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Sundance-Bound ‘Layla’ Director on Telling the Story of a British-Palestinian Drag Queen, Working With Emerald Fennell, Russell T. Davies (EXCLUSIVE)

Writer and director Amrou Al-Kadhi shares many similarities with the eponymous protagonist of their directorial debut “Layla,” a drama about how a drag queen’s first love influences their sense of self. Al-Kadhi speaks exclusively to Variety ahead of the world premiere of “Layla” Thursday in Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition. (Watch an exclusive clip below.)

Both Al-Kadhi and Layla are British of Arab descent — Al-Kadhi being British-Iraqi and Layla British-Palestinian — and both are non-binary and perform in drag. The director is used to blurring the lines between the personal and the fictional, rooting their drag persona Glamrou in first-hand experience as a queer Arab in Britain and having written award-winning “Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen.”

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Al-Kadhi emphasizes that, as an artist, it is important to prod into the personal so they can create work that “resonates with people,” but reiterates that “Layla” is a work of fiction.

“‘Layla’ is born out of a lot of my own struggles and thinking and feelings, but I built a fictional world for this character to exist in to make an entertaining and accessible movie that resonates with audiences.”

The film’s Sundance premiere marks the culmination of a long creative journey. Developed and financed by Film4 and the BFI and produced by Al-Kadhi’s longtime contributor Savannah James-Bayly of Fox Cub Films, “Layla” has been in the works since 2018. “Getting a film greenlit is a long process, especially for a first film. I’ve done five shorts, but you’re still untested and need to work really hard to convince everyone to give you the money to make the film,” points out the director.

“It’s kind of strange that I was 27 when I started writing ‘Layla’ and I’m now 33. I’ve changed a lot as a person as well as a creator, and I’m glad development did take as long as it did because I’ve matured as a writer and director. I think development really helps incubate the complexity of characters.”

The director is quick to point out how vital having good collaborators is in the media industry, highlighting not only James-Bayly but also Nina Yang Bongiovi of Significant Productions/AUM group. Bongiovi boarded “Layla” as an executive producer after a meeting with Al-Kadhi in Los Angeles and helped secure additional funding through the U.S. production company she co-founded with actor Forest Whitaker. Bongiovi’s credits include past Sundance hits “Sorry to Bother You” and “Passing.”

Al-Kadhi, whose writing credits include “Little America” and “Hollyoaks,” is particularly grateful for another industry veteran, Welsh screenwriter and television producer Russell T. Davies. The former showrunner and head writer of BBC’s immensely popular “Doctor Who,” Davies has acted as Al-Kadhi’s mentor since 2017. “He’s still ferociously supportive and pushes me to be the best that I can be,” says the filmmaker.

“I am really inspired by Russell, who makes things that are uncompromisingly queer. He has an amazing ability to create worlds with such vibrancy and whether you’re queer or not you do fall in love with these characters. I am trying to do something similar with my work.”

Amrou Al-Kadhi
Amrou Al-Kadhi

Al-Kadhi also planned to collaborate with Oscar-winning filmmaker Emerald Fennell; while the project is no longer moving ahead, they are quick to sing Fennell’s praises. “She really pushed me. Through working with her, I wrote something really dark and shocking in a way that feels completely different to ‘Layla.’ She got me to develop a script that I’m really proud of because she has such a brutally clever mind and dark instincts. I’m really honored to have worked with her.”

The self-proclaimed “workaholic” director has already started working on their sophomore feature. They are set to reteam with Film4 and James-Bayly for an “Almodovarian” film about an Arab drag queen in their forties who begins mentoring a young performer with dark intentions. “Both of them eventually begin to compete with each other to see who is the biggest victim in front of the press, so it’s also about the commodification of trauma and how Arabs have to sometimes over-perform their victimhood in order to get anywhere in entertainment.”

Still on the portrayal of Arab stories in the media, Al-Kadhi says having a film about a Palestinian drag queen premiere at Sundance during the Israel-Hamas war was not “on purpose,” but they want the film “to be as authentic as possible.”

Layla is British-Palestinian thanks to newcomer Bilal Hasna, who interprets the film’s protagonist and shares the same cultural background.

“I think there is a lot of divisive media rhetoric about LGBT life not coexisting peacefully with Palestinian or Arab life, which is not the case. Layla is a queer Palestinian and we just wanted to show that this can exist harmoniously. The film is a celebration and supposed to be uplifting and not polemical. I just hope that people can have empathy and joy for the character and just celebrate the humanity of a character like Layla.”

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