Ali F Mostafa is sitting at his desk looking at his computer screen. What’s playing is not the rushes of his new blockbuster, but a documentary of his trip to Mali as a guest of Oxfam, the global aid agency, and Dubai Cares. A faint smile plays on his lips, and his normally intense look softens.
It’s obvious that the film brings back great memories for Ali. “I guess my trip there enlightened me to a point where I am always thinking about it,” he says. “So now it’s always in the forefront as opposed to being in the background of my thoughts. Did it change me? Certainly, it enlightened me. It’s made me realise that I can do more, because I’ve met the children, met the people. I’ve stepped into their classrooms, seen the conditions. It gives me a lot more motivation to do something than just sitting here and thinking about it.”
The terrible conditions he’s referring to in Africa’s Sahel region stem from erratic rainfall, escalating food prices and water shortages, and affect more than 18 million people across Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Gambia, Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria and Chad. Domestic conflict in many countries compound the problems.
Experts warn that West and Central African nations could face a repeat of previous food crises in 2005, 2008 and 2010, the last of which affected more than 10 million people.
It’s this crisis that is the focus of Ali’s new video appeal for Oxfam, which calls for help to combat the food crisis. The one-minute video – where Ali describes the situation in the Sahel region and appeals for help – that was posted on YouTube in June, is one of several Oxfam initiatives to raise awareness and attract funding from the Middle East. “I am game to try anything to stop the children from dying,” says Ali.
His trip to Mali last November changed him in more ways than one. “People there are running out of food – just like those in Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Chad.
While the world looks the other way, 18.4 million people are going hungry. Children will die in huge numbers if we don’t act now – and this can be avoided if we are all pulling in the same direction.”
Ever since his appeal at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) last year – where he showed the film of his Mali trip – raised $1 million (over Dh3.67 million), Ali is a changed man.
“At the end of the day, any human being would like to be in a position to be able to help,” he says. “My whole life I’ve always wanted to see if I can try to help somehow, and when I got a call from Oxfam asking me to visit and see how I can help by just promoting it through the people who might follow me, it was a no-brainer. If I can give anything for a good cause I will. I am very proud that I was asked to be a ‘friend of Oxfam’.”
In Mali, Ali also witnessed the work that Dubai Cares had done. “It made me very proud as a UAE national to go all that way to western Africa and see a school that had been built by Dubai Cares. I am very proud of the work Dubai does across the world without a lot of people knowing about it.” Ali stresses that all this was due to the popularity of his first feature film, City of Life.
“I’ve done some charity measures on my own, but never on a scale like this,” he says. “These things you do on a personal level – you don’t advertise or talk about. But when you do it for an organisation like Oxfam it becomes known. The
benefit is that it raises awareness.”
When Ali went to Mali he expected to see a poverty-stricken land. But what he didn’t expect to see was the spirit of the people there. “When I stepped out of the car the entire village was waiting for me, dressed up in whatever finery they had left, and they held a dance,” he says. “I asked them what was going on, and they said, ‘it’s for you’. It was overwhelming!"
“I wondered, why me? I was told I was a special guest. The entire village had gathered and danced and welcomed us all the way into the village. I was stunned. I am not a president, or a very important or famous person for them to do all this. I later realised that they are naturally warm and hospitable. They greet their guests in the same way, regardless of who they are.
They have nothing; what they do have is their warmth and humility. “The chief of the village also came and greeted me and gave me a gift – a very special one they reserved for special people. It was a used plastic bag filled with nuts. They were giving me the special nuts they grow and collect as a gift! They were in a serious food crisis, and there they were presenting what must have been their food to a guest. Just think about that. That shows how special they are.”
There were quite a few such experiences. When Ali visited the local school, he discovered it was just twice the size of his ten-by-ten-foot cabin in his Al Quoz studio. “There were about 100 students all crammed into it, five to a desk,” he says. “And yet they were smiling, eager to learn. So when I came back that’s what we asked for, bigger classrooms, more desks.” Ali’s most emotional experience was with the children. “You know sometimes kids behave a little spoilt, asking for something.
I have good kids, Aya, who’s four, and one-year-old twin sons, Zayed and Faisal, and they understand the value of things. But when you see those children and you look at your own, obviously we are in two very different worlds. It makes you realise how simple things are so important. We buy toys for our children; the kids there play with stones. For them, a discarded bicycle tyre would be the best toy ever.”
Their attitude made Ali appreciate things a lot more. “Life is too short for you to be stressing over material things,” he says. “I’ve always thought it is pointless to be upset over things you buy. After visiting Mali it just reinforced my feelings.” Now Mali – and helping the people there – dominates his thoughts. “Every time I see something I get a flashback of my trip, of the child or person I saw and what they are going through.
We are all born into the situation. Nobody can choose where they are born. Everyone is equal to me. It’s society that decides otherwise, which I don’t agree with. It’s who you are as a person, and what you are to others that matters, not where you were born. To see how they treated me when they had nothing at all… they could have just sat back and ignored me. But the effort they made for a guest was remarkable.
They had no idea who I was, they wouldn’t even have known an Oscar-winning actor if he were to go there. What matters to them is that we were people who had come to visit them.”
‘It doesn’t affect me as filmmaker’ While the Mali experience and his subsequent work with Oxfam has become a constant, it has not impinged on Ali’s profession. “It doesn’t necessarily change my creativity, or affect me as a filmmaker,” he says. “I am working on a film, From A to B, that I will begin shooting before the end of the year. It’s a road movie, an idea I had before I made City of Life.
It’s a much smaller film in terms of budget. It’s a challenge, especially because is it a comedy, which is a very difficult genre to make. It’s actually a dramedy – a mix of drama and comedy. The film is based between Abu Dhabi and Beirut, with the characters travelling through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. A bit of a crazy journey. Most of it will be in English, with some Arabic thrown in.”
He’s conscious that his newest offering will have to live up to the expectations of City of Life that debuted at Cannes in 2010, and was a runaway hit in the UAE. But he won’t let that cramp his style. He’s a big fan of Hollywood movies, “the ones that have a bit of heart in them”. Maybe because of that, Ali makes films for an international audience. “I never make a film for a specific audience, because for me film is about bridging cultures, speaking to the world,” he says.
From A to B should be ready in the first quarter of 2013. The cast is still being finalised, though Ali has decided that some actors from his first film City of Life will star in this one too. “Most probably The Narcicyst – the Iraqi-Canadian rapper who played Khalfan in City of Life – will be there. I am planning on getting a well-known Arab cast to play cameos.”
Ali could easily pass off for the hero in one of his blockbusters, but he says he has no interest in getting in front of the camera. “I am not an actor,” he says firmly. “I like people to do jobs they are good at. I’ll leave acting to the actors. I like the action stuff that actors get to do. I find that a lot of fun. I don’t mind being a stunt man in a Jackie Chan film! I’ve done a lot of action myself for my films.
In my five-part web series for Land Rover titled Classified, I worked as a stunt double for some of the actors for some stunts they couldn’t do. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been into doing crazy stuff, and that’s still there but I am getting too old for it now – the body hurts a lot more these days after a fall, but I still enjoy it. I am an adrenaline junkie, whether it is skydiving or motorcycle stunts.”
Ali is modest about his fame too. “One of the main reasons why I wanted to be a director is I like to be behind the scenes,” he says. “I guess I am [famous] because there are so few of us here, and the media chose to focus attention on us. So people recognise us as filmmakers, but I don’t think we are meant to be. I am recognised sometimes, but I don’t get approached every day. It’s nice when sometimes someone comes and wants to take a picture with you. It makes you feel you’re doing your job well. In that sense it’s good.”
For a workaholic, Ali hasn’t made many movies. His directorial debut, Under the Sun, was a student film that was nominated for Best Foreign Film at various international festivals, and was named Best Emirates Film 2006 at The Emirates Film Competition held in Abu Dhabi. City of Life followed later in 2010 and Classified was released last year.
“The reason I’ve taken so much time after City of Life is that I’ve been developing two films simultaneously,” explains Ali. “As soon as I finish From A to B I am hoping to go directly into my third film, which is a historical epic set in this region. “It will have ten times the budget of City of Life, which was $5 million. It is my dream project, something I wanted to do before City of Life, but I wanted to gain some experience before I attempted it. I’ve been working on it for close to six years now.”
Ali however plays coy when asked about the central character of the film. Is it Shaikh Zayed? “I can’t say anything about the project until I get the necessary official permissions,” he says.
It’s obvious that it’s his dream project. However, Ali plans to continue supporting Oxfam and Dubai Cares and help out in any way he can. “I am proud to be able to help as a filmmaker in this region,” he says. “Once you’ve visited the place and met the people, it changes you because you’ve been witness to something really moving and you want to convince people this is a really serious issue that requires our attention. It’s not something that will go away if you ignore it.
People are dying, and even if we can contribute one dirham towards this, it will help.”
Help for the Sahel region Oxfam, the global development and aid agency, is looking to existing and new government, institutional and corporate donors in the Middle East to commit funds for emergency and relief work; and to individuals in the region to spread awareness and encourage high-level involvement.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated that 18.4 million people in the Sahel are vulnerable to the effects of the food crisis, from more than 713,000 in the Gambia to over 6.4 million in Niger.
It also estimates that over US$1.5 billion is needed to address current needs and only half of that money has been mobilised to date. Oxfam must raise at least $53 million (Dh193 million) urgently to provide life-saving humanitarian aid to 1.2 million people in the Sahel. So far, it has raised half of its target.