‘UAE cinema is at a very interesting stage,’ says Emirati director Ali F Mostafa
Emirati film is on the rise and no longer a niche market. That’s the verdict from one of the local industry’s leading lights, director Ali F Mostafa, whose new film, The Worthy, had its world premiere in front of a packed audience at the BFI London Film Festival at the weekend.
“UAE cinema is at a very interesting stage,” he says. “There are a lot of filmmakers out there right now that we haven’t even heard of. The UAE film industry used to be a case of: ‘We all know each other, we’re all friends, there’s just a handful of us’ – but now we’re seeing this rise in Emirati cinema.”
“We don’t even know who these filmmakers are and their films are getting out into cinemas. They’re low-budget films but they’re breaking box-office records. It’s fantastic and shows the rapid growth that’s happening in the industry.”
The evidence backs Mostafa’s view. In the past few years, films such as Saeed Salmeen’s Going to Heaven and S A Zaidi’s Aerials have both been released in local cinemas, bypassing the traditional international film festival or governmental routes to public screenings.
Rami Yasin, Mostafa’s producer, agrees that regional cinema is on the up, despite a host of challenges.
“Financing is still perhaps the biggest challenge in the region,” he says. “And then when you get into genre films such as The Worthy, and high-concept films that are thrillers or horrors, people want to know why you’re even making this film.
“But we’ve been lucky. We had [Abu Dhabi production house] ImageNation on board, and also two fantastic producers are on board – Peter Safran and Steven Schneider, who were involved in [the Hollywood film] Paranormal Activity. We were very lucky to have this.”
The Worthy – a post-apocalyptic action-thriller – is a departure of sorts for Mostafa – it is his third feature film as a director, following City of Life (2009) and From A to B (2014), but the first he has not written or produced.
“Image Nation came to me after From A to B and just said, ‘We have this script. Do you think you can do it?” he says.
“It was something very different to what I’m used to but they said, ‘We think you can handle it’ – and I was very flattered, so I said, ‘Yeah, sure. It looks like a lot of fun.’
“It was an American script originally, that Image Nation acquired from Peter Safran and Steven Schneider, the guys who did The Conjuring – but we took it and adapted it to our region.”
The film is a visual treat, with production values that set it apart from many of its regional peers – although Mostafa and Yasin are keen to point out that the film’s classy look belies the decidedly limited budget, in comparison to western films. They give much of the credit for this to cinematographer Adrian Silisteanu, who is already working on two other Image Nation productions.
Mostafa is confident that his new film is a positive sign that the UAE will continue to grow a film-producing country.
“It’s about stepping out of the mould and taking people out of their comfort zones,” he says. “We don’t have genre films like this in the Arab world. Now [Majid Al Ansari’s] Zinzana is one, The Worthy is another and I’m sure there’ll be more.”
Following the critical success of Zinzana (also known internationally as Rattle the Cage), and with high hopes for The Worthy, UAE cinema is starting to earn a reputation for genre filmmaking – but Mostafa, at least, has no intention of becoming typecast.
“When I get back to the UAE, I’m producing a comedy for Image Nation,” he says. “It’s Mohammed Saeed Harib’s film, the guy that made [TV animation] Freej, so I’m sure you’re aware of him.
“I just want to work in as many genres as possible.”
The Worthy is set for release early next year in the UAE and other global markets, and Mostafa is confident that it can stand proudly alongside Hollywood heavyweights, and play its part in putting Arab cinema on the movie map.
“Cinemas are taking chances and making a profit on [Arab film],” he says. “We’re witnessing it, we can see it at last. I guess the first film they took chance on was when [distributor] Gulf Film took City of Life on and put it on 12 screens and it made money.
“Now let’s see where we an move on to from there. The regional cinema industry is definitely growing and there’s a lot more support coming in, whether it’s from audiences, governments or sponsors, so let’s just keep going and hopefully, well, who knows where we can go from here?”
Updated: October 10, 2016 04:00 AM