Djinn genre outing from Dubai focuses on a clash between Western medicine and Arabic tradition


Source: Red Sea International Film Festival


Dir: Nayla Alkhaja. United Arab Emirates. 2023. 94mins

A progressive, successful divorced Emirati single mother, Maryam (Faten Ahmed) is torn between Western medicine and Arabic belief systems when her 11-year-old son Ahmed (Saud Alzarooni) starts to act oddly. The debut feature from Emirati director Nayla Alkhaja is something of a tonal misfire: a supernatural thriller that is almost completely lacking in scares and an examination of cultural differences that does not seem to be entirely certain of what it is trying to say.

 Does not seem to be entirely certain of what it is trying to say

Alkhaja cut her teeth making commercials and currently has two short films streaming on Netflix. Her debut feature is the latest addition to the Djinn-possession sub-genre and bears some similarities to Babak Anvari’s post-revolutionary Iranian horror Under The Shadow, in that both films feature single mothers and vulnerable children. But while Under The Shadow connected with genre audiences internationally and generated enthusiastic critical support, Three is less likely to travel extensively following its premiere at Red Sea and will probably connect most successfully with domestic audiences. 

Ahmed’s troubles start with a stutter, an affliction that marks him out for bullying at the international school he attends. His sleep suffers, and his mood dips – all signs, insists Maryam’s sister Noora (Noura Alabed), that jealousy has marked Maryam’s boy with the evil eye. At Noora’s insistence, Maryam takes Ahmed to a Mullah, located in an unpromising shack somewhere in the desert outskirts of Dubai. The Mullah and his two acolytes, one man and one woman, don’t exactly invite confidence. The woman eyes Maryam with overt hostility, all the while hammering walnuts into submission with a rock.

Not unexpectedly, Ahmed experiences a marked deterioration, prompting Maryam to take him to consult with empathetic British doctor Mark (Hefferson Hall), who forms a bond with the boy and suspects a mental health crisis, although he struggles to formally diagnose him.

The responsibility for creating suspense and maintaining an uneasy atmosphere rests mainly on the shoulders of the youngest cast member, acting newcomer Alzarooni. And while he delivers a few convincingly creepy moments – one scene with a young female neighbour is particularly effective – Alzerooni struggles with the role at times. It is perhaps because of this that Alkhaja leans heavily on sound design, and there is an overuse of generic spooky rumbles and sinister noises that have little relation to what we see on screen.

The positioning of the film at the crossroads between Western rationalism and Arabic mysticism is promising, but might perhaps have been more intriguing had the picture maintained a more enigmatic approach. Instead, it is almost matter of fact in its delivery of a supernatural explanation, with Dr Mark – forced to watch a multi-Mullah tag team Djinn banishment – soundly berated for his lack of understanding of spiritual matters. With its extended religious ceremony and a child possessed by spirits, it’s hard not to compare the picture to The Exorcist, but it is a reference that only serves to emphasise how lacking in genuine tension Three really is is.

Production company: Nayla Alkhaja Films, Dark Dunes Productions, Running Shoes Holding

Contact: Nayla Alkhaja Films

Producers: Jean-Charles Felix Levy, Nayla Alkhaja, Daniel Zirilli, Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki

Screenplay: Nayla Alkhaja, Ben Williams

Cinematography: Mik Allen

Editing: Sebastian Funke, Yann Malcor, Hanoz Navdar

Production design: Ahmed Hassan

Music: Vladimir Persan

Main cast: Jefferson Hall, Faten Ahmed, Noura Alabed, Saud Alzarooni, Mohannad Huthail