The very first big-budget feature to come out of the United Arab Emirates, Ali F Mostafa's "City of Life"'s world premiere was the talk of the Dubai International Film Festival this weekend. While the country turns out 60-70 short films a year, and seven domestic features are screening at DIFF, none of them have been close to the budget of "Life" (Dh26 million, or US$7 million), or its potential for controversy. The festival was vocally supportive despite the film taking on topics like alcohol, sex out of marriage, and gangs - each considerably taboo for this country and the region generally.
"He's the son of the Dubai International Film Festival," festival head Masoud Amralla Al-Ali said of Mostafa at a press conference prior to the screening.
Dubai audiences seemed equally interested. The first screening - as the festival's Arabian Nights Gala - was completely sold out, and left festival organizers scrambling to find seats for people with official invitations.
Mostafa - who showed his first film at the Dubai's inaugural fest six years ago, has become quite the name in the UAE film industry. After attending London Film School, his student short "Under The Sun" showed at festivals worldwide, and in 2007 he was named best Emirati filmmaker here at DIFF. Just prior to "Life"'s screening, he sat down with indieWIRE at the Al Qasr Hotel in Dubai to discuss the film, certainly one of the most anticipated films of the festival.
"My inspiration for this film was from films that I like with this formula, and at the same time, the city of Dubai itself, which is perfect for that formula," Mostafa said. "Which is the same as in films like 'Crash' and 'Magnolia' and 'Amores Perros.' I love those type of films, where there's a lot of coincidences and a lot of serendipity."
Like those films, "Life" - with the tagline "Everything Happens For a Reason" - follows various folks from various walks of life: A privileged Emiraiti man (Saoud Al Kaabi), a disillusioned Indian taxi driver (Sonu Sood), a Europrean flight attendant (Alexandra Maria Lara)... All of whose lives end up colliding and impacting one another.
"If I wanted to make a film in Dubai, that type of formula suits this city best. Because the amount of nationalities that we have here - we end up connecting in each other's lives, without even knowing it - it is a fantastic thing. That's where the inspiration came from."
Mostafa said that financing the film was quite difficult. "No one in Dubai is going [to throw] money at film," he explained. "It's never really been done here. They don't know what to expect or not to expect. Their best bet is real estate and things like that."
So Mostafa tried to "use what was in the script to his advantage," and sought out product placement deals.
"Dubai spends a lot of money on advertising," he said. "So I said 'hey, I'm shooting in so-and-so location and your corporation is gonna be on screen... would you invest in this film?' So the idea was getting this brand placement in the film and at the same time having them get the exposure of supporting what this film means. It was almost like a win-win situation."
Mostafa managed to find 25-30% of the budget from these deals, with the rest of the budget made up from "silent investment."
He also admitted that while the film certainly contained content that pushed UAE boundaries, he held back to a degree.
"Especially with your first film, you can't go as deep as you would like," he said. "Number one, it's the first film and you want to make more. I scratched the surface a little bit. The surface of controversy. You don't necessarily have to make a film more real than what I tried to portray here."
When asked about Dubai's much-reported migrant-labour underbelly - a topic the film has been criticized for not delving deeply enough into - Mostafa was much more reserved.
"No comment," he said after a long pause. "Sorry... I'm not a diplomat. I'm not going to be saying the right things, so I'm not going to comment."
[The Dubai International Film Festival continues through Thursday. indieWIRE will continue reporting on the scene.]