Emirati director Ali Mostafa talks to Melanie Goodfellow about his pan-Arab road movie From A to B, which screens in his hometown of Dubai on Thursday as part of DIFF’s Arabian Nights line-up. 

Stopping off at a Saudi police station, the magnificent ruins of Petra in Jordan and a bombed out Syrian town, Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa’s pan-Arab odyssey From A To B makes for an unconventional road movie.

The dramedy, screening in Mostafa’s hometown of Dubai on Thursday as part of DIFF’s Arabian Nights line-up, follows three old school friends – an Emirati, an Egyptian and a Syrian – who travel from Abu Dhabi to Beirut to visit the grave of a late friend in 2011, some five years after his death in an air raid over the city.

“I’ve always been interested in road movies and I thought it would be interesting to do one in an Arab region,” says Mostafa.

It is Mostafa’s second feature after urban drama City Of Life, following an assortment of criss-crossing characters in Dubai, which was one of the first features to come out of the region. 

“After setting my first film in Dubai, I was keen to do something in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi, so that became my starting point, and I thought a neat route would be to end in Beirut, a place which is also very dear to me. As well as being very beautiful, it’s also a fun city.

“The route, taking in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and then Lebanon, is very varied geographically as well as culturally and I thought this would make for something quite exciting.”

The UK-born Emirati director’s second film was co-financed by Abu Dhabi’s media group twofour54 and Image Nation, alongside creative producers Egyptian Mohamed Hefzy and Lebanese Paul Baboudjian.

Having secured development funding from the Abu Dhabi Media Authority’s twofour54, Mostafa hooked up with Hefzy, founder of Cairo-based Film Clinic, and Baboudjian of the Screen Institute Beirut, early on in the project.

“Because I wanted the film to be pan-Arab, Mohamed was a perfect fit, especially given his strong connections in Egypt,” said Mostafa.

Hefzy, who has a scriptwriting as well as producing background, not only brought in Egyptian writers Ashraf Hamdi and popular comedian and writer Ronnie Khalil to help Mostafa with the script, but also gave the final manuscript a polish himself.

He also helped with the casting of Egyptian actor Shadi Al Fons as co-lead Rami, a mummy’s boy who pretends he has gone for a job interview in Bahrain rather than reveal his true destination.

While focusing primarily on the production side, Baboudjian also contributed to the script. A scene in which the friends are confronted by a group of Syrian soldiers is based on his experiences in Lebanon years previously. 

Writing the script, which combines comedy with complex cultural and political contexts, took some two years, Mostafa said.

In the meantime, twofour54 committed to finance 50% of the $2m budget and Image Nation came on board too. Mostafa and Baboudjian also sourced part of the budget through tie-ups with brands including Range Rover and Nescafé.

“I think it’s the first time Nescafé has done a product placement deal with any film anywhere in the world,” said Baboudjian, who worked closely with Mostafa on the financing and production side.

By setting the story in 2011, Mostafa avoided much of the complex geopolitical events to have hit the region in the past 12 months linked to the escalation of the Syrian civil war.

The film still touches, however, on the Syrian conflict through a confrontation with pro-Bashir Assad soldiers, as well as a scene in which the friends are held by gun-toting rebels while passing through the province of Daraa in the south of the country.

“The situation now is totally different to what it was when we were shooting the film and the time when the film is set. I wouldn’t attempt the same thing against today’s backdrop. But it would have been impossible for them to cross the border from Jordan into Lebanon without seeing what was going on,” said the director, revealing that the Syrian scenes were actually shot in Jordan.

Interestingly, Mostafa pushes the envelope for the region with the film’s approach to alcohol, pre-marital sex and dress codes. He says, however, it was neither his aim to shock or avoid the censors while writing the script.

From A To B prompted a warm response from festival audiences in Abu Dhabi and Cairo earlier this year and there is growing anticipation in the Gulf over its impending release in the region by pan-Arab distributor Empire in January.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response we have received to date. I was very proud that my second feature was the first Emirati film to open Abu Dhabi. To know we’ll be in DIFF is also very special as they gave me my first opportunity. City Of Life was the first Emirati feature to have a red carpet gala in the Arabian Nights section, so their support is truly appreciated,” says Mostafa.