What stories is Arab cinema telling? Until recently, Egyptian films were your best bet to find out. Since the late 2000s, however, a new swathe of Arab film-makers from the UAE (United Arab Emirates) have burst onto the global stage, carving a commercial path for the world’s newest national cinema. This group of young Emirati directors and producers is led by pioneering filmmaker Ali Mostafa. Mostafa is credited with directing and producing the first Emirati feature film, City of Life (2009), a drama about cultural and ethnic differences in Dubai. The film was well received by Emirati audiences and gave Mostafa the status of local celebrity. More recently, Mostafa reinforced his reputation as one of the most prestigious filmmakers in the Gulf region by directing his second film, From A to B (2014), a road movie which chronicles the adventures of three friends travelling from Abu Dhabi to Beirut. In 2015 Mostafa announced he was working on The Worthy (2016), an action movie set in a dystopian future which has been plunged into chaos due to a chronic water shortage.

Along with a few other local film pioneers such as Nawaf Al Janahi, Mostafa has played a crucial role in the emergence of the Emirati film industry. The UAE is a small country that boasts a large oil reserve, but until the early 2000s it had virtually no history of film production. The growing desire to see local stories on the big screen, coupled with the need to diversify an economy which heavily relies on oil extraction, has pushed the local government to invest increasing resources into the film industry. In 2008, the government-funded production company Image Nation, for example, was endowed with a US$1 billion capital with the goal of developing an Emirati national cinema while simultaneously remaining a profitable enterprise. After its establishment, Image Nation developed a unique business model co-producing international blockbusters such as The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden, 2011), using the profits from these global successes to subsidise local productions and training programs for young Emirati filmmakers. Recently, Image Nation supported a number of Arab-language Emirati productions including From A to B, Sea Shadow (Al Janahi, 2011) and Going to Heaven (Al Murry, 2016). The development of local talent and infrastructures as well as generous tax breaks has also attracted Hollywood filmmakers who have used the UAE as location for major productions such as Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2014). In turn, these international productions have further enhanced the skills and capability of local film crews who can now be used by Emirati directors such as Mostafa to make films featuring local content.

The following interview took place with Ali in Dubai in May 2016, and sheds new light on both his work as a director and the burgeoning Emirati film industry.

Ali Mostafa interview

How and when did you become interested in film?

I have been interested in filmmaking since I was child. As a kid I used to take my dad’s videocamera to shoot my toys. I learned stop-motion animation just by watching films like Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963): for example, the scenes in which the skeletons come out of the ground. I could tell they were achieving that effect by stopping the camera and shooting just for a second. So I used to take my toys and try my own stop motion animation stuff. When I didn’t want to use my toys anymore I’d use my brothers, who were babies back then, or my cousins. I was making films from a very young age and I continued into my teens…

My father was an architect and my mother started off with a flower shop which ended up running events and creative projects. I was able to draw from a young age and when I was still in high school I told her that I wanted to open up an interior design division in her company. Although I had no formal training, it was something I grew up knowing how to do just by observing my father. So two years before graduating from high school I started designing wedding stages in the UAE. Wedding stages here are often quite elaborate. Sometimes you would build two-storey high Indian palaces or gardens… I actually became quite successful doing that… I did that for about two years and then I realised that I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life.

I wanted to get into film… I wanted to apply for a film school and I did a bit of research. The one that really stood out was a course at the London Film School. Unfortunately, it was a Masters degree and I had not done a bachelor in Film, however because of my experience in designing wedding stages I had a very thick portfolio. To them my work experience was the equivalent of a bachelor degree so they basically accepted me into the film school without an undergraduate degree. I studied for two years in London and it was only then that I truly understood the process of making films, because all the things I made growing up were amateurish and I really didn’t understand the techniques behind them.

The film school was a great eye opener for me. When I went to film school I knew I wanted to become a director and I focused on learning what everyone else did on set: camera operator, director of photography, editor and so on. I did everything except from directing till my last film, my graduation film which I had to direct… and it was only then that I realised that it was the first Emirati film to be shot on celluloid. I shot it on Super 16 at the time. Everything else had been shot on digital, video and so on. That was shocking to me because I had not realised how non-existent the film industry was here. After graduating, however, I also discovered that there was an Emirati film competition that happened every year in Abu Dhabi.

What year was that?

It was 2004 when I submitted my film there. I was very blessed that my film won the best Emirati film that year. But then after achieving that success with the short film and being recognised as a filmmaker, I realised that in the movie industry here I couldn’t have sustained a career. What we had, however, was a TV commercial industry. I went to some production companies to try and assist in any way I could on set and I started helping in the electrical department, the grip department and so on. Throughout the years I became third, second and eventually first assistant [director]. I acquired a lot of experience being on set, but even though I was making a bit of money making commercials I felt that if I sustained myself doing only that I would not have the opportunity to make a feature film… It’s good money, but only if you direct stuff…

When I wanted to eventually direct my first commercial it was a Catch 22 situation because in order for you to direct commercials you need to have experience as a director. So I ended up going to an advertising agency and proposed them to shoot a commercial for nothing. It was my first commercial. They accepted that and eventually they ended up buying it from me and that’s how my commercial directing career started.

What kind of commercial was it?

It was a car commercial. My career in the commercial industry started to pay for the life I had (I got married at quite a young age). But I realised that if I focused on this and did not try to make a feature film I would probably never get the chance, because all I was doing was trying to sustain my career and support my family. So I decided to take a very long sabbatical away from commercials to focus on making a film. That’s when I had the idea of making a film about Dubai. I remember that I had to even sell my car to get the script ready… the process took me about four years and that’s how I made my first feature film.

I was lucky that that feature film hit close to the hearts of the people in Dubai. We did not have any budget for promotion, but we had a lot of love for what was happening. The press really hyped it up and that helped us a lot. After that I made commercials again until I tried to figure out what my next film would be. And then, after four years of struggling, I managed to make From A to B which was my second feature film. All the things we had done prior to City of Life were made before Image Nation even existed. We are very lucky now to have Image Nation on board because they invested 50% of the financing on From A to B and they saw the potential in me. As soon as we released From A to B they came to me with a script they had, to make another film almost immediately, The Worthy. Even though it was a genre I was not very familiar with, I thought it was a very exciting opportunity and I really enjoyed shooting it. It was also the first film that I did not write or produce, I was purely brought on as a director.

So did you produce City of Life? Was it self-funded?

I set up a company called AFM Films to produce City of Life. I raised 20% of the money from product placement. Having that in the bank gave me a little clout to go to a big financer here to cover the rest of the budget. Financial institutions do not really do this here, but they believed in the concept and they funded the film.

Ali Mostafa interview

What about the major influences on your work? Are there any artists or directors who have inspired your filmmaking career?

I have always been inspired by many directors, many films… probably too many to mention. “What’s your favourite film?”: it’s hard with the amount of films out there [to answer]. I guess I get inspired by a lot of different films and styles especially at the emotional level. I really love watching Mostafa Akkad’s The Message (1976). It’s a film about the prophet Mohammad and as a child – and even now – that film would bring a tear to my eye. I always found that is an interesting aspect of film: to make someone emotional while watching something. And I guess certain film techniques are able to achieve that… I was also very much inspired when I watched Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) for the first time… When I first saw that I said: “I wanna be the person in charge of creating this”. I didn’t want to be the person who shoots it, or the person who is in front of the camera as an actor… I want to be the person who creates this… I liked Lucas, Spielberg and other directors we are used to growing up here… I also got to see a lot of Bollywood films.

Can you talk a bit about From A to B? How did that project come about?

After I made City of Life I tried to understand what my next film would be and I thought about different genres. And that’s what I believe I should do: City of Life was a character drama ensemble piece. From A to B was a comedy, the film I’m making now is an action movie. I would like to do all the genres I can, I don’t want to focus on one thing… I want to discover one day that maybe there is a genre I’m particularly good at, and that’s why I want to tap into everything I can and also show diversity as a filmmaker. Originally when I was thinking about From A to B I was thinking about horror film and so many different genres. And then it just hit me, I have always been fascinated by the idea of a road trip… road trips are a form of escapism from reality. Similarly, watching films is also a form of escapism… so what I found fascinating about the idea is that you will be sitting there watching a film and escaping from reality while watching other people escaping from their reality…

I also wanted to do something different from City of Life. My first film was about Dubai and I thought it was important to set my second film in the capital city, Abu Dhabi. So we decided that was going to be our staring point. We also thought that crossing into Saudi Arabia with its desert landscapes and conservatism, entering the historical landscapes of Jordan and war-torn Syria and ending with a place infamous for its nightlife like Beirut, would be a very interesting journey for these characters…

I wrote the story, but I had a few writers who helped me with this. The last draft was written by a friend of mine, Mohammed Hefzy, who also produced the film. After that we started searching for the financing and I remember that Twofour54 (which doesn’t usually finance films) was interested in this idea so they put 50% of the budget and when Image Nation changed their management, they also got involved and put 50%… that’s how the film happened. Eventually From A to B became the first Emirati film to open the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Despite the fact that you have tackled different genres, I feel that there are certain themes that keep reoccurring in your work: an emphasis on the road and cars as metaphors of the characters’ psychological transformation; an interest in the multicultural life of the UAE. Would you agree? Are there certain themes you are particularly interested in?

The films that I make out of here are about the country I know and understand. I come from a mixed background, my mother is English and my father is from Dubai so I guess I was quite westernised from a very young age. At the same time, though, I grew up with all my Emirati friends and cousins so I had a very strong Arab mentality and heart, I guess. This is a very cosmopolitan city, one of the most fascinating and progressive cities in the Arab world and these two things (East and West) definitely go hand in hand…

I guess the themes are quite similar, in City of Life the Emirati storyline is very similar to my own life. I had a very similar upbringing to the two Emirati characters. That’s why maybe this is something that rung true to local audiences. And also in From A to B the different characters, the one who had a very protective mother or the child of a mixed marriage… there are a lot of things that I throw into my characters because it’s stuff that I actually know. And that’s what’s interesting about The Worthy, it was something very different, and I had to try to learn and understand it. That’s what makes you progress as a filmmaker.

I feel that in your films you push the limits of what’s permissible to portray in the UAE. I’m thinking for example about the depiction of alcohol in From A to B, or sex and fighting in City of Life. Did you ever feel constrained in terms of what you are allowed to say or not say in your films? In other words, is censorship an issue in the UAE?

Let me be completely honest about my experience with City of Life. When you shoot a film here you need to get script approval from the National Media Council. When I submitted the script for City of Life there were scenes that are not usually put on screen here, for example national Emiratis going to clubs drinking and so forth… it was very hard to get approval. I tried to explain to them that in order to have a film industry we can’t sugar coat everything, we have to show stuff that might be real even though it’s not stuff that happens on a mass level…

I don’t want to show things just to push the boundaries, but I want to show things that have some connotation of reality and I feel that’s the only way a film industry would be able to grow… After six months of appealing they eventually told me that they would allow me to shoot the film, but only once the film was finished and they got to see it they would give me approval to release it. City of Life was actually a multi-million dollar film and you can imagine the pressure of making your first film knowing that it might never see the light of day. Then again I didn’t necessarily blame the system, obviously there were certain individuals that weren’t sure and they didn’t want to do something that might backfire. I was willing to take that risk because I believed that in a city like Dubai and with our ruler who has such a vision for the country this is something that would be accepted.

Eventually we made the film but even then every official who saw it wouldn’t give the approval… It wasn’t because they didn’t want to, it was like passing a hot potato: “why don’t you ask that person what their thoughts are or ask this other person…”. In the meantime, the director of the Dubai Film Festival came to see us and told us he would like to hold the world premiere of the film at the festival. That was great, but we still couldn’t get an official approval in writing. It was a very stressful period. Eventually, we got an official letter from a very important person in the media office saying that the film was banned. This was given to us a few weeks before the world premiere and it had already been announced that the film was going to be released. People were already aware of it and I was thinking “wait a minute, you banned this now? It doesn’t really make sense”. And then I found out that it was a certain individual that made this decision and given the individual’s position I must accept it. But obviously I could not accept it, given what we went through to make this film.

I believed that the film would actually make a difference, it would help the industry. I managed to get someone to send the film to his Highness Sheik Mohammed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, to watch it. I made a film about this city and if he told me that this film was unacceptable, I would accept his decision hands down… A few weeks later we received an amazing phone call saying that he had seen the film, he was very proud of what we achieved and that if we needed any support in the future we should let him know. And that goes to show that a man of that vision could see the idea we had for the film and what it could do for the industry.

The film had its world premiere, [and] it was a big success in the cinemas. It was a big success on DVD, it went to quite a lot of festivals. I felt City of Life was truly a stepping-stone because eventually, four years later, when I wanted to make From A to B (which to me held a lot more controversial connotations) it was approved within six days, not six months…

Thanks to City of Life even the censorship board started to have a more open mind about film… that’s why seven years later we have a much better industry… because everybody has evolved with the struggle, everyone has evolved with every film that was produced. I think we are in a very beautiful stage of the industry and we are just hoping for it to continue.

Ali Mostafa interview

That’s a great story! When you make a film, what’s your target audience? Is it Emirati, Middle Eastern or global audiences?

My films – the films I want to make for the rest of my life – are not made for a certain market. The films I want to make are films for a global audience. And that’s the only kind of films I would like to make. Because to me it doesn’t make sense as a filmmaker to make a film about your culture that will only address people from your culture. The power of film is very important especially in relation to the way in which we Arabs are represented in the media. It’s important that we tell our own stories that can try to travel to the rest of the world. And this is why I had an amazing experience when I was in Italy recently promoting From A to B… even though the film was dubbed in Italian, the audience interaction was fantastic. A lot of people came up to me and told me “we had no idea that kids in the Arab world, are so similar to the people here, the youth in Italy”. That to me was very important and that’s why we have to make stories that try to travel.

Recently the Emirati government has invested significant resources in film production. Why is there so much interest and why now?

To be honest in the past nobody really understood the power of film. In the 1990s it was more about the boom of real estate and what you could do there. But I guess people slowly started to realise what the film industry could actually achieve, not just in terms of indigenous films, but also facilitating international productions. This is something that people realised only at a later stage. Because the country is so new and everything is still growing, it is not surprising that it took this long. But I’m glad it did happen in my lifetime.

Do you think the strategies implemented so far are the most appropriate ones? For example the establishment of Image Nation and the other measures that the government has put in place to foster film production here. Would you change anything?

In France or in the UK, film is a very important part of the country. They have their film councils and their film commissions to help their national cinema. Deciding to focus on Emirati voices and film here is a good strategy. I think we are very blessed now to have a company like Image Nation which is looking at people who can develop film culture and make sure there is a film industry.

Is there such a thing as an “Emirati cinema” in your opinion? And if that’s the case, what are its characteristics?

For sure there is an Emirati cinema. But I recently discovered that there are two types of Emirati cinema: there is an Emirati cinema that very much caters to an Emirati audience, and then there is an Emirati Cinema that tries to cater to an international audience. So yes, there is an “Emirati cinema” but these two incarnations look and feel different. But again this is still a very young stage in our industry. Who knows, maybe in ten, fifteen years down the line there will be no separation between the two versions of Emirati cinema that I’m seeing now.

But everywhere around the world there are people who make arthouse films, people who make commercial films… so yes there will always be an Emirati cinema that will go for arthouse, independent cinemas… and there will be a very strong Emirati cinema that will focus on commerciability and the box office, because it’s very important for our films to make money, if our films don’t make money how are we going to continue to make films? If the Emirati government is just forking out money into films that consistently do not make any form of return, the resources will eventually run out, or people’s patience will run out and they will say “why are we doing this?”

What are the major obstacles that you think the film industry in the UAE will have to overcome in the near future?

There used to be a lot of major obstacles and they are just slowly fading away. There are no longer excuses. Before people used to say “Oh there is no support, there is no funding, there is no this and no that…”. But everything is available now and if you have the motivation and drive, the passion and perseverance to go out and make a film it will happen. It was a lot more difficult when I first started, but now I don’t really see what the obstacles are… write your script, work on it: there will be someone interested, if not in the UAE [then] outside the UAE, someone who will fund it… I guess if you are talking about this from a skill set point of view, I wish we had a lot more Emirati producers, writers and cinematographers… But I am sure that they are going to grow with every film we make. I think there are no more barriers, there are only opportunities.