Khattaf: Emirati brothers Ali and Mohamed Mostafa channel fighting spirit for MMA series

Actor-director pair talk childhood home movies, carving their paths to the top and raising the bar for the UAE's film industry on and off screen

Emirati brothers Ali and Mohamed Mostafa talk about their making their new MMA series Khattaf

Emirati brothers Ali and Mohamed Mostafa talk about their making their new MMA series Khattaf
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Fifteen years ago, director Ali Mostafa revealed his cinematic vision of what Emirati film could be. It was called City of Life a sprawling, multicultural crowd-pleaser – and when it captured audiences' attentions and filled cinemas like no others had, Ali knew that its success marked only the beginning, both for himself and a fledgling industry.

The UAE could be home to stories that unite the world, he believed. Now, six years since he last stepped behind the camera to direct narrative work, he has finally carved out the next step on that journey, with a series unlike any the country has produced before.

The show is called Khattaf, which has its premiere on Abu Dhabi TV on Tuesday, and marks a turning point for the country’s television production. A character-based martial arts drama, it follows an Emirati MMA fighter’s unlikely rise through Asia’s underground fighting scene.

“From City of Life onwards, we were trying to raise the bar for how you make films here," Ali tells The National. "But what happened is that television series kind of stayed the same. With Khattaf, we’re trying to set a new benchmark for Emirati television.

“I want people from across the UAE to watch this series and think: ‘Yeah, we can’. With a limited budget, we pushed ourselves farther than anyone thought possible and produced something truly special.

“I believe Khattaf will show the world that there are no excuses to be able to create something of true quality anywhere in the world that can stand up against the work being made anywhere, for any platform. We want to prove that Emiratis, too, can make great TV shows here that the world will want to watch."

Khattaf, directed entirely by Ali, is ambitious in more ways than one. Filmed in Abu Dhabi and Thailand, the project took months to complete. Gruelling shoots required Ali, his cast and crew to work day and night, filming up to 15 pages of script per day – far beyond the norm.

More importantly, it’s a show that took MMA and the broader world of combat sports seriously, with expertly choreographed fights crafted with a marked realism rarely found in television. All that required actors who needed to be skilled fighters to execute it correctly.

When producer Yasser Hareb asked Ali if he knew an Emirati actor who could lead such a show – who had not only the physical ability but also the acting skill to capture the raw emotion of his harrowing journey – there was only one person that came to mind. Coincidentally, he was also the first actor Ali had worked with, when he was just a child holding a Super 8 camcorder: his brother, Mohamed Faisal Mostafa.

“I knew he was born to play this role,” Ali says.

Mohamed's 30-year journey to a lead role

That may not be mere hyperbole. Though he became the first Emirati actor to appear in a major international streaming series, appearing alongside Idris Elba in the hit Apple TV+ show Hijack last year, his journey in both film and sport started far earlier.

After all, before he could speak – before he could even walk – he was starring in Ali's films.

“When it was just me, I would make films with my toys on a VHS camera,” Ali laughs. "And then when my brothers Mohamed and Omar were born, I got two new cast members for all my creations."

Ali recalls drawing little goatees on young Mohamed to star in his amateur mafia epic Da Mob, or casting him in shorts called Baby Batman and Baby Bond.

Mohamed remembers those days fondly, adding: “Ali’s dream was always to be a movie director. He put me in the films and taught me how to act. I enjoyed it every single time, but I had a fixation on football.”

As he got older, Mohamed appeared in Ali’s films in small roles almost out of habit, while his heart remained on the pitch. Due to his natural athleticism, he found success as a professional goalkeeper for both Al Ain and Al Wasl football clubs. He even had trials for a Premier League club. But a string of serious injuries cut his dream short.

“I pushed and pushed,” Mohamed recalls. "I did everything I could to get there, and I got there, but some things aren’t meant to be. I felt like I was trying to force a door open that wasn’t going to stay ajar for me. I got three head fractures and more.

“I thought, what have I done in my life that makes me feel like I’m as in my element as I do on the pitch? And I thought back to Ali. The only answer was when I was on set shooting. So that’s where I returned to."

It was there that a new ambition began. It’s that drive that landed him the role in Hijack. He played an Emirati flight controller attempting to find a missing woman in Dubai, and the immediate success he found only set his sights higher.

Mohamed says: “I was driving down Sheikh Zayed Road with a friend after Hijack was released, I looked at him, and I pointed to the billboards and I said: ‘That’s going to be me up there.’

“But it was never about just me. It’s about where we come from – what we’re representing. It’s about ourselves, our family and our country. If we can push boundaries, then more people will stand up and say they want to be an actor. I wanted to become a foundational piece for something much bigger.”

Beyond his natural athletic ability, It’s Mohamed’s own story, too, that connects him to the lead character of Khattaf.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but this is a man who goes through a very similar journey to mine," he says. "He ends up alone by himself far away from his comfort zone, and it’s there that he starts to find himself. He learns who he is, he transitions into the man he always was fated to become – the final, better, mature version of himself. I see so many similarities between us."

To perform his own stunts in the series, Mohamed had to push himself harder than he ever had before, whether on set or the field. While his years of Muay Thai and yoga prepared him in some ways, he had to get himself into the shape of a professional fighter. He trained with a man called Najmeddin, or scorpion in English, who also acts in the show.

“There’s a passion that this man had like no one else to make every sequence feel like a true MMA fight," says Ali. "He’s an artist, as well as an actual fighter. His drive pushed all of us."

But as intense as the physical demands were, Mohamed also had to get himself ready to play a true lead role for the first time – putting himself through the gamut of emotions and upping his skill beyond what he thought possible.

Ali says: “I told Mohamed: ‘You’ve never done a lead before. This is a different beast. You have to put this entire thing on your back. Every day.' And he repeated to me: ‘I’m ready.’”

Ali knew that he could handle it and each day of the shoot he pushed his brother as far as he knew he could go. To his surprise, the experience was often just as emotional for him.

“I remember we were shooting a very intense scene at a prison, and there was this incredibly difficult moment when I was screaming to Mohamed from behind the camera to put his entire being into that moment – every emotion,” Ali remembers.

“I started screaming: ‘Cry! Cry!’ and suddenly, I had a flashback. I remembered the first real, properly edited short I ever made in about 1996. I remembered filming one scene with Mohamed. We left it in the bloopers on the VHS, and from behind the camera, I kept yelling at my little brother Mohamed, acting in the scene: ‘Cry! Cry!’”

“We both felt it,” adds Mohamed. “In an instant, we were both pulled back nearly 30 years.”

Ali adds: “Suddenly, we knew how far we’d come together.”

Ali's return to narrative

Ali, too, has had a long journey in film. He followed City of Life with the road dramedy From A to B (2014), produced by Image Nation in Abu Dhabi. Next, he made the apocalyptic action horror film The Worthy (2016), which also featured Mohamed in a supporting role.

But besides one short film, that was his last time crafting narrative behind the camera, as he returned to doing mostly commercial work, awaiting the day he would return to film and television. He wrote City of Life 2 with filmmaker Faisal Hashmi, but it remains in development – though Ali is now more determined than ever to get it off the ground.

Ali says: “Commercial work is different. It’s a job, you know? You’re following someone else’s vision – a client, an agency. I missed narrative. This was probably the most intense four months of my life. The most difficult, challenging work I’ve ever done. But it was by far the most rewarding."

Mohamed adds: “Every day on set, he was floating. I watched him with such joy. It’s remarkable to watch someone do what they love. He’s a born leader and a born artist.”

In many ways, the time away helped him become a better person, Ali says, giving him time to grow as a man, and reflect on his mistakes, both as a filmmaker and a human. He’s not who he was, he says, and he’s now finally ready to be the director he always knew he could become.

Ali says: “I feel like I’m a better version of myself. And then pushing myself through the experience of Khattaf, I feel it’s made me even better. I have so much more patience. I’m quicker. I can problem solve. I have a renewed vigour to do this. I now can’t wait until I’m on a set again."

Ahead of the first episode's launch, Mohamed went to Ali's house in Dubai, so that his older brother could show him a scene he couldn't wait for him to see. It's the most ambitious sequence they attempted – an entire fight, intricately choreographed, captured in only one shot. Ali watched in pure elation. For Mohamed, it was something deeper. He saw how much of himself he'd put into this show, and knew, finally, that it was all worth it.

Mohamed adds: “We put our literal blood, sweat and tears into Khattaf. We have scars to prove how much we gave of ourselves to this. This series is everything we dreamt it could be. I loved every second of it, and I think the world will, too."

Khattaf will air on Abu Dhabi TV on March 26. It is available on demand on the AD TV platform

Updated: March 27, 2024, 1:59 PM