The first big budget feature film to be entirely set in Dubai is ready to hit cinema screens
Ali Mostafa shouldn’t be this relaxed. The fate of a potential billion-dirham industry for Dubai rests with him. But when Time Out meets the 27-year-old Emirati, he appears enviably calm and collected. This is the director behind Dubai’s first ever big budget feature film, City Of Life. Starring local and international talent – including Britain’s Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels; The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button) and Dubai TV presenter Saoud Al Ka’abi – produced by Tim Smythe (Syriana) and with a rumoured budget of US$7m, it is a big deal.
So who is Ali Mostafa? Born to an Emirati father and a British mother, he first made a name for himself with short film Under The Sun, which won the Emirates Film Competition in 2006 and Best Foreign Film at San Fernando Valley International Film Festival, California. Then, after winning Best Emirati Filmmaker at 2007’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), Mostafa told the assembled press that he would never make another short film, stating that it was time DIFF had the chance to show an Emirati feature. After writing and re-writing his script Mostafa took it to Filmworks, the Dubai-based production company that worked on Syriana and The Kingdom. With their help, and financial backing from a team of sponsors (including DIFC Lifestyle Group and the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority), Mostafa got his big break – and the added pressure of a lot of patrons to impress.
‘I said, if I’m going to do a feature film, it has to be set in Dubai because this is the place I know best and the stories I know best,’ says Mostafa, who before this had only a handful of commercials and the short on his CV. ‘What I wanted to portray in this film is Dubai not as this artificial bubble or giant theme park that people think it is, but a real city like any other major city in the world. Like New York or London, it has its problems, it has its advantages. It’s a real place. If this film does go out internationally, it says, “This is who we are, you can take [Dubai] or leave it.”’
City Of Life is a multi-lingual movie following three narrative strands: an Indian taxi driver who resembles a Bollywood star; a Romanian air hostess; and a privileged young Emirati. All three lives collide in Dubai. As such an integral part of the story – the distinctive landscape, the film title itself – perhaps Dubai is a character, too? ‘Yes, in a sense,’ Mostafa agrees, leaning further back into the sofa. ‘Because I feel these characters, if they were in any other city, probably wouldn’t have reached where they reach in the film. Dubai does give you opportunities, and it can make or break you.’ Mostafa says he chose these characters because they’re all underdogs, citing Indians the underdogs of Asia, Eastern Europeans the underdogs of Europe, and Arabs ‘the underdogs of the world right now’ (Mostafa dreamed up City Of Life’s concept three years ago, selling his car so he could afford to hire a writer to produce the script. Was it a nice car? He smiles, maybe a little ruefully. ‘It was a pretty nice car.’).
If there is a world in which we can say with any certainty that Arabs are the underdogs, it is film. What little Arab cinema there is fails to make waves internationally, and Hollywood is rarely kind to this part of the world. ‘City Of Life shows a very different view of Arabs, who are never portrayed that positively in Western cinema,’ Mostafa agrees. ‘I mean, there are no terrorists in the film. There are no sheikhs or princes.’ There’s a lot riding on City Of Life. If it does well outside of the UAE, it’s the birth of a lucrative new industry for Dubai, and an exciting new phase for filmmaking in the Middle East. But there are those that didn’t believe Mostafa could do it. ‘I heard a thousand times when making this movie – from the script stage – people would tell me, “Don’t even bother.
Try in 10 years’ time.” But I’m a strong believer in really pushing yourself and not listening to anyone who tells you it’s not gonna happen.’ But that’s not the only pressure weighing on Mostafa’s young shoulders. With City Of Life, he’s being trusted to present Dubai to the rest of the world. There are political considerations. Has he felt restricted in what he can say? ‘You feel restricted in Dubai by regular things that are normal in any other part of the world,’ he says. ‘I can’t go out and tell the grittiest or the dirtiest or the most gruesome story, especially with the first film. I have to respect what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. Right now, with this film, I’m scratching the surface.’ But he argues the more films that are made here, and the more people get used to it, the deeper these films can dig.
We leave Mostafa to finish up his film, and think how unsurprising it is that he chose to tell an underdog story. As an Arab filmmaker, as a 27-year-old who went straight from commercials to a multi-million-dollar feature, he is the true underdog in this story. The question is: will he come out on top? City Of Life is scheduled for release in December.