The Nation-City

The cultural identity that Dubai has been working on presenting to the world is a flashy one—one that is often associated with superlatives. Dubai seems to always be in the process of building the world’s tallest towers, its grandest hotels, and the largest shopping malls. This can also be reflected in the city’s growing film industry, and the industry’s dreams of becoming the region’s version of Hollywood.

City of Life, the first feature film to come from Dubai, only finished shooting in March 2009, and was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2010. It was played in cinemas in the United Arab Emirates soon after. City of Life is directed by a 27-year-old Emirati filmmaker, Ali Mustafa. Mustafa stated in interviews that many of his coworkers were attempting to create something that they hadn’t done before, since they had only had prior experience with TV commercials. The cast of Mustafa’s film comes from Arabic, Hollywood and Bollywood industries, and therefore, the script is multi-lingual, consisting of Arabic, English, and Hindi. Mustafa was the first Emirati to write, co-produce and direct a movie shot from start to finish in Dubai. Mustafa says that a project like his “has never happened,” and that it is a “beacon for the rest of filmmakers” from Dubai.

The plot of the movie involves parallel plotlines that intertwine at the end of the film. The first story is that of a young male Emirati who defies his parents and lives life recklessly, the second tale is of an Indian taxi driver and his attempts to join the world of Bollywood. The third segment of the plot is centered on a former Romanian ballet dancer who is now employed as a flight attendant, and her ill fated search for love. In reference to the inspiration of the plotline of his movie, Mustafa says that the “experiences are real,” but that it “is not autobiographical.”

Livia Alexander’s article titled, “Is there a Palestinian Cinema”? The article discusses how many Palestinian filmmakers have grown up and learnt to study film in the US, or Israel, and so it’s hard to decide if some films are truly Palestinian.

The director of City of Life, Ali Mustafa studied at the London School of Film, but still tries to present a film that is authentically Emirati by the themes, as well as the setting, of his film. For example, themes such as Emirati cultural identity, the struggling South Asian working class, and the tragedy of young European workingwomen drawn to affluent, older men, are very distinctly native to Dubai.

The fact that the film is multi-lingual could also lead many people to question if it is truly a work of art from Dubai. In earlier classes, however, we discussed the idea of the “nation” is a claim to cultural unity. The culture of Dubai is different from that of other Emirates in the UAE, and so it’s almost as if the city portrayed in the City of Life is its own “nation,” unique in the mixture of culture identities that it represents. Hindi, English, Russian, Maliyalam and Arabic (in its many dialects) are among the many languages that one overhears on the streets of Dubai, and so the film truly does seem to reflect the unique nature of the imagined “nation-city.”

In class today, we discussed the concept of “infrastructure” in cinema, in regards to production and circulation. City of Life is funded and located by and in Dubai, and it was advertised, screened, and later distributed on DVDs there. However, the crew, cast, and training of the film, as well as the target audience of the film, were all international. This interesting mix makes me come to an interesting conclusion. I think that City of Life is a film that represents the “nation-city” of Dubai, but does so internationally, because Dubai is an international city.

Trailer for City of Life

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1 Response to The Nation-City

  1. Hoai Le says:

    This looks like a very exciting movie! Very “Hollywood-looking” from what I can tell from the trailer. I think the trailer was obviously meant to appeal to an international and specifically Western audience since it made obvious the narrative focus on the European character, the English cast, and the use of English in the movie. I question whether Mustafa simply made these choices to show that Dubai is an international city. How much of his choices were influenced by commercial reasons? The film also reminded me of a movie I recently saw called Nomad: the Warrior (supposedly Central Asia’s first “Hollywood” film). This film also raised a lot of debate because of the involvement of an international cast and crew. Why is it that these “first” major films have so much international involvement? Why the need to acknowledge and appeal to the West at all?

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