Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Amrou Al-Kadhi, the Writer-Director of “Layla”

Layla- Drag queen peeking out from silver curtain

By Lucy Spicer

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn a lot about the filmmakers from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival through the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about them as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our ongoing series: Give Me the Backstory!

British Iraqi multihyphenate Amrou Al-Kadhi didn’t begin their film career with writing and directing in mind. “I originally started out as an actor over a decade ago, and I was cast over and over as a terrorist. I’ve played a depressing number of terrorists,” says Al-Kadhi. “I decided to go into writing and directing so that I could seize the narrative back and tell our stories on our own terms.” Layla, about an Arab drag queen whose experience of first love prompts an exploration of true identity, is an authentic and nuanced reclamation of queer Arab stories.

Premiering in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, Al-Kadhi’s feature directorial debut is also an unapologetic ode to the LGBTQ+ community. “The film is also a dedication to the strength, resilience, and creativity of the queer community, whose ability to invent and inspire in the face of adversity has saved my life over and over. This film, in many ways, is a love letter to my community.” 

Below, learn about the process of casting the titular character, Al-Kadhi’s advice to today’s cinematic storytellers, and why Layla is a story that needs to be told now.

What was the biggest inspiration behind the film?

I’ve always been interested in the contradictions of the queer experience. Certainly, as a drag performer myself, I see how people respond to me as someone confident and fearless. Creatively, in many ways, I am. But, having faced a lot of rejection for my queerness and femmeness, this also masks an inner terror and desperation to be loved and accepted, and so I am one who easily loses myself in matters of love. I wanted to make a film that explores how a drag queen, so uncompromising in many ways, compromises everything they have fought for in the thrust of romance.

Describe who you want this film to reach.

I truly feel that despite the film’s specificity, it is a universal story about love and how we all sacrifice parts of who we are in search of it. And that fighting to be true to yourself is a fight that’s worth it. I hope anyone and everyone can see themselves in this film. And I hope I’ve done my community proud and celebrated our beauty, resilience, and creativity in an authentic and powerful way.

Amrou Al-Kadhi

Why does this story need to be told now?

At the moment, in the media, queer people are not in charge of their own narrative. Queer and trans lives are used as political fodder — we are dehumanized, and our stories are co-opted. The same is happening for Arab lives all across the globe. This film is unapologetically joyful and celebrates queer Arab lives in resplendence and takes the narrative firmly into our hands. I think joyous queer and Arab representation is so vital right now given the grim political context, not only in providing hope for these minority groups, but to show the world that our lives exist outside of political trauma narratives — we are three-dimensional, complicated, flawed, beautiful people who are trying to live and love like everyone else. Layla is not a victim or a villain, as so many Arab and queer characters are in the media — they are a messy and flawed person fighting their way in this world, and I hope this allows audiences everywhere to empathize with Layla on a human level.

How do you want people to feel after they see your film?

Hopeful, alive, inspired, and provoked.

Tell us an anecdote about casting or working with your actors.

Finding Layla was the biggest challenge of the process. We met a lot of incredible queer Arab talent, but the complexity of Layla is to embody the bravado and deceptive confidence of drag while also internalizing deep insecurity. Layla is a character who cloaks all their emotional needs, and they are an expert at lying and shifting their identity and desires depending on the person and situation. When our phenomenal casting director, Shaheen Baig, brought us Bilal Hasna, we realized we had found an extraordinarily deft actor who could play all these contradictory facets simultaneously. The film would not be possible without Bilal, truly. We were lucky to have lots of rehearsal time with Bilal and Louis [Greatorex], building their chemistry in the rehearsal room, and finding their natural sparks of electricity informed the script right up to the shoot and helped build the blocks of what I hope is sizzling and raw chemistry on screen. They are truly special actors who taught me so much about what it means to be a writer and director.

What was a big challenge you faced while making this film?

For personal reasons, I found the scenes in the mosque and the Palestinian wedding party emotionally taxing. I was processing a lot of my own trauma through those scenes, and I had to work really hard not to let my emotions get the better of me those days. It’s important to keep your calm as a director, and I remember having to take little walks both days just to soothe myself so it didn’t come out while I was directing. Thankfully, my producer, Savannah James-Bayly, held my hand whenever I was struggling.

Why is filmmaking important to you? Why is it important to the world?

For me, personally, it allows me to deal with a lot of the trauma of my life and sublimate it into something beautiful and meaningful. It’s genuinely my coping and survival mechanism. I also think it’s important to see the good in all people, despite the familial rejection I experienced growing up, and lots of other abuse, and as a filmmaker you have the gift of writing and seeing from all perspectives and understanding all characters and their reasoning. It’s a process of forgiveness, for me, to write about my life where everyone who has taken a part in it is afforded empathy. It’s a deeply healing and transformative process for me. I’ve forgiven a lot of people and understood my own role in situations through the gift of filmmaking.

In our post-truth polarized world, the news is no longer a safe or meaningful space for conversation. Empathy is what we have left and filmmaking at its best allows us to empathize with people we might not know or understand and feel things from their perspective. What better way is there to combat the division we currently find ourselves in? Despite what we think, feelings override preconceived beliefs — and film is about feeling. It trusts in the empathetic goodness of people, and that gives me so much hope in humanity.

What is something that all filmmakers should keep in mind in order to become better cinematic storytellers?

Your heads of department are better production designers, cinematographers, makeup artists, costume designers, etc., than you are. Allow them to surprise you — some of my favorite elements from Layla are things my heads of department brought to me because I feel I allowed them to fly. Trust your creatives! They are geniuses. And have a producer whom you fully trust and who has your back unconditionally — I would be nowhere without the fearless and dedicated support of my longtime producer and dear friend Savannah James-Bayly. Build your chosen family when you make films. It’s so crucial to a process where you are fully safe and free.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be doing?

I’d be doing drag full time, I think! Drag is another way I process my trauma and sublimate it into hopeful magic.

What three things do you always have in your refrigerator?

Only ready meals, I’m afraid. I refuse to learn to cook.

What was the last book you read?

I just read Couplets by Maggie Millner. A devastatingly good book about how love disintegrates the self, most of it written in couplet poems.

One thing people don’t know about me is _______.

I wanted to be a marine biologist growing up, working in aquarium stores my entire teenage life, and I had a marine fish tank in the corner of my room throughout school. I was obsessed. The marine world is a truly queer kaleidoscopic world or formless beauty and color. It’s an underwater drag show! Marine life was what helped me feel safe as a queer kid growing up in a repressive household. I lost and found myself in that marine tank.

Early bird or night owl?

Night owl! I loathe the morning. Nobody talk to me in the morning, please. I write and think best at night, too!

Who was the first person you told when you learned you got into the Sundance Film Festival?

I called my producer, Savannah, and we just sort of screamed at each other for 10 minutes. It was 1 a.m. in Los Angeles for me and 9 a.m. in London for her. I then wept for a while and couldn’t get to sleep. When I woke up the next day, I genuinely thought it had been a dream and had to check my emails to make sure it wasn’t. What a day!

What’s your favorite film that has come from the Sundance Institute or Festival?

Tangerine!!!!! A film both joyous and deep and teeming with queer love. I want my films to feel like that.

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