x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Dubai stars at its own festival

Ali Mostafa, the Emirati director of City of Life, a UAE-set drama, talks about the film before its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Yassin
Yassin "Narcycist" Alsalman and Saoud al Kaabi in a scene from City of Life.

"They said, no, if you want to put it in the trailer it's going to cost you $37,000 - double what we paid to put it in the film!" exclaims Ali Mostafa. "OK, they're an American band but they're not like Aerosmith." I've come to meet the young director at a Media City studio where he's scrambling to complete the promo for his new feature, City of Life. It receives its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival tomorrow and the trailer needs to be finished in time. But his preferred version has hit a snag: it all turns on a song whose rights would sink his budget. "You see these films from Warner and Universal and you think: 'How can they pay for all these songs?' But then you realise - they're free."

Such are the advantages of making movies for a big media conglomerate. Mostafa's film, three interlocking stories which together present a panoramic view of Dubai society, is a comparatively independent project, funded through ad hoc brand placement and sponsorship deals. His solution to the trailer problem is just as fortuitous. It happened that he cast a hip-hop artist, the Iraqi rapper Yassin Alsalman, better known as The Narcicyst, in one of his lead roles. "I asked him a few months ago while we were still shooting to make a track for the movie," Mostafa explains. "It's a really nice track, and so we're using that instead, which also works. But the other track was just perfect..."

If there's a note of tension there, it's to be expected. There's a lot of pressure on City of Life to be, if not perfect, at any rate thumpingly good. It's the first feature from an Emirati director to make a serious play for global audiences. The British actors Jason Flemyng and Natalie Dormer star, as does the rising Bollywood talent Sonu Sood. Its production values are of a studiedly western standard; in fact, Mostafa is a graduate of the London Film School. In a sense, then, this is the film by which Dubai will introduce itself to the world. And of course, it comes at a time when the Emirate's profile is both high and vulnerable. Mostafa is well aware of the expectations his film is carrying.

"People have shot features here before; you could say about six - but none of them has tried to reach the international stage," he says. "This is the first to try and reach that stage and speak to the international audience. Being the first and doing that makes you almost feel like the Lumières when they first invented the camera... And I'm in 2009, having that feeling, thinking this is the responsibility I have." For all that his film is likely to serve as an unofficial ambassador for his home, Mostafa was determined that it should paint a candid portrait. "It's not a propaganda piece, let's put it that way," he says. His parallel narratives trace the deadly seductiveness of the Western expat lifestyle and the poverty and hardship faced by migrant workers. Most daringly, they show a dangerous restlessness at work among rich Arab youth. The film's protagonist is a privileged young Emirati (played by the first-time actor but well-established TV personality Saoud al Kaabi) whose ambivalence about his identity leads to a series of confrontations. "I hope that people, when they watch the film, will see that we are a confident people," Mostafa announces. "We're not hiding from anything."

The director himself is clearly a confident person. You'd have to be to make your first feature film at 27. "Half the people there on set could have been my father's age," he admits. "I had to try and prove myself in a way, and not let myself trip over in any circumstance." And yet, as he tells it, the atmosphere on-set was congenial. "We were like a family, literally a family, for like three months together, seeing each ­others' faces every day," he says. "People from the assistant director to anyone in production would tell you, this is not usual... People tend to leave sets with black eyes." For readers looking to repeat his success, Mostafa's formula for maintaining harmony during the shoot is easier said than done. "You've got to have an answer for every question that they're going to ask you," he says. "All of these people around you can help you with what you have in your head. So you'd better have something good in that head!"

It probably also helped that Mostafa was already used to the pressures of managing a team of artists. When he was 19 he opened a division of his mother's events company, setting up in business as an interior designer. "I used to do a lot of wedding stage designs," he says, "and it's a very creative process. You sit and sketch something. And then you say, is it possible? You figure out how to build it, and you get people and we make blueprints, we build the thing and you have it there in front of you." That early discipline has proven useful in his subsequent career. "It's quite a similar process," he says. "Instead of sketching you write a script. Instead of building you're actually shooting it. And post-production is literally when I'm just painting the final touches."

Not that he's a stickler for following blueprints. "I never believe a script is finished. People change scripts two seconds before you say action," he says. On City of Life, he initially wanted to explore his Emirati characters more deeply but was dissuaded by his producer, Tim Smythe of Filmworks. "His idea was not to go into a topic that was unnecessary, and keep focused on themes and characters," Mostafa explains. "That was just a personal thing. At the end of the day, whatever is seen in this film might still be shocking to quite a lot of ­people." He'll save the more in-depth ­portrayals for a later project - "Get the community aware and used to the idea of films here. Open minds a bit more about subjects, and then maybe on the fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth film, start going into deeper stories and personal views on certain things... But I didn't think it was a good idea for the first one." True to his relaxed approach to writing, script development continued right through the production process. His cast were free to suggest adjustments when they felt inspired to do so. "Every actor had a little idea - what if I said this? What if I did that, or gave this gesture... I wasn't someone who said the script is etched in stone and this is what it's going to be."

He was particularly keen that the relationship between Saoud al Kaabi's character and his tearaway friend, played by The Narcicyst, should be believably organic. "We made them do kick-boxing classes together to bring them closer and get a bit more chemistry on screen, since they were playing best friends," he says. It also allowed the Narcicyst to bulk up for the more energetic aspects of his role. "In real life his personality is three times the size of his physical appearance, so we needed to make it so his personality and physical appearance were as big on screen." That ought to help with any 50 Cent-style ripped-and-shirtless ­album covers he might want to do, I suggest. "He's lost it now," ­Mostafa laughs. Still, it was inevitable that the film should incorporate physical elements. "I love a bit of action," Mostafa says. "I wanted to be a stuntman when I was a kid. I always want to make a film that has a bit of action within it, but also action which was appropriate and relevant." The world of City of Life is our world, or something like it: a somewhat realistic depiction of a real place. Yet the movie that first inspired Mostafa to enter the industry was different. "When I saw Star Wars I thought to myself that anything is possible," he says, "­anything that's in your imagination, your wildest imagination, can be depicted on film. When I realised that, I thought I want to be a film director."

He was particularly keen that the relationship between Saoud al Kaabi's character and his tearaway friend, played by The Narcicyst, should be believably organic. "We made them do kick-boxing classes together to bring them closer and get a bit more chemistry on screen, since they were playing best friends," he says. It also allowed the Narcicyst to bulk up for the more energetic aspects of his role. "In real life his personality is three times the size of his physical appearance, so we needed to make it so his personality and physical appearance were as big on screen." That ought to help with any 50 Cent-style ripped-and-shirtless ­album covers he might want to do, I suggest. "He's lost it now," ­Mostafa laughs. Still, it was inevitable that the film should incorporate physical elements. "I love a bit of action," Mostafa says. "I wanted to be a stuntman when I was a kid. I always want to make a film that has a bit of action within it, but also action which was appropriate and relevant." The world of City of Life is our world, or something like it: a somewhat realistic depiction of a real place. Yet the movie that first inspired Mostafa to enter the industry was different. "When I saw Star Wars I thought to myself that anything is possible," he says, "­anything that's in your imagination, your wildest imagination, can be depicted on film. When I realised that, I thought I want to be a film director."

His early influences were mainly American films - Jaws and Indiana Jones. "Steven Spielberg is definitely one of my - what would you call it? Not idols. Persons that you look up to," he says. The contemporary directors he names as inspirations are Sam Mendes and Michel Gondry - filmmakers on opposing sides of the gulf between realism and fantasy. "Totally different," Mostafa admits, "but I love the ideas and styles, from someone who's very composed to someone who's a complete lunatic." Middle-Eastern film was less of an influence. "I've never been surrounded by Arab cinema," he says, though he admits that Moustapha Akkad's movie about the early days of Islam, The Message, made a powerful impression on him. "It's long as hell, but my God," he says, "to me, it was very emotional."

Given his saturation in western cinema, I ask if he's ever tempted to move to Los Angeles. "I don't think so," he replies. "I don't think I need to, unless I'm actually shooting in LA as a location... Now the world is so small, why would I need to move there? Dubai is home for me." His goal, he says simply, is "to start making Arab films but with western standards". Here's hoping City of Life opens a few doors for him. It would be interesting to see him build up to even more adventurous portraits of the UAE. And a bigger budget for music rights might not be a bad thing, either. elake@thenational.ae