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The Guardian | Friday 10 April 2009

Cover story City of Life being filmed on Dubai’s Sheikh Zay below, Jason Flemyng and director Ali Mos

‘The responsibility is insane’ Dubai may be one of the wealthiest parts of the world, but it’s never had a film industry – until now. Phil Hoad reports on the production of its first ever big budget movie


re you fucking crazy?”A whole film crew looks aghast as its producer sprints alone up a section of empty motorway, waving his arms and screaming. It’s 11pm, and someone is drooping. The crane arm of a cherry-picker platform tilts nonchalantlyover the road, in front of the 20-car motorcade poised to drive right over that spot. “Raise that thing now!” The brand-new exit ramp has been borrowed for three February nights by the makers of City of Life, Dubai’s first bigbudget film. Part of the insane Scalextric frenzy of the Sheikh Zayed road, the highway that runs between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, this bit of tarmac is where the film’s storylines wrap around each other in a multicultural pileup. Underneath the flyover, next to dormant piles of girders and wiring, are a huddle of Portakabins. This is nothing less than base camp for an attempt to create a film industry out of the sand; a cultural kickstart you can only imagine happening in Dubai. All night, the crash is filmed in sequential segments down the ramp, like giant stop-motion animation. Early on, the crew gather for “blocking” – establishing basic positions in the scene – around a cardboard model road filled with toy cars. “No one talk during this, OK,” says Tim Smythe, the stern producer. A young man sits discreetly among the huddle of technicians, smoking, looking drawn and concerned, a keffiyeh slung around his neck in what might be hipster affectation; except for the fact that, being the film’s writer-director, Ali Faisal Mostafa bin Abdullatif, he actually is an Arab. Son of an Emirati architect and an English florist, Mostafa finds himself, at the age of 27, with only one previous 20-minute short and a handful of commercials to his name, shooting the United Arab Emirates’ first major production (there have only been three other full-length features) and the first with government funding. “The responsibility on my shoulders is insane,” he says, grinning. The hope is that City of Life will create a striking precedent in the fledgling Dubai and Emirati film industry, simply “to make people understand it can be done”, as he puts it. Mostafa’s lead characters are an Indian taxi driver, a Romanian air hostess and a privileged local; he is clearly aiming to give voice to his native city in the same borderless internationalese being spoken by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Fatih Akin. The cast includes Alexandra Maria Lara, Bollywood star Sonu Sood and Jason Flemyng – “not names, but faces” designed to trawl a global demographic. Born and raised locally, Mostafa has no time for the city’s detractors. “The amount of press I’ve read – the majority of it coming from the UK – saying that Dubai is this fake piece of shit, and who the hell does Dubai think it is – talking to the city as if it’s a person. Sometimes I say to myself, they have no idea what the hell they are talking about. [Often] they’ve never visited the city. They’ve never spoken to a local. And [the coverage] sometimes

isn’t just negative, it’s cruel.” Beyond the slip-road film set, the thicket of skyscrapers around Dubai Marina rears up. Mostafa says he wanted to shift the camera away from the luxury enclaves. “The film is a very big commercial for Dubai, but it’s not showing it as a crazy tourist destination, it’s showing it as a real city. It’s showing the rich, the superrich, the middle-class, the poor and the dead poor.” He mentions filming in Satwa, a down-at-heel district full of mechanics’ shops that had been earmarked as next for the bulldozer. “It was one of the things that I wanted to capture, because once it’s gone, it’s gone for ever.” The global economic crisis has saved Satwa for the time being, but it could also have done for City of Life. After a two and a half years fundraising from sponsors such as Nakheel (the real-estate company behind the infamous offshore Palms) and government quango DIFC Lifestyle Group, there was a minor panic in December. With Dubai’s finances looking precarious, the production company Filmworks had to put together a “rescue plan” to reassure investors. The rumour is that City of Life will cost $5m-$7m, but no one wants to confirm the exact amount – an odd level of reticence in a town notorious for its extravagant approach to almost everything. But realestate-drunk Dubai has never quite got its head around the film game. The city started a film festival in 2004, but with little homegrown Emirati work to showcase, it has had trouble building international credibility. Soundstage facilities at Dubai Studio City are still way behind schedule. Ironically, there is a mushrooming cinema audience in the UAE. There were only 40 screens in Dubai in 2003; now there are around 100. At any given time, about 75% of them will be occupied with Hollywood fodder, with a smattering of Bollywood, Iranian films and Egyptian comedy – but, of course, nothing Emirati. But, again, the grassroots are teeming: college film courses are booming, and Tanya Wagner, Filmworks’ head of PR, was struck by a room full of women, potentially the next generation of film-makers, firing questions at Oliver Stone at December’s film festival. Here’s the whole paradox: there is no urgent need to build the infrastructure without the films, but the films won’t come without the infrastructure. Smythe, a South African who has been working in the Middle East for 10 years, is hoping to sever this Gordian knot with City of Life. He and his Filmworks staff have been trying to use his experience from germinating Johannesburg’s film industry in the 90s for an even tougher round of cultural terraforming. It’s been frustrating. “I thought we’d be much

No one is sure who the film’s ‘fixer’ works for; some speculate

further down the line,” he says. “I thought what’s taken us 10 years to do would take five.” There have even been setbacks in the last few weeks: the gargantuan $1bn deal that neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi signed with Warner Bros in 2007 to develop film properties is being “renegotiated”. Everyone is still waiting for Abu Dhabi’s film commission, intended to galvanise film-making across the UAE, to begin operating in October. Meantime, desert locations remain the city’s sole trump card: Syriana and The Kingdom, with Smythe’s help, both shot in Dubai. With high living costs draining production costs and its thorny censorship laws, you might not blame Joe Hollywood for thinking the weather in Romania doesn’t look so bad after all. But choose Dubai, and what you certainly need is a fixer. I’m introduced to Nasr, a sturdy, cheerful Yemeni in traditional dress who is connected to the city police force. Nasr trades in the key lubricant here: not oil (Dubai never had much anyway), but wasta. There remains a distrust of the written word among Emiratis, and much gets settled by spontaneous agreement; wasta can be translated as “connections”, the inside influence needed to get institutions on side. Earlier today, it was Nasr who got the lights switched on above this virgin bit of tarmac. I ask if fixing is difficult work. He folds his arms, smiles and says, gnomically, “This business is power, and your heart strong.” Getting results isn’t easy, even when you’re from other Arab countries. Ramy, the Lebanese casting supervisor, sparks up another cigarette, says he’s going to quit smoking after what has been a tough shoot. He reckons the Emirati families who dominate society here are “embarrassed” to be seen on film, which makes it difficult to cast local actors. Other people disagree about the stigma, some saying it just means age-old parental anxiety about their kids’ job choices. Saoud al-Ka’abi, who plays Faisal, the film’s rich Emirati, is from one of the families in question, and

as the presenter of the Gulf region’s most popular TV programme, al-Maidan (a kind of Arab Pop Idol based around a traditional dance), is a bona fide Arab celebrity. On the screen since he was nine, he has no qualms about fame. “It’s something in the blood now – I can’t live without it. I’m trying to get more and more into this thing.”


ut it’s not in everyone’s blood in the Gulf, and the lack of working Emirati actors could be linked to a kind of self-consciousness about a modern medium among people who, 50 years ago, were still leading tribal, desert lives. Among other things, cinema has compatibility issues with Qur’anic culture, which is primarily oral, not visual. Nayla al-Khaja, the UAE’s only female film producer, explains: “In Islam, it says you can’t show a picture of a human being full-body, because it shows vanity. And the moving pictures is worse, because you become immortalised and become a superstar. You become more important than the Prophet.” The censorship body, the National Media Council, doesn’t do hard metaphysics, but everything filming in the country is subject to script approval. With some tinkering, the City of Life script passed. But there are eyes everywhere, real and imagined. On set, no one is sure who Nasr works for. Some speculate whether he is actually secret police, and hanging around to observe as much as assist. Mostafa is nervous about the first screening, at which his benefactors will be present and expecting. “The council said, ‘Ali, if a western person was going to come here and do a film about locals and it was negative, well, it’s through a westerner’s eyes. But if a local person is doing it, it has to be true.’” Film-makers, though, tend to have different ideas about truth from politicians – and, until the new film commission sets a code of practice, it’s their job to fight

the council, film by film. It’s the same battle for self-expression as countries – but Dubai’s blend of w style capitalism and Islamic r boundaries even more. Its film-makers, whether they like it or not, have of resolving this clash between moderni and tradition. Antonia Carver, a progr mer at the Dubai Interna festival, says the cultur clearly apparent. One film-making (Reflections, led by Waleed al-Shehhi, from neighbouring emirate Ras al-

Emiratis have think there’s a lot of trying to mak of what has happened before we mov forward,” Carver says. No wonder Emira all under 35 and lacking an – band supportively into tightly kni collectives: Mostafa is good friends wi al-Khaja, 31, as well as M another preternaturally confident tyro The atmosphere on the Ci amazingly easygoing and friendly less blend of 30 nationalities; a hopeful sign fr showing it “can be done to be a modern Dubai, speakin world after its adolescent grow full-voiced for the first time. It’s now 5.30am, and Mostafa is still trying to get his eight-lane, w vision straigh fitted with an air-pressure “bomb” tha will flip it on to its back. Helga from makeup frets about fitting the wig on to the dumm that will sit beside the stuntman: “All I need is for it to fall off, and that’ of my career.” A fine mist filters in fr the sea through the skyscrapers; a cry g up, warning about continuity. Mostafa lines the cars up again at ramp and prepares for the biggest shot his career. It’s “We need to take that step and show tha we are not people who are selfand try to hide in a bubble. We’re not.”


My trip to the Middle East's own pop-up metropolis in February 2009, to see them kickstart their film industry just as their economy was beg...