Layla, the debut feature of 2018 Screen Star of Tomorrow Amrou Al-Kadhi, about the romance between a struggling British-Palestinian drag performer and a successful white gay man, wraps this week after a six-week shoot in east London.
The film is backed by Film4 and the BFI and is produced by UK producer Savannah James-Bayly of Fox Cub Films. WME Independent is handling North America and will oversee a potential global sale, with Luc Roeg’s Independent Entertainment on board as international sales agent handling individual territory sales.
Nina Yang Bongiovi, producer of 2018 Sundance hit Sorry To Bother You and Rebecca Hall’s Passing, is executive producer on the film through Significant Productions/AUM group, the US production company she co-founded with Forest Whitaker, and provides additional funding for the feature.
Further executive producers are Farhana Bhula for Film4, Kristin Irving for the BFI and Mary Burke of Public Dreams.
Film4 retains TV and on demand rights in the UK and Ireland.
Speaking to Screen when they were selected as a Star of Tomorrow, Al-Kadhi – who identifies as gender non-binary and uses the pronoun ‘they’ – described the film as a “contemporary Romeo and Juliet” about two lovers caught between separate groups within the LGBTQ+ community in London.
The filmmaker said the film draws on their lived experiences as a British-Iraqi drag performer in London. Struggling British-Palestinian drag performer Layla, whose confident façade hides a desire to be loved, is surprised when performing at a belittling corporate Pride event, they win over the affection of Max, a gay man with all the markers of success.
Layla stars rising names Bilal Hasna and Louis Greatorex with Safiyya Ingar, Terique Jarrett, Darkwah and Sarah Agha. Queer icons including Rebecca Lucy Taylor aka pop star Self Esteem and 2022 RuPaul’s Drag Race UK contestant, Baby, also feature in the film.
Fellow Screen Star Cobbie Yates is costume designer on the film, with Craig Dean Devine as cinematographer, casting by Shaheen Baig, and hair and makeup from Adele Firth.
“I made Layla because I want the world to have an unapologetically joyous queer fairytale,” said Al-Kadhi, who is also known for their drag alter-ego Glamrou.
”Trauma is at the centre of so many of our stories on screen, and in the current political climate, it feels like a radical act to tell a story that celebrates the queer experience. Within what I hope will be an uplifting film for many, sits a story that explores the conflict between desire and identity; how does who we desire affect who we are, and in fact change who we are? Layla’s thrilling romance with Max will make them question every aspect of themselves, in the way that only love can.”
Al-Kadhi and producer James-Bayly, who met when they were both participating in the BFI Flare x BAFTA Mentoring programme, have previously collaborated on four short films which explore the lives of queer people of colour. They include 2017’s Clash, and 2018’s Run(a)Way Arab and Anemone.
”Amrou is a singular talent. This film is a joyful celebration of queer creativity, community and the power of drag that unities humour and pathos in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has followed their career thus far,” said James-Bayly.
”We are so grateful to our financiers for their trust and support in bringing this unique story to life. Bilal and Louis lead a stellar cast - showcasing vulnerability, comedy, and sizzling chemistry, and we are truly grateful for all our crew who embraced the wild ambition of this project with open arms and poured their talents into the film.”
The director also has acting credits in films including Munich, Christopher Robin, The Souvenir: Part II and Venom: Let There Be Carnage.
“Layla is a vibrant and warm-hearted love letter to the creative spirit of the queer community, and we are incredibly excited by Amrou’s unique perspective as a performer and filmmaker, as well as the fantastic cast and crew they have assembled,” said Bhula, senior commissioning executive at Film4.
Mia Bays, director of the BFi Film Fund added: “[Amrou] has brought together a hugely exciting team of fantastic talent in front and behind the camera, to create this joyous and authentic queer love story.”