City Of Life, the first full-length feature film shot in the UAE, is about to open in cinemas across the Gulf after wowing audiences here. Its star, Saoud al Kaabi, tells Ola Salem how the movie has changed his life and put another side of Dubai in the spotlight.
After five missed calls and what seem like a constant engaged tone, I finally get a rushed answer from one of the UAE's most sought-after celebrities. Saoud Hamad al Kaabi tells me he is busy, very busy - not just today, but every day. Since the release of the film City Of Life, in which he stars, he is more in demand than ever. The movie, shot entirely in Dubai, has been hailed as signalling the arrival of first-class filmmaking in the Emirates. It tells three interwoven stories: Faisal, al Kaabi's character, is a rich Emirati unmotivated to do anything useful with his life; Basu is an Indian taxi driver dreaming of being a Bollywood star; and Natalia Moldovan is a Romanian girl who just wants to fall in love. Despite their disparate lives, the three come together, showing that the apparent distance between them is illusionary.
City Of Life explores a side of Dubai most people never see, away from the gleaming high-rise buildings and luxury hotels. It shows the harsh way migrant workers live, as well as portraying local people torn between tradition and the modern world. It was written, produced and directed by Ali F Mostafa, the 29-year-old son of an Emirati architect and an English florist. He and his team were braced for a backlash because of the film's depiction of gang warfare in Dubai, Emiratis drinking alcohol and sex outside marriage. "I personally do not think it shows any negativity about the city," he says. "It shows a reality. It puts Dubai on a par with real cities such as London, Paris and New York. We have problems just like everyone else. I hope with this film and future films that people's minds will open up and they will start to invest in such projects in the future."
After the success of the film it looks probable they will. About 80,000 people in the UAE have seen it in the three months since its release in April, twice the number anticipated by Tim Smythe, its producer. As a result of such popularity, it is being released this week in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. In addition, it may soon have an international release date after it was picked up by the distribution company Shoreline Entertainment at Cannes. Not bad for a film that struggled for distribution and screenings on its home turf, much to its young director's frustration. There was a lot of angst that the film would not be accepted culturally, but with support from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the film was finally released.
"It was a lot of work but at least we know we have made it easier for the next guy," Mostafa said in an interview with The National earlier this year. "I knew from the beginning I was going to be walking on dangerous ground making a film like City Of Life and I had to appeal to the National Media Council constantly for about six months before I started making it." Al Kaabi, the film's leading man, makes no apology for its subject matter.
"It is about the multicultural life we lead here in Dubai and shows the people as they are," he says. "These stories are very true and are happening every single day here, the film is very close to reality. It also advertises Dubai in a way and shows what life here is really like." Al Kaabi, 24, who was brought up in Al Ain, says: "The fear that it would never be accepted was present all the time, but the story is very close to reality. I am not saying that everyone in Dubai is like this, but a lot of them are. The story of Faisal is based on a true story that happened to one of the director's friends. I took this opportunity as a challenge and experience.
"Sheikh Mohammed gave us the green light for the movie. We knew this would help change many people's stereotypical views of Arabs and the UAE and understand that it's not just camels and sand." Although Al Kaabi had never acted, Mostafa knew that as a TV presenter he was one of the best known faces in the Arab world. Al Kaabi works for the TV station Sama Dubai and although the character of Faisal isn't based on him, Mostafa did write the script knowing the presenter was the person he wanted to play Faisal.
"Now I really do feel famous, even though I have worked on TV as a presenter for 15 years. Before only people from GCC countries would recognise me. Now though, when I go to the mall, Indians, Russians and English people, people of all nationalities, recognise me and stop me. TV fame is nothing compared with movie fame. "Ali told me that when he wrote the script he knew I would play Faisal, but he only came to me after he had all the funds in place and everything was ready. That is when it hit me; this movie was going to be big.
"I didn't know who Ali Mostafa was before he called me," says Al Kaabi, who now counts him as one of his closest friends. "But when he asked me if I wanted to act I said, why not?" Acting came easily to him. "Ali Mostafa is a great director; he knows exactly what he wants and how to do it. He would first get us in the mood then we would start filming. "As a presenter you are presenting yourself. As an actor, you are presenting someone else. Fifty per cent of the character of Faisal is similar to mine."
At this point, Al Kaabi tries to set the record straight having raised some awkward questions at an earlier press conference by emphasising the similarities between him and Faisal. "I said his character is close to mine. So someone asked me if I drink. I don't and it was all very embarrassing. There are some similarities, though," he says, smiling, leaving us to guess what they might be. Portraying a drinker did not faze Al Kaabi's family, who trust him to make his own career decisions, and he had warned them what the movie was about.
"I told them the film would include foul language, drinking, smoking and so on, but they knew it was just acting. My family doesn't interfere with my work; they believe in what I do. I did very well in my university work so they cannot say anything." Al Kaabi, who recently graduated from American University in Sharjah, adds: "My father used to tell me as long as I am doing well in my studies, he would not tell me to stop working."
The biggest challenge that the film threw him was the scene in which he had to cry. "What made it worse was that it was my birthday and we had a small party, me in my costume with fake blood all over, and then half an hour later they needed me to cry for the scene. That was so hard. But I did it in the end. Don't ask how, I don't know. "I assure you that when you see this scene you will cry," he says. "Many women, especially older women, who came out after seeing the film came and talked to me and I could see their chihal [eyeliner] running down their face from where they had been crying."
Al Kaabi's TV debut came at the age of nine, after he was discovered at a children's conference. "I was very naughty at school and I always did the school announcements. Then at the age of nine, I represented the UAE in an Arab Child Forum in Dubai. "I have been working in television since then. I started in children's programmes and, when I was 15, I moved on to teenage programmes. Now I am a presenter."
He has already started making plans for his next film. "We are planning a new movie with Ali Mostafa, but this time it will be a scary one. We are still unsure about the location - either Dubai or Abu Dhabi. "This has been a big step in my life, but it is just the beginning for the cinema industry in the UAE, which can reach an international audience. "I think the UAE will be an excellent base for filmmaking and it will be interesting to see the different perspectives and stories future directors in this region bring to the screen - there are a lot of things to tell about life here."
With youth on his side, projects in the pipline and the Emirates' fledgling film industry poised to take flight, the future looks exciting for al Kaabi - if he can fit it all in, that is