Review: City of Life by Ali F. Mostafa

I finally watched City of Life earlier today, an Emirati movie that's been getting a lot of buzz over here since it's premiere at the last Dubai International Film Festival in December 2009.

I’ve been hearing mixed reviews for the past few months and was worried there would be blind love and support for this movie just because it was made here and not for its quality and content.

Thankfully I was wrong, it deserves all the positive support it’s getting because it is a very well-made movie. As for the negative feedback, the less constructive kind, well, that isn’t deserved. Especially if it is bashing stating the movie isn’t an accurate depiction of the city. I like to refer to this group of people as the Traditional Delusionalists who either have no idea what goes on in this city or are in complete denial.

Contrary to popular belief, City of Life isn't the first feature film from the United Arab Emirates, but it is the first full feature film that is the most accessible and can stand on its own in any cinema, in any city without having to depend on regional or international film festivals to be seen.

I say accessible because it gives a great insight into what this city is all about. It reflects the multi national population – the movie is in 3 languages - and doesn’t just stick to the glitz and glamour side of Dubai (without making it feel like it's sponsored by Dubai Tourist Board).  It also shows that life can be harsh here, that we all struggle in our own way - struggle to cope, to find true happiness, content and to find opportunities to follow your dreams. It shows how Dubai’s fast pace life can also make you feel isolated and longing to feeling like you belong. Thankfully this isn’t the Emirati versus non-Emirati, locals versus expatriates story line. It is about Dubaians and the daily choices they make in this city.

We have Faisal (Suood Al Kaabi who started work in the TV industry from the age of 9) the young rich Emirati man from a privileged family, leading a vacant life of fast cars, late nights and not having any real aspirations. He finds some kind of meaning and even excitement when he spends time with his childhood friend, Khalfan (Yassin Al Salman aka The Narcicyst, a great first role for him) a poorer Emirati, street smart with a loud mouth and low tolerance level that normally lands him in trouble and street fights.

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Then we have Natalia (played with heart by Alexandra Maria Lara) a Romanian flight attendant that wants to do something more meaningful in her life. Opposite to Olga (superbly played by Natalie Dormer), her Russian friend and colleague who is an opportunist wanting to live the highlife that Dubai promises all young people when they are lured to this city.

Guy is the sleazy charmer advertising executive (convincingly played by Jason Flemyng) that unfortunately many fall for in this city and Basu (played with subtlety and strength by Sonu Sood) the taxi driver with dreams of making it big in Bollywood.

But my favourite and probably the most important character in this movie is the quiet and lone cyclist that is seen throughout the movie. Is he merely a silent observer, a sign of hope or the conscience of this city?

Albeit the characters are somewhat stereotypical and predictably all their paths cross each other, these characters do exist in this town and I dare anyone to disagree. When their paths meet, it is done in a way that doesn’t intrude on each other’s story, a reflection of the lack of real intermingling and interaction between different groups of people in Dubai - a reflection of segregation we are almost used to and think of as normal.

I absolutely loved the opening scene following the lone cyclist all around the city (can't remember how long it lasts) and the angle it was filmed from. It truly does give you a great overview of what's in his city, a better job than any Dubai Bus Tour can do.

[Spoiler alert] The car accident scene, was skillfully shot – and unfortunately we are exposed to lethal car accidents almost daily here. The majority of us in this town have been impacted in one way or another by losing someone to car accidents here, senseless deaths that have yet to see a decline. It was heartbreaking to see Faisal standing outside a house entrance, all bloodied and tearful, feeling shame and not ready to break the devastating news to a family that have lost their only son, only brother, only provider.

Normally, when I watch a movie that shows a city I know, I am happy to see the familiar scenes and the personal memory it can bring. But I was overjoyed to be able to see my hometown in a movie, showing places and references that go beyond the tourist guidebook. The soundtrack is just as eclectic as this city, featuring many Dubai based talented musicians and songwriters, plus some of The Narcicyst's own songs.

City of Life shows it is the survival of the fittest if you want to make it in this town, but once in a while the good guy wins. I am happy to see the way Dubai is portrayed in this movie and whether it’s the Dubai we like or not, it is an accurate and most importantly an honest depiction.

City of Life is a true story even though the names and places have been changed to protect the innocent (or guilty).

The movie is still playing in the UAE, so check your local cinema listing. There are plans of future release dates within the rest of the Gulf and hopefully rest of the world. Watch out for it in festival circuits too.