Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

'The Long Game': the film with an Emirati director that's scooping up awards in the UK and US

We speak to Mustafa Abbas about his latest film and waiting for a sign to realise his dream in long-form format

‘The Long Game’ has won film awards at contests in London and New York.
‘The Long Game’ has won film awards at contests in London and New York.

Parasite may have been doing the rounds on the awards circuit this year, collecting trophies as if they’re going out of fashion. But there’s another, UAE-made, film following a similar pattern, scooping up awards in the UK and the US.

The Long Game, the fifth directorial outing for Dubai’s Mustafa Abbas, rounded off a successful start to the year last Friday with an award for Best Action / Crime Short at the London Independent Film Awards, having already picked up prizes at the New York Film Awards and the Top Shorts Film Festival.

Abbas describes it as “a neo-noir revenge thriller with some twists and turns” – perhaps unusual for a locally made film with an Emirati director at the helm. It is in English and features an almost entirely British cast, though the director says we shouldn’t read too much into that. For him, the cast is merely a means of telling the story.

“The most important thing is honesty and being true to the story,” Abbas says. “It might be an English story, it might be Arabic. You might want to cast your best friend because they’re a great actor, but if they’re not going to work for the story, just don’t do it. That’s what’s important, not whether it’s English or Arabic. There’s room for all of these out there.”

To illustrate this point, Abbas says his previous film, 2013’s Sunset State, shared the leads between Emirati actor Ibrahim Al Khemeiri and American Brent Jenkins. But this raises a rather more perplexing cinematic query than what language a film should be in, or what nationality your cast should be.

The Emirati director says he doesn't want to make a 100 films, but rather prefers quality over quantity. 
Emirati director Mustafa Abbas

Sunset State was well received at 2013’s Dubai International Film Festival – it was nominated for a Muhr Emirati Award – and a year later won a place at the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival. Abbas’s latest movie has picked up awards in some of the world’s biggest filmmaking hubs. So why hasn’t he made any films during the intervening seven years? “Well, I did make a film in between, which I wrote and produced, Saraab, but I consciously didn’t want to direct that as I wanted to work with the director Salma Serry,” he explains.

Abbas also has several business interests across the UAE to distract him from the camera, but he says it’s not merely a question of being too busy to make films. “I don’t want to make 100 films in my life,” he explains. “I want to focus on quality, not quantity. If I could make eight to 10 feature films in my life that would make me happy. I don’t want to make a film every year.

Abbas’s honesty is refreshing, though it raises another question. Of the five films he has made as a director, none has been that ultimate dream of the aspiring filmmaker – a feature. Abbas is not the only local directors who has yet to realise their vision in long-form format, so is there a problem for directors in the region?

‘The Long Game’ has won film awards at contests in London and New York.
‘The Long Game’ has won film awards at contests in London and New York

“I was actually having meetings about a feature project before I made The Long Game, but it just kept sitting on my head,” he says. “The feature got delayed and I realised it was time to focus on this. I don’t believe in going backwards, so we moved on with this because it was just hanging over my head and we had to get this done.

“Some scripts just stick with you. This was sitting there for three years before we got it made. This is where people confuse passion and purpose. You can want to do something and be really excited but you still have to go and get it done, so I got this done.”

The seemingly perennial optimistic Abbas refuses to be downhearted about his lack of a feature breakthrough, subscribing instead to the belief that where there’s a will, there’s a way. “I’m a guy who believes that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, but I’m also a guy who believes in signs,” he says.

“If there’s a delay, it’s for a reason, something needs to be changed … every time a feature is delayed, it’s an opportunity to improve my craft. I could have made a feature in 2007, but I’m glad I didn’t because when I make it now, it will be better.”

Abbas remains, perhaps unsurprisingly, optimistic about that elusive feature. He has a message for his fellow filmmakers, too. “I’ll make my feature, other filmmakers will make their feature,” he says. “Of course we have setbacks, but just keep going and just keep making films. It doesn’t matter if it’s on your phone, just keep making films because films are what make an industry, regardless of budgets or how technologically advanced they are.

“Production houses don’t make an industry, money doesn’t make an industry. They help, but filmmakers ultimately make an industry, so keep making films.”

Updated: February 19, 2020 07:40 PM

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