City of Life: The Dubai Movie

Dubai’s first home-grown big-budget feature film hits cinemas this week. So why is its Emirati director, Ali Mostafa, so glum?


Ali Mostafa seems frustrated. He should be pumped up because, at long last, his film lands in UAE cinemas this week, following its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in December. This is a big moment in UAE history. The first feature-length film to be entirely set in Dubai and directed by an Emirati has arrived for all to see.

The film’s multi-million-dollar budget, international cast and high-profile production company (Dubai-based Filmworks worked on Syriana and The Kingdom) mean this movie is of a calibre never before produced by this country. It could make or break the beginnings of a home-grown film industry. So have you heard of it? Have you seen the posters and trailers? If the answer is no, you can understand why Mostafa is frustrated.

‘Unfortunately, there was a strange deal with the distribution where we were asked to hand over all publicity,’ he reveals. ‘And I’ve just found out that my film is releasing on the same day as Kick-Ass.’ Surely Dubai audiences will still be interested in a film about the city in which they live, we offer. ‘They will, but they need to hear about it,’ he fires back. ‘Word of mouth can only go so far. Kick-Ass has money behind its publicity. Unless we can visually stimulate a mass market with promotion, no one will hear about it.’

Since this interview, Kick-Ass – an adaptation of a violent comic book hotly anticipated by action fans – has been dropped from cinema schedules. This may have cheered up Mostafa if it hadn’t been replaced by Clash of the Titans, an even bigger movie.

For the young director (Mostafa is just 28), this is yet another example of Arab filmmakers being held back by underexposure. The buzz around Jordanian feature Captain Abu Raed, for example – which won the Audience World Cinema Award at Sundance – soon evaporated after its release here went all but unnoticed. ‘Amin Matalqa [Captain’s director] is a friend of mine,’ says Mostafa. ‘But when the film was launched in Dubai, I only found out about it the day before it closed. I had gone to the cinema to see another film and I saw his poster at the far end of the cinema as I was on my way to the toilet. It’s a shame that we’re trying to make films here, but our people aren’t supporting us [to ensure they’re seen].’

Mostafa seems worried that what happened to Captain will happen to City of Life. Dubai’s cinemas choose whether to keep a film running based on its performance in the first week, which is why so many films disappear from the multiplexes shortly after release. ‘It’s not just about getting the film into the cinema,’ Mostafa tells us. ‘If you don’t get bums on seats, what’s the point?’ That’s why he asks us to see City of Life before we see Clash of the Titans. ‘I’m not saying don’t see [Titans]. But it will be in the cinemas longer. See City first. Then we can have an honest first week.’

Of course, Mostafa isn’t all gloomy. The response at DIFF was overwhelmingly positive. ‘It was phenomenal. There were 1,300 people watching it and I could hear people laughing and crying.’ Since then, the film has been leaked and Mostafa has experienced adverse reactions, particularly to the scenes where Emiratis drink alcohol.

Ultimately, this week is the culmination of a long-held ambition. ‘I’ve always liked the idea of standing in line at the cinema and watching another line going to see my film. Now it’s going to happen.’ Keep ’em crossed.

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