A woman lets herself into her apartment and locks eyes with a man pointing a gun at her. ‘Who the f*** are you?’ he demands in a weedy Cockney accent – not so much the East End hard man gravel of Jason Statham he’s aiming for, but more David Beckham getting flustered over a missing pot of Brylcreem. A steady line of people start to vacate the cinema and by the end of short film Rain’s 40-minute run-time only a handful of viewers remain. They clap softly – absent-mindedly – as the credits roll. Perhaps, like Time Out, they’ve been left a little bewildered by Emirati director Mustafa Abbas’s story about double-crossing geezer-gangsters. We’re at last month’s Gulf Film Festival (GFF), and after the preceding shorts’ insights into Kuwaiti comedy and courting Saudi Arabia-style, this Guy Ritchie-meets-Tarantino copycat effort feels somewhat irrelevant.
We’re disappointed, too, because we’d heard good things about Abbas. At just 24 years old, he’s one of the region’s most successful up-and-coming filmmakers. His previous short, 100 Miles, won an award in 2007’s Emirati Film Competition, and another short, The Alley, was screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Comparatively, Rain is a bit of a let down, especially considering the reception at the screening. Although Abbas has a theory. ‘Most people told me they wished it had been in Arabic,’ he reveals. ‘So my next piece is going to be in Arabic. I feel like this is my audience so I have to give something to them.’
It’s interesting Abbas says his intended audience is Arab, because Rain, with its almost exclusively English cast and all-English dialogue, does not cater to that audience. Abbas is the first to admit this. In fact, he seems as unsure about Rain as we are, protesting that 100 Miles is ‘more me’. Still, 100 Miles also suffers from being an almost-parody of the western gangster genre, so closely does it follow the formula. (Unsurprisingly, one of Abbas’s favourite directors is mafia-movie-maestro Martin Scorsese). The script is, again, in English. But with its local cast, the film at least appears more real than the bizarre Dubai-based mockney underworld of Rain. It’s a subtle difference. When Abbas makes films about his world, it’s compelling. When he tries to copy someone else’s, it seems uninspired.
Abbas denies he’s copying western directors. ‘People do compare me to Ritchie and Tarantino, and I’m sure they mean it as a compliment, but I don’t see it,’ he insists defensively. Later he relents: ‘I think that you grow up watching a certain kind of movie and you get consciously or unconsciously inspired by all of them.’
But what’s exciting about Abbas is that he’s a talented young man who is willing to learn. ‘Whenever someone sees my film, and if they don’t particularly like my style, I say, “Look, if you don’t tell me something was wrong, how am I supposed to know?”,’ he says. ‘I just want to keep getting better. And the way I can keep getting better is to listen to the audience.’
That’s promising, because visually Abbas’s filmmaking is excellent. An eye for impact shots and creative editing means that his shorts, filmed with no budget and on home-video cameras, look startlingly professional. He is an artist finding his feet, and perhaps Rain is a necessary experiment in the first flush of his career – a lesson in what works and what does not. After all, everyone’s been there – just ask Guy Ritchie about Swept Away.
Abbas is part of an exciting time for the Arab film industry. ‘At GFF, you could see that everyone was feeling it, you know?’ he says. ‘There’s so much energy in the air.’ True, this year GFF showed more films from the region than any other festival. And as you read this Abbas’s friend, 27-year-old director Ali Faisal Mostafa bin Abdullatif, is making Dubai’s first ever big budget movie, City Of Life. (Its multi-strand narrative follows an Indian taxi driver, a Romanian air hostess and a privileged local to paint a portrait of the city). ‘I’m very excited to see how that’s going to turn out,’ Abbas says of the project. ‘I don’t think you’ll see 50, 60 movies a year yet, but if we get one film in a year that everybody hears about, very good.’
As for Abbas, if he does start making movies in Arabic, then maybe we’ll see more of his world. Perhaps that’s the key to Arab film’s allure: for the Arab audience, there are stories at last that they can relate to; for the western audience, it’s a truer insight into a world so commonly misunderstood. At a time when the film industry is saturated by Hollywood humdrum and one-too-many Brit chick flicks, this glimmer of something new is thrilling. Maybe Abbas doesn’t want to be known as the ‘Arab Tarantino’, but perhaps one day a talented kid will want to be the ‘American Abbas’.