City of Life

Bold and almost controversial, City of Life is the dawn of an era in UAE as a cinema producing market.

Premiering at the 2009 Dubai International Film Festival, this is the first feature film by Emirati director Ali F Mostafa. Besides co-producing the film, Mostafa also wrote the original script which paints an almost true to life portrait of life in Dubai. The screenplay shuffles between a struggling Indian taxi driver (Basu) and his ambitions of setting foot in the Bollywood film industry, a Romanian ballet dancer working as a flight attendant (Natalia) for a prominent Dubai based airline and a wealthy young Emirati (Faisal) caught between preserving his cultural identity and maintaining his family’s reputation. Unknown to each other, the lives of these three individuals are destined to collide, resulting in shattered dreams, a knock of opportunity and a tragic awakening.

Not just a well penned story, City of Life is a plausible day in the life of an expatriate or UAE national or almost any Tom, Dick and Harriet living in Dubai. For this, Mostafa builds his story around the lives of individuals whose cultural identities and way of life form the very cogs that drive this city- the ambitious Indian expat, the highly social European expat, and the privileged UAE national. As a whole, the film is not ground breaking in terms of production value, but it is soul stirring, especially if like me, you have been raised in this country. Recognizable are some of the locations used for filming, starting with Basu’s room in Al Karama, Natalia and her Russian colleague in Jumairah, Faisal’s best friend, Khalfan’s residence in the shanty parts of old Satwa and various other locations that are identifiable, including Dubai International Airport and the Emirates Training College. Although visible in some scenes and on the movie poster, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, was not given proper screen time as the tower was not entirely complete at the time of this film’s release.

Made from a shoe string budget and lacking expertise from big named studios, an independent production like this always faces the risk of a hit or miss. For the sake of all things that are real and beautiful in Dubai, I am compelled to say that this is a well-made film and an instant hit with the multi-cultural and multi-lingual residents of Dubai and the surrounding Emirates. Mostafa’s storytelling has an inner meaning, complete with a few moral messages. One of these is the strong suggestion that Dubai is not skin deep, or a fake place, or a bubble about to burst, but an authentic city where growth and opportunities await those determined enough to rise to the challenge. On the flip side, there also awaits a fair share of tragedy for those who are misguided victims of temptation or over indulgence. This is where Mostafa excels in portraying the real Dubai as opposed to outside perception. For the most part, he gets it right. There are, however, certain points in the plot that are too coincidental. Additionally, there is the overbearing cliché where Dubai is projected as a ‘cultural melting plot’ a suggestive phrase used in countless travel brochures and advertisements meant for importing tourism.

Onto the production front and we have a mostly decent attempt at contemporary cinema. Cinematography is a factor that definitely appears to have been given considerable thought. Close-ups are plenty in low light, without much depth of field (blurry background). Most major landmarks out of Dubai’s cityscapes appear to be in some frame or the other. Special effects are almost non-existent except for a particular scene towards the end which does bear the trademarks of mainstream cinema. However, action scenes involving fight sequences seem below average or worse than some made-for-TV productions. In the confines of a character driven film, acting is not exactly Oscar material, but decent enough as Mostafa’s directional debut. Bollywood actor Sonu Sood fits into the role of the Indian taxi driver with ease. Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara could have been better in her role as Natalia especially after her claim to fame with the Academy Award nominated film, Downfall. Playing Emarati youths are Saoud Al Kaabi as Faisal and Yassin Alsalman (AKA the Narcisyst) as Khalfan in standout roles, and are very convincing as carefree young Emaratis living off family wealth. Canadian musician of Iraqi origin but born and raised in the UAE, The Narcisyst has one of the best roles in the film as Faisal’s trusted friend. Last but not least is some great stuff from Jason Flemyng as Natalia’s love interest. Of course, no introduction is needed for a veteran Hollywood actor such as Flemyng.

In its sum, City of Life is a memorable film being that it is the first of its kind in the UAE. Its story and message is bold yet controversial. As a story, it pits together ambition, privilege, opportunity, tragedy and shame, some of which are experienced by all Dubai residents at some point or the other. The credit for depicting these trials and triumphs with affluent storytelling belongs to Ali F Mostafa. And by the look and feel of this film, I am certain Mostafa has set the standard for things to come, as this is not just a beautiful film, but a monumental moment in UAE history.

Rating: ★★★½☆


About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.