Louis Greatorex, Amrou Al-Kadhi and Bilal Hasana. (Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Veronika Lee Claghorn
The world premiere of Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Layla, which kicked off the 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah on January 18 felt more like a Charli XCX concert than a film premiere. Safiyya Ingar (The Witcher), who portrays the lead’s BFF, sauntered into the theater wearing a spectacular crimson gown and train and accompanied by a motley crew of the UK production. Bedazzled drag queens towered and glowered in platform pumps despite slushy conditions on Main Street. As Sundance Director of Programming Kim Yutani welcomed the audience to the 40th film edition, she remarked that Layla is a film that “at its core celebrates freedom.” She described it as “fun, tender, and flashy,” which incidentally also describes its director.
British-Iraqi director (and real-life drag performer) Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Layla glitters through the double life of its star, portrayed by Bilal Hasna, the Palestinian-Punjabi actor and playwright who may just have honed the greatest nose contour and highlight since Cardi B. Hasna plays Layla, the protagonist who falls in love with the seemingly dull-in-comparison marketing executive, Max, played by Louis Greatorex. Naturally, Layla’s minstrelsy misfit friends in the queer North London scene raise their glue–stick slicked eyebrows at Max’s very presence.
As Layla navigates nightlife and all that comes with “eating” and “devouring” to the tune of Marina and the Diamonds’ “Prima Donna Girl,” they navigate the complexities of living up to familial standards, introducing a newcomer to a friend group, and the cringe over-enthusiasm of overzealousness of a partner when you are the one shining the brightest. This film is Blur’s 1994 hit “Girls & Boys” come to speeding, raucous life and begging us to ask what societal allegiance — friends, family, or lovers — means the most.
If Layla sounds more like a sweet rom-com than a deliberate tug-on-the-heartstrings drama, that’s intentional. After a standing ovation, Al-Kadhi stormed the stage with aquamarine-lined eyes and spiked teal earrings, along with cast members Hasna and Greatorex. Al-Kadhi also welcomed to the stage their close friend and producer, Savannah James-Bayly. Al-Kadhi told the audience they were tired of the queer Arab trauma narrative and wanted to celebrate the life of a queer Arab person with complexity, messiness, and nuance. Yutani pointed out that it’s rare to see the life of a drag queen such as Layla portrayed so sexually. Al-Kadhi explained their inspiration, saying, “I saw this Brazilian movie, The Body Electric, and it was [a] very sexy representation [of drag queens]…You actually saw drag queens fuck on screen!”
When asked about the casting of his two leads, the writer-director explained how casting director Shaheen Baig cast a wide net, trying to find someone who could portray the very multi-faceted Layla, who is also an Arab drag queen. “Layla is a very compromised person who lives constantly in a state of self-modification. We had to find someone who could embody that.”
Hasna chimed in to say how thrilled he was with the project and how he had never done drag before. (“Drag queens are Olympians!” he exclaimed, acknowledging the hard work and effort required of the performers.) As for Max, the casting director originally sent in “jocks” and Al-Kadhi didn’t feel Max should be a villainous or ominous type. When Greatorex read with Hasna, casting and the director felt the magic was undeniable.
An audience member asked the filmmaker about the symbol of the octopus, which arises several times in the film. Al-Kadhi explained, after lifting their shirt to flash a bit of their octopus tattoo, they had a childhood fascination with marine biology. They even worked at an aquatic store. “Octopi change colors and they have tentacles… kind of like Layla’s identity. Clown fish change sex… Marine life is really all about fluidity.”
And with the same Wildean theatrics they charged the Egyptian runway with, Al-Kadhi and friends exited the world premiere, their pope-like red robe flowing dramatically behind them. This may just be the new superhero of new queer cinema.
Layla is part of Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition.