The coming of age of Ali F. Mostafa
It’s not often you see someone swinging a spiked medieval weapon above their head, these days. It’s even less likely to see that this same person, grinning with mischievous glee, is wearing a tailored Burberry suit and a pair of Dhs5,000 Berluti shoes. But that is the situation I find myself upon walking into Esquire Middle East’s photoshoot with Ali F. Mostafa.
“I’m glad the police didn’t pull me over when I had this in my car; that would’ve been hard to explain!” laughs the British-Emirati film director, still holding the spiked Morning Star mace. The prop weapon, he goes on to explain, was sent over to him from Romania by the crew from the set of his most recent film after they wrapped there earlier this year.
That film is The Worthy, a post-apocalyptic survival thriller that will debut in the region at the Dubai International Film Festival this month (December 7 to 14), having already impressed audiences at its global premiere in October at the BFI London Film Festival.
[Mr Mostafa wears: Blue suit Boglioli @ MrPorter.com Dhs2,790; Off brushed denim shirt Dhs270 and tie Dhs85 both COS; Shoes Berluti Andy Dhs8,000.]
Following his landmark 2009 debut City of Life and road-trip comedy A to B, released in January last year, this is Mostafa’s third feature film – and his first foray into the thriller/horror genre. In fact, The Worthy actually marks quite a few firsts for Mostafa: it’s also the first film he has worked on in a purely directorial capacity (usually he has a writer’s credit), his first film to be filmed entirely in Arabic… and his first film to feature medieval weaponry.
In front of the Esquire cameras those weapons work to help give the photoshoot a bit of a creative edge, but they also double-up as a tool to make Mostafa feel more relaxed. For even with his slender, toned physique, model-esque long brown hair and striking features, there is a definite sense of nervousness about him being the focus of the camera’s lens for a change. He compensates for this disconcerting role reversal by regularly offering polite suggestions to the photographer and stylist about lighting, angles and clothing. Speaking in fluent industry jargon, Mostafa is clearly someone who is more comfortable being in control of things behind the camera.
This is in stark contrast to earlier in the day where we first met Mostafa on a film set he was working on as a producer.
After negotiating a tangle of maze-like backroads, we arrive at a quiet suburban street near Barsha Mall. The road is flanked by trailers and production trucks with busy-looking people in hi-vis jackets barking orders at bemused-looking passers-by.
It is day three on set of Rashid & Rajab, an Arab body-swap comedy from Abu Dhabi’s Image Nation studios. The film is the first live-action feature from the Emirati animator, Mohammed Saeed Harib, creator of the multi award-winning Arab-language cartoon, Freej.
Despite the oft-cited stereotypes of local timekeeping, things are almost bang on schedule. At 10:01am, Mostafa arrives and greets us with a big smile. Wearing a light, stone-washed denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, black jeans and a spotless, white pair of Common Projects, he looks relaxed and ready to work. There’s an excitable spring in his step as we walk toward the set.
[Mr Mostafa wears: Grey blazer Dhs7,195, White shirt Dhs1,450, Slimfit unwashed stretch denim jeans Dhs1,450 all Burberry]
With Harib’s hugely successful animation background, it begs the obvious question of whether Rashid & Rajab is going to be semi-animated film along the lines of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. “Sadly not,” laughs Mostafa, “That would be awesome, though. I love that film!”
Mostafa’s role over the 30-day shoot is as producer. Due to the small nature of the UAE film industry it’s fitting that he’s been friends with Harib for years, but has never worked with him before. He was “thrilled” when Image Nation approached him to come on-board to help with the film.
Today’s shoot is in a large villa. Owned by a friend of the director, it is what you would imagine as the quintessential young Emirati bachelor-pad. The walls of the ultra-modern, open-planned interior are adorned with pop-art works. Rather than having a walk-in wardrobe, an entire room has been dedicated to a selection of khakis and kanduras. The sliding glass walls of the indoor gym overlook a lap-pool in the garden.
“You know what’s weird?” Mostafa says pointing at next door. “That house is the one I used in City of Life! What are the chances!?” he laughs. I suggest that this side street could secretly be the most famous road in Dubai, and Mostafa jokes about setting up a tour bus that goes up and down showing it off to film fans.
Inside the villa, members of the film crew are busy rushing about. Dozens of earnest, hushed conversations are being had; people are washing windows and setting up camera rigs. Mostafa gets to work joining the film director and the director of photography (who was recommended to Harib by Mostafa after working with him on The Worthy) on a walk-through of the day’s shots.
Watching from the edge of the set, Mostafa has a natural grace about him. He listens to, and chats with, crew members with equal attentiveness, offering either advice or a smile depending on what fits the situation. Although this is the first time that he has worked on a feature film purely in the capacity as a producer, it is clearly his natural habitat.
Is it difficult to be here and not be directing? I ask. “Yeah. I find it really hard to sit back and watch someone else direct,” Mostafa admits. “You want to get in there and do it yourself, but it is important to let the director drive. After all, it is his vision. My job is to lend my experience and guide.”
[Mr Mostafa wears: Grey suit jacket Dhs565, trousers Dhs285, both Theory @ Bloomingdales. Shirt Berluti Dhs2,300. Glasses his own]
It says a lot about the young UAE filmmaking industry that, at only 35-years-old, Mostafa is seen as one of its most experienced and influential directors. Following the box office success of City of Life, Mostafa was catapulted into the spotlight as the fresh face of a new vanguard of filmmakers from the Gulf region.
Born in London, to an Emirati father and a British mother, Mostafa grew up in Dubai, attending schools in Mamzar and Jumeirah before eventually enrolling at the London Film School, where he graduated with an MA in film technique. It was there that he began to realise that the impression the Western world had of his hometown – at least on film – was at odds with what he knew to be true.
“What I wanted to do with City of Life was to create a more accurate account of Dubai,” Mostafa explains behind the steering wheel of his Land Rover Evoque as we leave the film set to grab a spot of lunch. “Frankly, I was sick of hearing people think of Dubai as a Disneyland. That’s not the city that I knew, and I wanted to do something about it.”
And do something about it he did. Although it took him the better part of four years to make, City of Life was eventually given a seven-week run at cinemas across the UAE and went on to set box office records for a locally-made film.
“I’ll never forget the day City of Life came out. It was April 22, and it was released in the same weekend as Iron Man 2 and Clash of the Titans. They were on 60 screens, and we were showing on 12, yet that weekend we ended up second in the box office,” says Mostafa with a smile of unmistakable pride spreading across his face.
It was a big moment for the industry. Mostafa had showed that, not only could the production values of a locally-made film be on par with the likes of Dubai-filmed but Hollywood produced Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and George Clooney’s Syriana, but that there was an audience interested in local films.
However, despite the success of his debut, fans would have to wait another four years until they could watch his next feature, From A to B. The light-hearted comedy, about three Abu Dhabi-based friends who embark on a road-trip to Beirut, would be met with years of delays before finally opening the 2014 Abu Dhabi film festival to much fanfare.
During the period in-between he would continue developing his skills (and paying his bills) by directing adverts for brands including Land Rover, Sony and Etihad, via his production company AFM Films.
“Things were different back then,” Mostafa explains. “My scripts were getting rejected by the National Media Council, but it wasn’t out of spite or anger; it was because there was no precedent for something like that being done before. To give you an example, when I was at film school, I filmed my final project in Dubai, and we realised it was the first movie in the country ever to be shot on actual film!”
[Mr Mostafa wears: Black double breasted velvet jacket Dhs6,595, White t-shirt Dhs895, Slim-fit unwashed stretch denim jeans Dhs1,450 all Burberry]
As we arrive at the Italian restaurant Certo’s in Media City, and sit down to order – Mostafa opts for the risotto primavera – I remind him of a conversation we had three years’ previous, where he described the UAE film industry as progressing in “big leaps followed by long plateaus”.
“It’s not like that anymore,” he says. He goes on to explain that since returning from The Worthy’s world premiere in London’s famed Leicester Square, he went straight into working on Rashid & Rajab, while there is currently another Emirati movie, On Borrowed Time, being filmed and two
more Image Nation-supported projects set for filming in 2017. “I don’t think that those plateaus exist anymore,” he says while tearing off a chunk of focaccia and dipping it in balsamic vinegar. “More and more films are being made, and it is really exciting to be a part of the growth.”
It is the influence of Image Nation to which Mostafa attributes a lot of the growth of this new era of local filmmaking. In recent years the production arm of the Abu Dhabi Media Group has shifted its focus from financing international films (The Help, Men in Black 3, A Most Violent Year) to providing support, and laying the foundations, to locally-produced projects including Rashid & Rajab. They were also behind 2015’s well-received thriller Zinzana, directed by upcoming Emirati director Majid Al Ansari – winner of Variety magazine’s Arab Filmmaker of the Year.
“For my first films, half of the time was spent trying to secure funding,” says Mostafa. “The amazing thing now is that Image Nation shoulders that burden and take that stress off of you, allowing you to create. All of the guys who make films now are set.”
It was someone from Image Nation who called Mostafa about The Worthy. The director had just closed production on From A to B, when he was sent a script for a post-apocalyptic thriller about a ragtag band of survivors in a water-deprived world, whose lives descend even further into chaos when a pair of strangers arrive at their abandoned aircraft hangar ‘home’ and soon become pawns in a test for survival, where only one of them shall be chosen ‘worthy’.
The film already had Hollywood heavyweights Steven Schneider (Paranormal Activity) and Peter Safran (The Conjuring) attached to it as co-producers, but the twist of bringing Mostafa on board was to adapt the vision – originally written for an American audience – into an Arab language film. An Arab language film, but targeted at a global audience.
“At first, I wasn’t sold on the idea,” admits Mostafa. “I’ve never been hugely into horror, and I couldn’t really see why people were making such a fuss over the script. But then I sat down and imagined just what would happen if the s*** hit the fan in this part of the world in the not too distant future. Creating a world that didn’t exist but, god forbid, could exist – that was interesting.”
It was then that the script was adapted and translated, but despite the addition of certain specific regional nuances, Mostafa claims that it is not so much a ‘Middle East story’ but more a universal tale that just happens to take place in this region. “It’s dark, man. This film is easily the darkest thing I’ve ever done,” he says of the finished product.
The Worthy also notes an interesting development in Mostafa’s career, being the first film that he did not write, but that is something the he says suits him just fine.
“I don’t think I’m a great writer,” he laughs as he scoops up mouthfuls of risotto with his fork. “I think my strength is coming up with story ideas. The actual process of writing dialogue I don’t really enjoy. The beauty of directing something that you didn’t write is that, as you read it, you can visualise everything so much clearer in your mind. You are following the story as it develops, so you don’t know what direction it is going in, as you do if you are writing it. I find that to be remarkably liberating.”
And according to early reviews emanating from the film’s premiere in London, it shows. Mostafa explains how he has been “overwhelmed” by the positive critiques of The Worthy, especially as certain film critics have not always been kind to his work. In fact he still seems upset by the opening line from Variety’s review of City of Life which claimed that the film “feels as soulless as the city in which it unfolds”.
“Yeah, Variety hasn’t been too kind to my films,” he says when I tactfully bring it up. “But there are plenty of other publications that have said great things. I think The Worthy is some of my best work, so I’m hoping they’ll think better of it.”
Even if they don’t, Mostafa doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would let much get in the way of his goal to keep making films for as long as possible. “Look,” he says pushing aside his half-finished plate, “I’m a lucky man to be able to do what I do and support my family [Mostafa has a wife, daughter and twin boys]. I don’t need the gratification of others to keep me going.”
As we get the bill – which Mostafa insists on paying – I ask him how he thinks he would survive if the apocalyptic situation in The Worthy were to come to life. “I think I’d do okay,” he says. “I’m pretty good in a crisis. When a door busts open and there is chaos, I’m pretty good at staying calm and handling those types of situations.” Rather him than us.
Cinema is not merely a means to an end with Mostafa, it seems to be an all-consuming passion. Before handing him over to the rest of the Esquire team for our cover shoot, we chat candidly about his love for cinema. He tells me how his dream is to direct a James Bond film (“although I didn’t like the two most recent ones”); we discuss how, growing up, his father had the uncanny talent of investing in film formats just before they became obsolete (“I saw most of my favourite films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones on Betamax and LaserDisc!”); and how his wife jokingly refers to herself as a “film widow” when he is working.
Halfway through the photoshoot, I walk in to see a changed and superbly styled Ali F. Mostafa as the centre of attention, wielding a primitive club with spikes sticking out of it. The camera snaps away as stylists and make-up artist fuss about him. He looks every bit an on-screen leading man, except for the lack of that spring in his step that was so evident earlier on the film set. But with the release of The Worthy, it’s fair to say that the boy who made City of Life is now the man with a few more weapons in his arsenal.
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This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of Esquire Middle East. The Worthy will be shown at the Dubai Film Festival, Dec 7 to 14. For information and tickets visit diff.ae
Photos: Richard Hall. Art Direction: Cate Wards. Styling: Daniel Higgins. Hair & Make-up: Amanda Kay