During the 13th edition of the Dubai Film Festival – in the majestic Jumeirah Mina A’Salam hotel, overlooking the sea and the Burj Al Arab – I sat down with pioneering Emirati director Ali F. Mostafa (director of City of Life, the first Emirati feature to be distributed throughout the MENA region and screen around the world) and producer Rami Yasin (Rattle the Cage, Sea Shadow), to learn about genre filmmaking in the Arabic language and making the United Arab Emirates’ first survivalist horror film The Worthy (released this week in UAE cinemas).
Your three films have all occupied different genres, multi-narrative drama (City of Life), road movie (From A to B) and now horror with The Worthy. Was this a conscious choice?
Absolutely. It was a complete conscious choice. The choice was to try and tap into as many genres as possible and make the Arab versions of them. And also selfishly, as well, is to try and better myself as a filmmaker. The more genres you tap into, the more versatile you can try and make yourself, I think the more you can grow as a filmmaker.
And what was it about this moment in time that horror seemed like the right choice, rather than a western for example?
Right, well it was one of those things. I was in the middle of editing and I got given the script by Image Nation, so it was something that was handed to me. I was very much interested in doing a horror, although this I could consider more action / thriller, with horror elements, but I was interested very much in doing a horror, mainly because I wasn’t necessarily a horror fan. I appreciated and respected horror films, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch one.
Was there any particular horrors you did like and had as references?
Oh well, obviously we have all seen The Exorcist, but there is also stuff that even – not necessarily horrors – but the way Hitchcock makes his films definitely has that element. But also when I knew I was getting into this film and having Peter Safran & Steven Schneider attached to it, I would have felt silly had I not seen The Conjuring for example, so I went out of my way to watch The Conjuring – it took me actually two and a half days to watch that film – it was really frightening and because of how well made it was. These guys are at the top of their game so we really have to be at the top of our game when making this film.
In terms of bringing this kind of film to the audience here, were there any responsibilities you felt you had, or any things you wanted to achieve?
It’s the first of its kind I guess, in terms of post-apocalyptic kind of film, but in terms of responsibility is to try and do the best film I can make with the means. Knowing that the audience here are very much fans of Hollywood films – I mean those are the films that really do well in the cinemas here – you have to try and make the film with that sensibility. You have to give them that style, in terms of how the film is produced.
So you’re trying to tap into the appetite?
Yes! 100% Without a doubt. But in Arabic. [laughs]
That leads us onto the development of the script. In terms of creating a film of this nature in Arabic, how did you work through that process?
Rami can help with that, Rami is a producer on the film. The script was handed to us… it was an American script initially, so we were playing around with the script a lot and Rami had a huge input.
Rami Yasin – The first question we asked ourselves was: “if this was in our world and our region, what kind of world would we be living in and where would our world be in 10 years time?” We banked on the stuff we know now of what’s going on around the world and our region; as a region that suffers from water shortage, so that was a great thing to have in there to start with and from there we worked backwards with the characters. Who would these characters be? We actually changed a lot of the characters and their backgrounds, built them up from scratch, changed a lot of the relationships between them. For example, one is the father and his son and daughter: what kind of tension would be between the daughter and her father and the son and his father? The other thing that we wanted to do, both of us, is that we wanted to present very strong female characters in this world, because we said in the future our world is not the same, women are on par with men and they are very strong. In fact we heard a lot of comments yesterday [at the world premiere at Dubai Film Festival] from audiences who said: “we loved the fact that the women were so equal to men in this film…” so that’s an achievement that we felt was great.
After this project what’s your next step?
Ali F. Mostafa – Well Rami and I are currently producing Mohammed Saeed Harib’s first feature film, first live-action film. That’s what’s happening currently. And then next, i’m not too sure. I would like to try and do something – even though our films aren’t considered very ‘high budget’ – I would like to try and do something as more of an experiment to me, with a much lower budget, to see if we could still make a good film.