Ali Mostafa is the toast of the Emirati film industry with his latest movie, From A to B. He tells GC why success has not come easily
“The best way to learn how to make a film is to get on set and get your hands dirty,” declares Ali Mostafa.
The 33-year-old Emirati film director should know. He first picked up a handycam at the age of nine when he started making his own amateur films.
Scroll forward just over two decades and years of hard work appear to have paid off. The premiere of his second feature film, From A to B, opened Abu Dhabi Film Festival last month to great accolade and his co-producers from TwoFour54 and Image Nation, the filmmaking and film funding arms of Abu Dhabi government, are working furiously to secure him international distribution deals and an American release.
Indeed, Mostafa is something of a poster boy for the fledgling Emirati film industry. With chiselled jaw and Bollywood hero-style floppy hair, London-born Mostafa – who has a British florist mother and an Emirati father – easily straddles both East and West.
His latest film does the same. A road trip movie involving three friends who travel from Abu Dhabi to Beirut, with plenty of comical mishaps along the way, it pushes the cultural and conservative boundaries in the UAE in a way few have done before.
The film deals with themes of drinking, homosexuality and even touches on the Arab-Israeli conflict – albeit with a lighthearted touch.
“I do not find these things very controversial,” says Mostafa, who lives in Dubai with his wife Maha and their three children.
“It is nice to scratch the surface every now and again because you want to try and open minds to the medium of film – but this is fictional and purely for entertainment purposes.”
If he shies away from stirring up a hornets’ nest, it is perhaps because he is the toast of the UAE’s film network, the golden boy who can do no wrong.
Image Nation and TwoFour54 funded the majority of his $2 million movie while sponsors such as Range Rover weighed in with product placement deals.
Mostafa part-funded his $7 million first film, City of Life, in the same way with product placement in certain scenes, which might jar with the artistically minded but which he justified with the pragmatism of a director who also dabbles in making commercials.
It took five years to produce his second film after his first. They were filled with commercial gigs and plenty of frustration as Mostafa tried to secure funding and support for his next project.
“We had a script but it came down to funding,” he says. “I still struggle to get funding.
“A lot has changed and we are making progress but I could count on the fingers of one hand those that do this for a living here.
“What I want to see here is a film fund that goes toward Emirati cinema. We have such a rich culture that we could easily be producing three or four films a year.
“I think it is really important for a culture to maintain itself by making films. It is a very strong, powerful medium.”
While there is support for film in place – TwoFour54 runs a creative lab for budding filmmakers while the Sanad fund in Abu Dhabi and Dubai Film Connection support emerging talent – Mostafa wants to see a film institute mirroring those in countries like France, the UK and Italy, which take a percentage of box office sales and reinvest them in their native film industries.
While City of Life was widely seen in the GCC region, it failed to secure an international distribution deal other than through airlines and was made at a loss. This time, Mostafa is determined to do things differently.
From A to B will be taken to California and pitched to international film festivals to get it seen as widely as possible – and at the same time, fulfil Mostafa’s ambitions to make Arab films for a western audience.
“A good story is a good story and transcends the globe,” he says. “All you have got to focus on is trying to make a good film and it will travel.”
He completed a two-year masters in filmmaking at London Film School, graduating in 2002, but it was years before he was able to undertake his first feature film.
Mostafa made several short films before embarking on a career as a director of commercials.
“All film school was about was putting us on set and showing us the ropes,” he says.
“I wanted to do things the right way. I started by assisting on commercials – helping the grips, then the gaffers with the lighting, then I was the equipment assistant.
“Then I became the third assistant director on a 7Up commercial, a second assistant director on a Pepsi commercial and eventually became a first assistant director.”
Even making ads proved to be tough, with those hiring demanding an impressive showreel. As he was just starting, it was impossible to show what he was capable of.
So Mostafa came up with the idea of making his own ad for Nissan from his own pocket and gave the car manufacturer the option of buying it if its managers liked it. They did.
“I highly recommend no one jumps straight into making a feature,” he says.
“I am completely against it and against those who do their first short film and decide they are going to do a feature next. It is extremely important to shoot as much as you can before you decide to go into feature-making.”
Mostafa had a dream cast for his film From A to B, including the Saudi comedian Fahad Albutairi, the Egyptian actor Shadi Alfons, the comedian Wonho Chung and the well-established actor Khaled Abol Naga. Filming took place in the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon, although locations in Jordan had to stand in as doubles for Syria and Saudi Arabia because of the difficulty of filming in those countries.
He is still deciding on his next project but hopes to tackle a thriller, “something out of my comfort zone”.
“However big the dream, the more work you have to put in to achieve it,” he says.