The Return of Ali Mostafa
Ali Mostafa looks like the most relaxed man in the UAE when he should be anything but. I meet him in a Dubai café, five weeks before his second feature, From A to B, is to open the eighth Abu Dhabi Film Festival. The final version of his film was put together just days before our meeting. Now he barely has time to catch his breath before it is screened.
His first movie, 2009’s City of Life, required several edits for length and to appease censors. For many people it was seen as a daring piece of film making; it remains the UAE’s most expensive feature film and almost certainly its most controversial. It was briefly banned in the country, which now looks like its strongest endorsement. For his second film Mostafa is working with far great expectation, but with a budget that’s less than a quarter of his debut. For a number of reasons, many eyes will be watching his new work very closely and it would be no surprise if the Emirati were feeling under pressure.
But instead of betraying any nerves, he folds one of his long legs over the other and takes a sip of freshly blended orange and carrot juice. If I didn’t know better I’d guess he was on holiday. The 33-year-old wears trendy glasses, which are either an extremely mild prescription or clear glass. The top three buttons of his shirt are undone with a kind of Russell Brand rakishness. His looks lie somewhere between Tom Hiddleston and Orlando Bloom – for all the world he as though he should be in front of the camera, not behind it.
In the years since City of Life was released, Mostafa has shot several commercials, but in one way or another has always been working on this new film. He may have more experience than most other Emirati film-makers, but as writer, director, producer and chief fundraiser, the process is still a challenge for him. While he has been grateful for support from Abu Dhabi-based arts organisations twofour54 and Image Nation, there are no major studios backing the project. He says it’s surprised him that this time around things haven’t been easier: “Because I had done a film and there was something to reflect on. I thought [potential backers] might say: ‘Oh he actually knows how to cut something together, and produce something of some type of quality.’ But no – it was as hard as the first one.”
Is it a better film than City of Life? “Yeah, I think so. I’ve matured as a filmmaker,” he says. “You do things, you make mistakes – sometimes you may even know you’re making them, but you do them anyway, just to make sure the production gets done. But what [City of Life] did for me and this hatchling industry? I can’t be more proud.”
Other than ticking over into his 30s, how has he matured? “Well, now I look at things and say: if the audience isn’t going to miss it, then it doesn’t need to be there. If it doesn’t take your story forward, then kill it.” I point out that this applies to all kinds of writing – sometimes you must “kill your darlings”, as William Faulkner said. Mostafa agrees, but adds: “Writers don’t have to call actors who have told all their families, or guys who you’ve flown in from other countries and paid a lot of money, to tell them they’re no longer in the film.”
The cast features actors from across the Middle East, but From A to B is set in Abu Dhabi, at least initially. It’s difficult to sum up the story succinctly or without giving away any spoilers, but it centres around three friends taking a road-trip between Abu Dhabi and Beirut – literally from an A to a B – driven by emotion and a sense of duty. Marketed as a “dramedy” it touches on politics, loss and adventure, but is counterbalanced by far more levity than Mostafa’s first offering. The comic presented a different kind of challenge: “It’s much easier for me to make someone cry than to make them laugh,” says the director, “but I like to make things people can relate to.”
City of Life perhaps came easier to him then, a film focusing on the suffering of an array of characters dotted around Dubai, none of whom came out unscathed, or, in some cases, alive. Most of it was based on real life, things Mostafa had personally witnessed or experienced growing up in the city. Even with a lighter touch, his second feature focuses on the real world too. The story takes place in 2011, not just because that’s when the idea was originally conceived, but because the current political situation in Syria makes a road-trip through there to Lebanon impossible.
Born in London but raised in the UAE, Mostafa has an Emirati father and a British mother. He says he feels “as half-British as you can be, but also full-on Emirati” and unsurprisingly, that mixed heritage has influenced his film making. He estimates that around 30 percent of From A to B was shot in English, the rest in Arabic (City of Life was multi-lingual too, but also featured Hindi). Beyond language, his time abroad has influenced his taste in cinema, as well as his filming technique, not least through a Master’s degree in filmmaking from the London Film School. Like dozens of young directors, the original Star Wars films are one of the reasons he’s in the business today, so he was understandably thrilled to be able to visit the set of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens when production visited Abu Dhabi earlier this year. But it absolutely, definitely wasn’t him who leaked the on-set images to online gossip mongers TMZ.
Mostafa talks with remarkable candour and conversation comes easy. His phone goes off a dozen times while we talk, but he mutes it every time, even when I try to insist he answer. He has a habit of returning questions with questions and the topic is frequently derailed from his film towards cinema in general. It takes quite some time before we get around to talking about From A to B again. When we do, I ask if he expects it will cause as much friction as his first film. “Mmm!” he says through a mouthful of juice. “But not intentionally. I’m not trying to slap things – I scratch the surface to see what happens… Films are stories; they tap into an idea, then expand on it. With this film, there are certain things I added to open the minds a little more from what people might be used to.”
Mostafa has barely finished this project, but he’s already thinking about what will be next. It might be a thriller, he says, or a psychological horror, but he may not film in the UAE at all. For now, though, he has plenty on his plate with From A to B. When the Abu Dhabi Film Festival opens, it will mark the first time an Emirati film has opened a festival in the UAE and Mostafa will personally present it to the audience, in full national dress. Seeing him so relaxed here, it’s hard to imagine him in such a formal setting – will he feel more nervous then, when international media, his investors and a host of VIPs are looking at him with a renewed focus? “What is there to be nervous about? If people like it, then they like it. If not, then you can only try your best. I’m more excited than nervous,” he says. “It’s not in my hands any more – it’s up to the audience.”
A version of this piece was published in Etihad Inflight in October 2014.