Mind games

Mustafa Abbas explains his fascination with the human mind
Film maker Mustafa Abbas brings his interest in human psychology to film.
Film maker Mustafa Abbas brings his interest in human psychology to film.

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Mustafa Abbas tells Digital Studio about his recent film Sunset State, his fascination with the human mind, and plans for his first feature-length film.

When it comes to writing and directing, Emirati film maker Mustafa Abbas is no stranger to the darker side of the human psyche. His films including 100 Miles and The Alley, both from 2007, took viewers on a dark journey of murder and revenge.

Abbas’s most recent film, Sunset State (2013), explored depression and suicide – themes rarely touched on in the UAE – through the narration of its two main characters, a middle-aged American writer and an Emirati student. The film was well received in the UAE and abroad, and was screened at the Dubai Film Festival in December last year and in the short film corner of Cannes Film Festival.

Both of the film’s main characters are shown battling feelings of isolation and depression, and both are shown contemplating suicide before the film reaches a more optimistic conclusion.

“Suicide is a topic that is not addressed enough, especially in our region,” Abbas says, when asked where the idea for the film came from. “The two men in the film are very different. The novelist has a very good head on his shoulders. He is the kind of person you would seek advice from. If he were to take his life you would think ‘impossible, he seemed fine’ whereas the student comes across as a person with issues.

“They’re so different but they’re battling the same problem. I think any human being has the ability to feel these feelings but not everybody would do it – take their own life – but everyone is capable of feeling it.”

“I just wanted to address that [suicide] and tell a story at the same time,” Abbas says. “Whenever there is someone in a suicidal state, people talk to that person about their family and tell them to think of their life and everything…then they come out of that state. When characters in films attempt suicide, you see them in hospital and you think ‘what is to stop them doing that again?’ That state of mind does not last. My main reason to make this film was my passion for psychology and human nature.”

The film, which was written and directed by Abbas, was produced by twofour54’s dedicated short film arm, Creative Lab last year.

Abbas says that the reaction to the film has been positive, especially from other local film makers. “One thing that makes me very happy and comfortable about the film is that other locally based film makers like it a lot.”

After mulling over the main idea for the film for many months, Abbas eventually settled down and wrote the script in about a week. “The process of writing it was not long but I had to go back a few times a rewrite a couple of things. The first draft took about a week,” he says.

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He then approached producers at Creative Lab who liked the script and decided to move forward with it. “In this case it was a healthy collaboration, I wanted to work with them and they wanted to work with me, so it was very mutual and very exciting. I wish every project was like that,” Abbas says.

The film took about 12 weeks to complete, from the start of shooting until the completion of editing. It was shot on a Red Epic camera with a crew of about 20 people, and Abbas says that the process was smooth.

“I can’t complain, I had an amazing team. I like to be relaxed when I work and I like everybody else to be relaxed. I know the shots I want. I just find the actors I like and get the shots . I like to allow the cast some creative freedom. For me that is the most exciting thing – what the actor is going to do with this character, as oppose to saying ‘do this, do that’.

“Writing a character and playing a character are two very different things,” he adds. “If you don’t get surprised as a director there is a problem - you must get surprised. You have done your part as a writer and director and now he or she needs to do their part as an actor. They say casting is 60% of directing.”

While Abbas likes to afford the actors a level of freedom, he likes to secure more control of the editing, which he did himself using Final Cut Pro. “I had to edit the film myself. Even though you have got the shots you want as a director, when you edit you are getting the full piece.

“I need to at least edit the first cut myself before I fine tune a couple of things. Bad editing can destroy your film, not because of continuity or technical stuff but because it can change your movie. You need to decide as a director where does the music start and stop etcetera.”

While the attention garnered by Sunset State subdues, Abbas confirms that he is now in the early stages of planning his first feature length film. The new film will be about street gangs in the UAE and will be set in a fictional neighbourhood in Dubai.

“It’s still at the very early stages of production. It’s going to be mainly in Arabic. It’s about street gangs in the UAE. It something that no one thinks about, sees or hears,” he says. Abbas will reveal little more about the film but admits it will be “a lot more gruesome” than Sunset State.

When asked if he is nervous about the leap from shorts to feature films, Abbas explains that the time is right to make the transition. “Most of us [Emirati film makers] have done enough short films, it’s time to start doing feature films. We owe it to the industry, we are responsible. The industry is made up of films and films are made by film makers, so we have to start making feature films.”

Speaking about film making generally, Abbas says that funding has not been a major issue as he has worked with Creative Lab on recent projects. “Me personally, I have dealt with Creative Lab and I am very happy with them. They’re very professional, very courteous, I like dealing with them.”

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However, he adds that the situation could me more difficult for other film makers looking at other options. “A lot of production houses in Dubai are actually more like rental facilities. They don’t fund or produce your project. Mostly films are done independently, they [film makers] get funding from here and there, private investors and sometimes companies. The key is to get the film made,” he says.

“In Sunset State’s case, Creative Lab funded everything, but if you were going independent, then I suppose one’s producer would have to get funding, because that is their area of expertise.”

If there is an issue with funding for locally made films in the UAE, Abbas believes that it probably stems from the relatively undeveloped state of the country’s film industry compared with many other locations around the world.

“I think if there is an issue it is because people need to know where their money is going. I think that’s fair, people want to know what they’re investing in. Even though, there are a lot of film makers from all nationalities in the UAE now, but it is still a fairly new idea to put your money in a movie.”

Overall, Abbas says that he is optimistic about the state of the UAE’s film industry and is impressed with the way it has developed in the past few years.

Abbas on film making
Why did you choose film as a career?
“It’s not like a choice. You don’t just say ‘look I’m going to become a film maker because it’s a cool thing to do.’ You realise that you have to tell these stories, you have to get this out of your system.
“Some directors care more about the story, some more about the image, but I have this itch to tell a good story with interesting characters that change, and something that visually entertains you. So I had to become a film maker, I had no choice.”

Abbas on script writing: “Writing is re-writing. As a writer you are creating a world, you are not just creating dialogue, so you have to know everything in this world: how many siblings they have, where they were born, how old they are. You have to know everything in the script.

Favourite films: The Departed (Martin Scorcese 2006), ChinaTown starring Jack Nicholson(1974), Point Blank (1967), a crime thriller with Lee Marvin.

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