Ali Mostafa discusses the UAE’s film industry, his ambitions for the future and the upcoming sequel to his award-winning film city of life
Photography by Marco Falcetta
Charismatic, charming and effortless, Ali Mostafa is everything you would expect from a successful creative and filmmaker. The Emirati-British film director, writer and producer had his first great success with the release of his 2009 movie and the first international Emirati made feature film, “City of Life”. The movie gave an honest insight into the reality of living in Dubai and the unexpected ways that lives collide in this cosmopolitan city. While the initial response from some was that the film was quite controversial, perhaps because of its honesty and openness, it went on to have great success in the region and elevated Mostafa from an unknown young filmmaker to a household name.
After the release of “City of Life,” Mostafa was recognised for his creativity and seen as a pioneer in the industry for his innovative and honest approach to filmmaking and the way he addressed issues that were still seen as a taboo in the region at the time. Mostafa was awarded “Best Emirati Filmmaker” at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), and he won the ‘Young Filmmaker of the Year’ award at the Digital Studio Awards in 2010. Now, a decade later, Mostafa is returning with the sequel to this iconic film.
Ali Mostafa has been fascinated by film from a young age. Growing up in the UAE, when other children were interested in the latest toys, Mostafa would spend hours creating his own home videos and mock TV adverts. His upbringing was unique in that his father was Emirati and his mother British, so Mostafa’s outlook on the world is perhaps influenced by the coming together of these two cultures. His mother and father were both creatives so Mostafa had been immersed in these industries his whole life and it was destined he too would opt for a more creative field. While at high school, Mostafa decided to launch a segment of his mother’s business which would see him create set designs for weddings. In 2003, Mostafa decided he wanted to expand on his passion for film, so he enrolled a course in Practical Training For Film at The London Film School. Upon completion, Mostafa returned to Dubai to set up his own production company AFM Films, which has produced short films and TV commercials in various areas of production.
Throughout his career, Mostafa’s focus and true passion has always remained on directing feature films. After the success of “City of Life” in 2009, his second feature “From A to B” opened the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014, a first for an Emirati film, challenging stereotypical perceptions of Middle Eastern culture through a story of three best friends who take a road trip from Abu Dhabi to Beirut. His most recent feature film “The Worthy” which premiered at the BFA London Film Festival in October 2016 was a collaboration between Image Nation and Hollywood Producers Peter Safran and Steven Schneider. The story is set in the dystopian future where water is scarce and tells the story of one man’s quest for survival. With all of his films, Mostafa has pushed boundaries and gone against the norm, helping to set a new standard of filmmaking in the UAE.
As he embarks on a new journey to create what will likely be his most ambitious project to date, we sit down with Ali in Dubai to discuss his upcoming movie, as well as the film industry in the UAE and what it really means to him to be in this creative world.
You knew you wanted to be a filmmaker from a young age, what encouragement and support did you receive from your family and those around you to take this creative path?
Both my parents were creatives – my father was an architect and my mother was into design. But seeing me who from the age of nine years old, only doing this [filming], I think it was inevitable that it was something I would have a career in. When I reached a certain age, the gifts they would buy me would be the latest camera that had come out because they knew it was what I was most passionate about. As I grew older, I started to develop this passion even more and eventually, it became a career. Prior to film school, however, I did have another creative path that involved designing stages for weddings. I started my own division at Blooms, my mother’s company, called Bloom’s Interiors when I was still at high school. I had a lot of friends who were ten years older than me and they were all working and making money and I wanted to make my own money. So I found a way to do it. I felt this was something I could do without having to have a major background in it because I grew up on construction sites with my father, so I understood design and construction and building those sets came as second nature to me. When I applied to film school it was for a Master’s degree but I didn’t have a Bachelor’s as I had set up the business throughout school. But designing wedding stages is pretty much production design, which is of course closely linked to filmmaking. So because of my experience, I already had a portfolio and that’s how I got to do my Masters in Film.
What were the challenges you faced going into the film industry?
It was more about getting my foot through the door. Because in the UAE there wasn’t a real film industry to begin with, so everything was quite fresh. I thought I was one of the only Emiratis who was interested in this field, until in 2003 I discovered a film competition in Abu Dhabi that had 300 submissions. These were amateur films but the passion was still there. When I think about it, I wonder where all those filmmakers are today. I wonder if they continued or if it was just a passion for them. This wasn’t just a hobby for me, this was what I was setting up to do as a career. So that was the biggest challenge – the fact that there wasn’t really a film industry, so I had to get into the commercial industry. I had started a family at a very young age and it was about supporting them as well, so I had to get into the commercial world to do that and to get into that I had to work my way up. It wasn’t easy to keep myself motivated because I was assisting people most of the time. But eventually, I did get there, and I appreciated the experience a lot.
You were quoted saying that to you films are a method of escapism – can you tell us more?
Films allow the audience to escape. As a filmmaker, I create a world that they escape to for that period. That’s what I love about it. Creating something that allows people to step away from their lives and live in the moment that I have created. That’s why I also feel film is so important because it offers the audience a time to disconnect. When I’m making the film, the only escapism for me, is that I’m in the zone. I have to be switched on. As a director, I will get asked hundreds of questions a day and I have to have the right answer every time. The director is the captain of the ship so you can’t have the wrong answer – whether it’s the wardrobe department, makeup, design – people are always asking you questions and you can’t escape there. For me as a filmmaker, the escapism part is that I’m in the zone and I feel most alive when I’m on set.
You have worked on all aspects of films from writing to directing – tell us about the difference in working on each of these areas.
When filming commercials you will get given a brief, and as a director, you have to create the treatment for it and bring to life your vision or your take on that brief. So it’s a creative process with your touch on it. But when you’ve written the piece, it’s your baby and you make the changes. Then when I directed someone else’s script for a feature film, that was also a very good experience. It was like the commercial idea, but on a much larger scale. So it was my vision on someone else’s script. You take their characters and interpret them how you see them and you bring them to life.
Tell us a little about the film industry in the UAE today.
The film industry in the UAE is non-existent. To have a film industry we need to have something that is like a machine. It’s sustainable – you make films, people go to the cinema to watch them, the films make a profit and you invest in more films. It’s a cycle, an industry. We have a commercial industry which is thriving, it’s one of the biggest in the Arab world. If you look at Egypt for example, there is a film industry. We don’t have this yet in the UAE. First of all, because we don’t have the number of cinemas that could help us actually make money. Our films don’t actually make any money. But that’s going to change.
What do you think should be done to change this?
To be honest, had my first film (City of Life) been of the budget that I can make films today, it would have made money. But it was way over budget because I did it at a time when there was no infrastructure for filming. Everything was expensive and we were shooting at commercial rates which doesn’t happen nowadays. I think this film also catered to everyone who lives in Dubai and that’s why it was popular. That film catapulted me and helped me with my career, but as a filmmaker, I have always wanted to do justice to it. I’m proud of it because of what it achieved for the future industry. The fact is, it opened people’s minds and it also helped with the censorship of getting things done, because of what I had to go through to get the film made. As controversial as people may think “City of Life” was, it took me a year to get script approval – and I actually never got script approval – I had to shoot the film first and after I would be told if it could air. And we are talking about a multimillion-dollar film! I never really got the approval until it reached the highest authority because there was no benchmark at that point.
We hear you are working on the sequel – what can you tell us about this?
In my view, it is more real than the first. For this film, I got the approval in three days! I explained that I wanted to do a sequel and what I wanted to talk about and that some things may be sensitive – but we need to talk about these things in society. I think opinions have changed because of the first film. At the end of the day as people, we tend to censor ourselves because it is our culture and I’m not going to say anything that’s not real, but I also don’t want to push it to a point that’s unnecessary. There’s a level that you can talk about and showcase because society needs to have these discussions at home. Because if they don’t happen, how will anything ever change? For example, initially, when I was thinking of ideas for the film there a global Opioid crisis happening with children in school. If this is not discussed, parents won’t be aware of what’s happening and they won’t have the discussions at home with their kids. So I feel like certain subjects need to be spoken about. And it needs to be showcased as the harsh reality and not glamourized. People can die – this is what happens and it depends on the path you choose.
How proud are you of your achievements so far?
Of course, I’m very blessed and lucky to have done what I have done, but I feel like I could have done so much more. But now, things are going to change. I’m a lot more driven.
What can we expect to see from you this year?
First of all, I want to make the second movie. I was supposed to do it last year but of course, COVID-19 happened. But that turned out to be a blessing because I wanted to do it in line with Expo 2020 and now that Expo has also moved we are going to try to time it to debut at the same time. We are expecting a lot of people to come to Dubai for this event and I want them to see the film to understand Dubai as they did with the first film. Expats used to buy “City of Life” and send it home to their families to help them understand the place they lived in. So because people are coming I want there to be a film in the cinema that they can go and see that will show them a lot more of Dubai. It will be a standalone film so they don’t have to have seen the first one to understand what’s going on. There will be different characters, but because of the first film, I have a couple of returning characters that are in supporting roles. This just gives a nostalgic element to the first one, but otherwise, it is standalone.
If you were to describe the second movie in one word how would you describe it?
Current. It is very current, it is Dubai today.
How do you source funding for movies today?
Nowadays it’s a lot easier. The number one rule is to never pay from your own pocket. Unless perhaps it is a short film with a small budget or you’re super-rich and you can! But I’ve seen families collapse from people trying to invest in their own films and it’s not a good idea. There are people that are willing to do this for you, so don’t throw your savings into a passion project.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers in the UAE on what to do and what not to do?
In terms of funding, luckily we do now have companies such as VOX, MBC, Netflix and ImageNation who are all ready to fund films in the UAE, depending on the project. But then again, some of the best ways to get investment for films and something that I learnt very early on, is product placement. I raised about two and a half million dollars on my first film on my own, when no one knew who I was, just from product placement. Especially if you’re shooting a film in Dubai – you can’t turn left or right without seeing billboards with branding, so it’s easier than if you are doing a contained film. There are a lot of institutes and people who are ready to invest.
What is something that would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
To create my dream film. This is something that if I did it, I wouldn’t ever need to do a film again. It’s the story of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. That’s my ultimate goal. It’s something I’ve wanted and have been trying to do for the past ten years. But it is a film that needs to be right and done at the right time. If someone from the US was directing it, it might be able to fly now, but because an Emirati filmmaker is doing it, I think it needs a bit more time. So that’s my ultimate dream.
I feel he is clearly a great inspiration to you – what are some lessons or mottos that you have learnt from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan?
It’s the unbelievable vision and wisdom that he had. It’s something that reflects on his sons one of whom I am very close to and I see it in him every day. They are a family of born leaders. You could go to them with the biggest problem and you will hear advice that you never would have thought of. They think out of the box. As much as you live to experience life or however well-travelled you may be, you do not get any advice as you do from them, it’s amazing. What an inspiration of a man. One of the most amazing things you could watch on YouTube is “Farewell Arabia”, where Sheikh Zayed drives around and you see his vision of turning, not only Abu Dhabi into what it is, but the coming together and creation of the United Arab Emirates. It’s phenomenal. Some of the decisions he’s made politically and the impact that he had – what an inspirational man.
It would be an unbelievable honour of mine to be able to portray him. Of course, second to that, I would also like to get a gold statue [OSCAR] for our country!
What is the motto that you live by?
Nothing is impossible. I have had way too many people tell me something is impossible and we have managed to achieve it – so I know that nothing is impossible, however impossible you think it is. And secondly to not be too proud. Be proud of certain things, but don’t have an ego in that pride. My father always says that pride kills a man and I think it’s important to stay grounded and not let anything get to your head.
What scares you?
This year taught me a lot about myself. I had to reassess myself and I feel like I was able to go deep inside and look at how I see life today as opposed to how I used to see it. The only fear I have today is of God and that of being a father and that something happens to my kids. Other than that, I have no fear at all.
What is in the pipeline for you on a professional level?
Well in the pipeline is the sequel to “City of Life” – this will be the major thing. There are a couple of campaigns that UAE national brands have asked me to try and help revive so that will be interesting. But I want to put full focus on the film because it takes a lot out of you to make a film.
If you were to enhance or change something about yourself in 2021 what would it be?
On a personal level I want to maintain this person that I think I’ve become because I like this version of myself. There was a period where I felt a little bit lost and I didn’t really understand me. This year – I spent almost two and a half months with my kids in the house during lockdown – I got so much closer to them, it’s a different bond and I just want to maintain this and enhance it as much as I can. I always want to make myself a better person.
Is there something that you will make sure you won’t do in 2021?
What I don’t want to do this year is not make this film! Because sometimes you can procrastinate and I do not want to slack this year, it’s important that I stick to it.
What do you think will change after COVID-19?
I love the barriers in restaurants, I think they should keep those! But in the industry, nothing has changed.
What do you dream of?
As I’ve always said: “The bigger the dream, the more work you have to put in to achieve it.”