Like many people witnessing its rapid growth and obscene architectural preening (construction had recently been completed on the Burj Dubai, now the world's tallest building by quite the margin) from afar, I find Dubai to be an endlessly fascinating place. Ali F. Mostafa's City of Life, one of the first feature films filmed, produced and released in the metropolis was an easy must-see at a festival where the slogan is "Same planet. Different Worlds."
The film takes a look at the city in a narratively conventional way, with intertwining stories from a handful of Dubai residents varying in age, gender and nationality. Most notably: a wealthy 20-something Emirati man (Saud Al Ka'abi) who spends his nights rolling around in his absurdly fancy car and drinking with his violent middle-class buddy (rapper The Narcicyst), a Romanian flight attendant (Alexandra Maria Lara) being wooed by a smarmy Brit, and a down-on-his-luck Indian cab driver (Sonu Snood) with Bollywood aspirations. In traditional melodramatic fashion, their lives intersect along the way mostly without them noticing it, until it all comes together--quite literally--for the climax.
While the script is often cliched and at times a little cheesy, City of Life is so well-meaning and exuberant that I can hardly find it in my heart to fault it. It is slightly troublesome the way Mostafa shows the city as such a glamourous, cosmopolitan place and only undercuts that ethos once in awhile, and all too briefly. Here and there we'll see shots of a homeless man, and there are broader overtones of how fast-paced urban life doesn't bring happiness. But these ideas are mostly tacked on last-minute, as things turn ruinous for the characters--which is also something that happens suddenly and a bit awkwardly, I might add.
However, the filmmaker photographs the city lovingly, and the jubilant moments in Bollywood clubs, sand dunes, and on speed boats are thoroughly enjoyable. They make for a decidedly less-exotic-than-expected, but still intriguing slice of life all on their own and without the rapid dose of emotional tragedy that follows them. If Mostafa had made that tragedy more plausible, more socially relevant and less metaphoric, it could have theoretically reached great heights. Then again, for a glossy, high-budget flick with a large well-known cast to be made and released in Dubai, it was probably necessary to stray from showing too much underbelly. I get the feeling that the more tourism-friendly the movie, the higher the chance it will be shown in its own UAE theatres.
And on that note, the rather clever VIFF programmers paired the movie with a short called Three Sad Tigers, which interviewed three dirt-poor Bangladesh men as they sat outside their huts relaying the story of the money they handed over to UAE contractors before being shipped over to build the Burj Dubai. They were paid less than they pitched in for their Visas, and returned home with debt rather than profit. It was simple and effective short that managed to color my viewing of the succeeding movie, and probably explains why I was expecting more acknowledgement of Dubai's murky road towards becoming the glittering desert jewel we now see.