Director Ali F. Mostafa Puts Emirati Cinema On The Map

Photo of Sabahat Hassan
3 January 2017

Emirati director Ali F. Mostafa’s film City of Life is groundbreaking in its portrayal of urban life and class conflict in Dubai. Here we take a look at Mostafa’s career and his attempt to create an accurate portrayal of the UAE and the Middle East through cinema.

The United Arab Emirates has not played a particularly prominent role in the international film industry, having been featured in a few Hollywood blockbusters as well as some Malayalam films. Taking 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol as an example, it’s clear that Hollywood has not sufficiently represented Dubai or Emirati culture.

Such films leave a superficial impression of the region, occupied by camels, sand, and the infamous Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.

This is where Ali F.Mostafa comes in. He has led the way for change in showing the Emirates in film, having been recognized as Best Emirati Filmmaker at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) and having won the Young Filmmaker of the Year Award at the Digital Studio Awards 2010.

Mostafa directed City of Life, the UAE’s first international big-budget feature film and box-office hit, to give audiences a glimpse of life beneath the shiny veneer of life in Dubai. He focuses on the UAE in a more central manner, portraying it in a way he feels is accuratel. He has said, “I was tired of people comparing Dubai to a Disneyland. Most of them take one look at the glitzy buildings and assume it’s an artificial place. My film has none of that. It has real people with real problems. Like any other city in the world, my film shows both the positives and the negatives”.

City of Life was produced and filmed entirely in the UEA, and served to represent the diversity of the city to the international community. It premiered in 2009 at the 6th Dubai International Film Festival. When asked for the reasons why he chose to write and direct the film, Mostafa said, “My film will show the different nationalities and the art industry in Dubai… . I have been told while travelling that Dubai has no soul. This is a chance to show that this is not true.”

Due to the popularity of Dubai as a tourist hotspot and an economic hub, Mostafa is working towards reinstating the cultural dimension of the UEA in the eyes of the global community.

The multilingual film plays on the internationality of Dubai, following the lives of three individuals that are in stark contrast to each other within the city: an Indian taxi driver, a Romanian ballet dancer, and an Emirati adolescent. The multi-ethnic cast represents the coming together of completely different people in a way that is typical of the real Dubai. The film is largely a reflection on class, ambition, and fate. City of Life is an urban drama that explores the consequences that seemingly random interactions can have on different lives.

Mostafa was born in London to an English mother and an Emirati father. He remembers the influence film had on his life from a very young age: “As far as I can remember, I have always been a great fan of films and movies. Especially as a child, since the moment I could pick up a camera, I have been making my own short films with my little brothers and so forth”.

After attending Al Etihad School in Mamzar, Emirates International School, and Al Etihad School in Jumeira, Mostafa enrolled at the London Film School in 2003. He graduated with an MA in Film Technique.

In 2008, Mosfata told an audience at Emirati Night in Dubai the effect that his experience as a young Arab student in the West had on his filmmaking: “[In] the outside world, they don’t receive an accurate portrayal of us — our traditions, and our faith — so I wanted to correct this”.

Mosfata’s work includes his 2005 short film Under the Sun, which was screened at the Dubai International Film Festival and won the Emirates Film Competition in 2006. It follows the life of a 13-year-old Emirati boy during the month of Ramadan. The film was originally aimed at Western audiences, illustrating what life is like for young Emiratis in terms of culture at home, Islam in the media, and everyday education.

Mosfata set up his company AFM Films in 2006 to produce all kinds of film work, from short films, documentaries and corporate films to commercials. Mostafa is setting a trend for future Emirati filmmakers in the industry and blazing a trail that will most certainly pave the way for more truthful reflections of the UAE and the wider Middle East.

Watch the trailer for City of Life: