Emirati film director Ali Mostafa talks about his “three p” philosophy when it comes to filmmaking: passion, perseverance, and patience
BIG KAHUNA FILMS, the award-winning creative production house based in Dubai and Beirut, is proud to support creativity across the Middle East. Over the coming months, as part of our sponsorship of LBB’s Middle East edition, we’ll be speaking to some of the great minds driving creativity forward across the region.
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to pioneering Emirati film director Ali Mostafa to hear more about his experience directing film City of Life (2009), his collaborations with Netflix and why filmmaking has been his passion from early childhood.
LBB> Tell us more about your childhood - where did you grow up and how much did creativity play a role in your early years?
Ali> My father is Emirati (from Dubai) and my mother is English (from London) so I was born in London but grew up in Dubai. London was a second home as we spent all our summers there. Creativity was always a part of my life from drawings to making stop motion animation with my toys as a child. I figured out how to make stop motion animation after watching how the skeletons moved in that scene from Jason and the Argonauts. After that I used my younger brothers to make short films like baby Batman and baby Bond and quite a bit of action stuff with home-made special effects. Making amateur films took pretty much all my time.
LBB> You did a Master’s at London Film School, what was the experience like and what your biggest learnings during that time.
Ali> As said earlier I made amateur films. And that’s putting it lightly! The best thing about joining the film school was how practical it was and how they taught you the skills that are required to make a film. As I knew I always wanted to direct I made sure I did every other role as a crew member to gain the experience and appreciation to what my future crew would be responsible for. I believe it has helped me a lot as a director too.
LBB> What were your first steps in the UAE directing scene?
Ali> My graduation short film was the first Emirati film to be shot on celluloid (16mm). It came as a big shock to me when I discovered that. It goes to show how new this all was in my country. This industry was non-existent, even though the commercial industry had been booming for a while. I got myself on those sets, helping in all departments initially to then becoming a third, to second to first assistant director. Eventually I directed my first spec commercial which got me in the door to start directing more.
LBB> What does the industry look like in UAE, what are some of the most prominent trends you're noticing in recent years?
Ali> The industry definitely has grown since my first feature City of Life released in 2009. More films are being made and we’ve managed to create more incentives and better infrastructure.
LBB> Tell us about your most challenging project and also your favourite project? What made them that for you?
Ali> My most challenging definitely was my first film (City of Life) as it was literally the first of its kind in Dubai, so everything was a new paving stone and challenge in itself. I love being on set, but I think I had the most fun making the road trip dramady From A to B.
LBB> Your first film won you an award at the Dubai Film Festival, how important is this industry recognition for you?
Ali> Recognition like that of course is a great honour. It definitely helped with PR but it’s not something that motivates me. I would rather a film get seen in the theatre than a festival. I’d rather it be enjoyed by an audience rather than a critic. To me films are simply made to be seen by as many people as possible. And not necessarily for the accolades.
LBB> Tell us about The Worthy, and for you, how it feels to have a film released on such a prominent platform as Netflix?
Ali> I’m very lucky to have three films on Netflix, two of which I directed and one I produced. The worthy however was the first film where I was hired only as a director. Usually, I write and produce my films so it was a great experience having to direct someone else’s script. I also got to work with two of the top producers of that genre - Steven Schneider (Paranormal Activity) and Peter Safran (The Conjuring). It also landed me a presentation in LA with UTA.
LBB> Since you began your career, what have been the biggest changes in the industry up to now? Where do you see those heading in the future?
Ali> I am very happy to see how the censorship board have become so much more open minded. It was tough in the beginning and needed a lot of convincing but now it’s become so much more lenient. If you’re going to try and set out to have a film industry, it’s very important to have an understanding and open-minded censorship committee. It wouldn’t work otherwise.
LBB> Where do you draw your biggest inspirations? Has this changed over the years?
Ali> It really all depends. Inspiration changes for me all the time so yes it does change. One day I’d love to do a historical epic and a week later I’d love to do a short film about a vampire. The mind is constantly excited to create and discover. What I do now is that I’d love to explore all genres to really figure out which one I find suits me the most.
LBB> What is the best advice you can give to young filmmakers or creatives that want to pursue directing?
Ali> Well first things first, if this is something you want to pursue, you’re going to have to be a little bit crazy. I say this because you are knowingly going into a very unsustainable and unpredictable world. Once you pass that stage of fear, you’re literally going to need what I call the three P’s. The first one is passion - without it, don’t even bother. It’s what drives you to be doing what you do, it’s your fuel. The second is perseverance. You will have so many doubters and doors closing in your face that this is the other thing that’ll keep you going. Stay strong. Last is patience, this is very important. It took me six years to make my first feature and has taken others longer. Nothing comes quickly in this world. At least when you are first starting anyway. But again, extremely unpredictable.
LBB> Outside of your work, what do you love doing the most and what are your hobbies?
Ali> I love spending time with my kids, I love to see the world, and I like to stay fit. But one of my passions is designing motorbike interiors. I’m a bit of a petrol head and have designed a few one of one custom motorcycles for my collection.