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Why Ali F. Mostafa loves to travel

The British-Emirati director talks to Debonair about his wanderlust and cinematic vision

I have to see everything and experience everything because I think it improves me as a filmmaker.

When Ali F. Mostafa released City of Life, the world put down its popcorn and paid attention to the emergence of a major new talent.

Now an ambassador for luggage brand Tumi, Mostafa is inspired by new places and can’t resist making mini movies in his head wherever he goes.

All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely actors; / They have their entrances and exits…

We all know how this most famous of monologues goes. But there’s one person who buys into Shakespeare’s sentiment more than most: Ali F. Mostafa. 

For the breakthrough British-Emirati filmmaker, Jacques’ lines in As You Like It are no mere metaphor. Rather, Mostafa actually sees the world as an enormous film set. One giant canvas waiting to have stories splashed onto it with his filmmaker’s brush. 

“I construct movie scenes in my head all the time,” the well-groomed 36-year-old director tells Debonair as we discuss his penchant for travelling, and — fittingly — his appointment as a global ambassador for luggage brand Tumi. “It’s how I see the world. It’s how I’ve always seen the world. 

“When you’re in, I don’t know, a crazy alley in Bucharest for example, it feels like a movie scene to me,” he enthuses. “My imagination goes wild. You meet someone, have a conversation, meet someone else, talk about their life experiences.” 

I have to see everything and experience everything because I think it improves me as a filmmaker.

Quite what he’s doing pottering about in crazy Romanian alleyways we’ll put down to the wanderlust phenomenon that drives most travellers.

But the more fascinating, and less questionable thing here is Mostafa’s curiosity with the world’s untold narratives. Especially the unique Western-meets-Middle Eastern narrative that he is part of: both British and Emirati.

Just before the launch of City of Life, in 2008, Mostafa said at Emirati Night: “In the outside world, they don’t receive an accurate portrayal of us — our traditions, our faith — so I wanted to correct this.”

The warts-and-all expression of life in Dubai conveyed a hitherto unseen Arabic perspective of the world, an unheard Emirati voice; but an authentic and important one, nonetheless.

Tired of the hackneyed preconceptions of the UAE and comparisons of Dubai to Disneyland, Mostafa sought to debunk the fairy-tale myths of the city of shifting sands and instead presented a gritty realism of the mishmash of cultural identities the emirate comprises as well as looking at the hardships and problems faced by some of its expatriate residents. 

As much as being a well-shot social drama that examined Dubai’s culture, the landmark City of Life was a statement of intent: one that sent Mostafa’s rising star into the filmmaking firmament.

The director says he has been making films since he was just nine years old, experimenting with short film and adverts with a small handheld camera. Some 25 years later, he is considered the prominent forerunner of the Gulf’s burgeoning filmmaking industry.

Since spearheading the UAE’s first big budget international feature nine years ago, Mostafa now has two more feature films under his belt — the road movie From A to B (2013) and the thriller The Worthy (2016) — as he works his way through the cinematic genres, from social drama, comedy and now onto post-apocalyptic horror. Which begs the question: which genre next? For now, he’s tight-lipped on the topic.

His latest film, The Worthy — released last year, is notable for several reasons. It’s the first Arabic post-apocalyptic thriller of international note. It became the first Arabic movie to be featured in the 4DX format at Vox Cinemas. But perhaps most significantly, the film premiered at the BFI London Film Festival — a first for an Emirati production, which demonstrates the global reach Mostafa’s work is garnering.

Having this extended reach across the planet has allowed Mostafa to enjoy his travels. And travel invokes the creative spirit within him, he says. 

Just as well he’s “ridiculously good at packing”, then. “I’m very efficient.” A trait that should stand him in good stead as one of Tumi’s global brand ambassadors. “But I always make sure I pack one suit,” he explains, “because you never know when you might need it. Eighty per cent of the time I never wear it but there was a time where I really needed it. If you need a suit and you don’t have one, you don’t want to go and buy a suit, you want to wear your own.”

A tip we’re happy to take on board. 

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When seeing the world, which he seems to do extensively (just this year he’s been to Moscow, Tokyo, Hong Kong, the Maldives, Thailand, Kyoto — Japan was “great”, even if “it was so hard to travel there as nobody spoke English and the signs don’t work”; he was “stupidly impressed by Hong Kong”) Mostafa says he’s always on the lookout for his next idea, his next story, whatever the setting.

“Whenever I travel, I take a few hours and go alone to the darkest alleys or the slums,” he says. “I have to see everything and experience everything because I think it improves me as a filmmaker. My films are based on real people and real situations, so I feel like I need to know these things.”

Any scary moments? “There have been a few close calls. But they’ve always turned out great, with a conversation and a laugh. Then I have a story to tell my friends.”

He’s also well versed on the States, and remembers his first — “surreal” — introduction to California. There’s not a ton of history there and because we’ve all seen LA so much in movies it felt like a film set in a strange way.”

That said, the film capital of the Western world has grown on him. But Hollywood, he notes in a changed tone, is just “an experience”. We ask him to elaborate.

“I once stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt because I wanted to actually stay in Hollywood. That was an experience. I wouldn’t do that again. It was a bit too loud — in every sense of the word. I was sitting by the pool on a sunbed and a random dude came and sat on my sunbed having a conversation with his friend in the pool. He was so close to me, he was almost sitting on my toe. It was weird,” Mostafa says, adding that he’s excited about visiting San Francisco for the first time this year.

But for all the blockbuster allure of the States, his home away from home will always be London, owing to his mother’s British heritage. “It’s home for me,” he notes reflectively. “I was born there and my mum is from London. 

“I just love the city. Our family home is on the River Thames near Windsor. The kids love it there, we have a boat and we go up and down on the river. It’s nice to wake up to the birds, as opposed to sirens in the city.” 

He reinforces this by emphasising a penchant for natural beauty. “My dad has a place in south west Ireland, on the coast near Dingle, and every time I go there I think it’s beautiful. There’s not much to do except go for walks. There’s a farm nearby so we go and see the sheep being dipped, milk the cows. It’s very calming. 

“Ireland is a great place for relaxation,” he says wistfully. It also sounds like the perfect location for a period drama. Should that happen, remember where you heard it first.

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