x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Emirati filmmaker Mustafa Abbas on changes in the industry and bucking the trend

We talk to Mustafa Abbas, who's among the current crop of young Emirati filmmakers at the forefront of the UAE's growing industry. His latest film screened at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

The Emirati director Mustafa Abbas has had two of his films screened at the Cannes International FIlm Festival. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
The Emirati director Mustafa Abbas has had two of his films screened at the Cannes International FIlm Festival. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Mustafa Abbas’s often dark, violent, psychologically tense movies have already helped him to stand out among the current crop of young Emirati filmmakers at the forefront of the UAE’s growing industry. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that my recent meeting with Abbas to discuss his work should be a little different from the norm. This marked the first time in my career that I’d been invited to a filmmaker’s Downtown Dubai salon (Chivalry, in South Ridge Tower 1, incidentally), to undergo a haircut while we chat about the movie business.

Of course, Emirati hospitality is legendary; nonetheless, coming from a director whose movies have touched on topics such as murder and suicide, the prospect of asking an awkward question with a razor at my throat seemed a daunting one. Could I be headed for my very own Reservoir Dogs moment if I veered into the wrong field of inquiry? I’m pleased to say I needn’t have worried – the interview and the haircut took place separately, my ears remain intact and, what’s more, my hair looks great.

Abbas’s latest film, Sunset State, premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival last December and in May it hit new highs when it screened in the Short Film Corner at the Cannes International Film Festival. This was the second time an Abbas movie has screened at Cannes, following the selection of 100 Miles in 2007, so as one of the first wave of new Emirati filmmakers I ask Abbas how things have evolved over seven years.

“In 2007 there were probably only four or five of us making films,” he says. “That’s really changed as there are loads of us now. I think culturally people have got more open-minded and accepted the idea of their children or siblings going into the film industry. There’s now a whole drive and movement, and a lot of passion and belief – there are two major festivals in Dubai alone, plus Abu Dhabi, all the student festivals. What’s great, too, is that even though we’re a new industry, people here are really fast learners. People are really learning the language of film and making movies that are stimulating you intellectually when you watch them.”

Wide scope

That sense of cultural change is something that is prevalent in many of Abbas’s films, too. Of course, although there is no more a typical Emirati film than there is a typical Hollywood one, some of Abbas’s common themes such as revenge, corruption and murder may not be the first ones audiences would expect.

“You can’t just stick to films set in the desert and dealing with Emirati heritage,” he says. “Look around – we’re surrounded by skyscrapers. Things change all the time.”

The changes in character development are also key to the success of his films, explains Abbas. “You can’t insult your audience with cliché and coincidence,” he says. “I love watching how the characters develop and seeing how the actors develop those characters, and that’s what excites audiences, too.

“The actors are crucial. I always hunt for all my own actors. I even get talent agencies calling me asking for actors when surely that should really be their job. I never audition actors, I can just sense when a person has a certain personality that will work on camera. You have to listen to what your mind tells you, because it’s never wrong.”

In the works

With his own debut feature in the early stages of development, Abbas hasn’t managed to take the opportunity to get on the set of any of the recent Hollywood blockbusters that have passed through Abu Dhabi, but he has a clear vision of what he hopes these big-budget shoots can achieve.

“I hope the people who are getting involved put something back into the local industry,” he says. “There are all sorts of reasons to get involved for yourself – exposure, obligation through work and so on. But if they don’t give back, although the shoots will help tourism and the country’s international image, they won’t help the industry because they’re still Hollywood productions. They’re not coming out of this industry.”

On the topic of his own feature, Abbas is hopeful, but prefers to let actions speak louder than words: “I’ve finished writing it and I’m in talks with two production companies,” he says.

“But you just never know in film. You can meet a guy with five projects in the pipeline. Maybe they’ll all happen, maybe none will, so I just prefer to get on with doing rather than talking about it. When the film happens, you can be sure you’ll know.”