emirati script to be awarded an accreditation at the Cannes Film Festival, making it the first UAE entry.

Today, the multi-award-winning director and producer is creating her first horror flick called Shadow, which stars local actors speaking the Emirati dialect.

Behind-the-scenes of Shadow, by Nayla Al Khaja

It’s a drama-mystery which tells the story of a nine-year-old boy battling a supernatural illness.

The tale, which was inspired by the filmmaker’s early childhood, is expected to be released by the end of the year.

“I like horror because I grew up in an atmosphere that was like really embossed with fear,” she says. “We had strict parents and I think it was my imagination. I just liked to fly with things that have serial killers, suspense, dark. I like to play with light a lot and create an ambiance.”

Al Khaja’s passion for storytelling was ignited by her grandmother’s desert tales of Umm Dwais, an Emirati Bogey-woman who would lure men with her beauty before transforming into a monster and slaying them.

Emirati filmmaker Nayla Al Khaja on the set of Shadow

Thrillers from the greater Middle East

Terrifying folklore tales have served as the inspiration for many movie thrillers in the MENA region, and Egypt is home to most Arabic horror films.

One of its first famous features emerged from the true story of two murderers in the 1900s.

Raya and Sakina were two female Egyptian serial-killers who, along with their husbands, murdered and buried about 17 women in their Alexandria home.

In 1921, they became the first two women in Egypt to be executed for their crimes, and their unlawful acts inspired plays, a television series and a movie.

Soon to follow were other macabre films including the 1945 release of the Ambassador of Hell, about a man who makes a deal with the devil, and Kandisha in 2008, the story of a Moroccan lawyer investigating a supernatural murder.