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.
We’d wondered what Mostafa would be like. Arrogant, because he’s a young man who landed a big gig? Or overwhelmed by the attention? But he just seems like a regular guy. We join him in the editing suite at Optix Digital Pictures, Media City, as he’s putting the finishing touches to his film. Dressed casually in a white shirt, jeans and trendy black-and-white chequered flat cap, he seems entirely at ease, reclining on the editing suite’s sofa. Maybe it’s the calm before the storm. Soon it’ll be time to show City Of Life to the world.
‘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.’ Why is that important to him? Because of the overwhelmingly negative press Dubai has received abroad recently? It’s a good response to that, he supposes. ‘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 are just two Emirati guys, two best friends, and what they go through.’ It’s in keeping with his film’s mission statement to offer different perspectives. ‘[The film] shows you a side of Dubai that even people living here might not see,’ the director promises.
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. Mostafa admits he has purposefully balanced an Arab flavour with Hollywood conventions in order to sell City Of Life to the West. But he thinks that, more than anything, it can do what other Arab films have not done – be a success in the West – because of its superior quality. ‘Look, personally, I think we’ve achieved something that hasn’t been achieved before here in terms of standard of film,’ he says. ‘Technically, in this region, they need to evolve. I was blessed to go to an amazing film school in London, I was throwing myself on film sets and gaining lots of technical experience. I wanted to make a feature that could represent us in the Middle East, to show we can make good-quality films as well as anyone else can. That’s why I wanted to do this – because I hadn’t seen one yet.’
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.
With that in mind, is he happy with City Of Life? ‘I’m as pleased as one can be,’ he says. ‘I wish maybe I put a bit more time into the actual script. But we needed to get rolling, because we wanted to hit deadlines. [City Of Life was shot to a punishing schedule: 42 locations in 34 days]. So we went with what we had and we made the best of it.’ He thinks for a minute. ‘I’m happy,’ he decides. And judging by the sneak peek Time Out gets after the interview, he should be – it looks great. 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 UAE release in December. Keep an eye on Time Out for further announcements.
Time Out’s sneak peek
Ali Mostafa gave us a sneak peek at some clips from City Of Life. Here’s what we saw.
Scene one: The scene opens with the Emirati lead, Faisal, and his best friend strolling along the vibrant streets of Satwa. They turn down a dusty backstreet when suddenly a car screeches to a violent halt in the sand. A burly man leaps out and throws a glass bottle at the paair while hurling abuse, before speeding off. We ask Mostafa what it was all about. ‘You’ll have to watch the film,’ he teases. ‘This is just to give you a taste.’
Scene two: This is a comedic fantasy sequence in which taxi driver Basu is a Bollywood star surrounded by Bollywood beauties singing his name. Basu is then abruptly awoken from his reverie by a cricket ball sailing through the window of his Karama flat. Credit to Mostafa for keeping it real with the soundtrack – we heard the distinct buzz of construction work in the background.
Scene three: We join Romanian air hostesses Natalya and Olga in the swanky Al Barsha villa of Jason Flemyng, whose character has just landed a big account. It’s a familiar assembly of Dubai’s well-to-do Western expats – we even hear the phrase ‘Jumeirah Jane’.
The key players
Natalya: Played by Alexandra Maria Lara (Control; The Reader), Natalya is a Romanian former ballerina turned air hostess. ‘I wanted her to be an artistic person with some kind of cultural background,’ Mostafa tells us. ‘Most air hostesses don’t have a very good rep, but they’re stereotyped. I wanted to play on that.’
Faisal: A privileged young Emirati at odds with his cultural identity and his less-privileged street smart friend. Faisal is portrayed by Al Ain-born Saoud Al Ka’abi, who became the first child presenter on Dubai TV when he was just nine years old. ‘He’s got phenomenal, phenomenal talent,’ says Mostafa. ‘But we had to drag it out of him!’
Basu: Sonu Sood plays Indian taxi driver Basu, who resembles a famous Bollywood star. Sood himself has starred in various Hindi, Punjabi, Telugu and Tamil films. Mostafa got the idea for his character after seeing a real look-alike in a Dubai café. ‘A friend thought it was an amazing documentary opportunity, but I’m more into fiction and creating stories,’ says Mostafa. ‘So I said, how about take that and turn it into a film?’
Guy: Mostafa says Jason Flemyng’s character is ‘someone that everyone has met in Dubai’. ‘He’s one of those expats that, back home, wouldn’t be doing much. But over here, he’s living like a king. Quite stereotypical, but also not, because there’s some nice twists in the film.’