Dubai is often defined by aerial shots of its landmark architecture in Bollywood and Hollywood films. By activating fantasies of seeing the whole city, the lived social realities of the city’s inhabitants fade from view. With Ali F. Mostafa’s City of Life (Dar al-haya, 2009, United Arab Emirates) as an example, this article explores the possibility of a cinema of contact zones, drawing upon Dubai’s historical interconnections with the world through intersecting globalizations. The film offers parallel narratives about different classes of residents that overlap, mingle, compete, align, and realign in spaces that are experienced differently. Stories of Emirati best friends, Indian taxi drivers and businessmen, East European flight attendants, and British “expats,” as well as other less visible residents, convey how lives entangle but do not entwine into community. Rather than reducing the film to an example of “national cinema” or “world cinema,” it is more productive to understand it as a film about a city that is itself produced through relationships to multiple places. The film invites audiences to think about noticing connections, rather than take comfort in confirming assumptions. It does not reward audiences with voyeuristic consumption of the city in its totality. More than a conflict zone, as the Middle East is often conceived, Dubai is a contact zone. City of Life acknowledges that Dubai is neither free of social inequities nor defined by them. Dubai is a place of possibilities and risks. It is a contact zone with all the contradictions that contact zones always contain.

Objects of faith and skepticism, cities on the Persian Gulf are both venerated as “islands of decency in the Middle East” and denigrated as “gilded cages.”1 Dubai in particular has become iconic of global capitalism. Its urban cityscape appears in Chinese, Hollywood, Indian, Malaysian, Nigerian, Philippine, and Saudi films. Many are shot partly or entirely on location. Captured by cameras on helicopters or drones, geometric patterns of Dubai’s urban design mesmerize audiences, positioning them to look down from vertiginous perspectives of spies perched atop or running down skyscrapers, or nationalist song-and-dance numbers and martial-arts fights choreographed on rooftops. Looking down is a visual strategy that activates fantasies of “seeing the whole” by which elevation transforms voyeurism into “the fiction of knowledge.”2 As a visual trope, it forces the daily lives of residents to fade from view. It erases and silences the stories of Emiratis and expatriates, who live or have lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for decades or generations. Dubai becomes an “exotic” location that no one allegedly calls home.

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Looking down on Dubai as Tom Cruise runs down the Burj Khalifa in Hollywood action sequence for Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2013) by Paramount Pictures (United States).

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Looking down on Dubai as Tom Cruise runs down the Burj Khalifa in Hollywood action sequence for Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2013) by Paramount Pictures (United States).

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Historically, foreign films set in Dubai focused on money, often in relation to business activities that violate international law, as in the English-language Silver Bears (1978, directed by Ivan Passer, UK/US), which depicted Dubai as an undeveloped and lawless place where “Iranian” smugglers trafficked silver from India into international markets—akin to Robin Moore’s novel Dubai (1976). Other films framed the city differently, as in the Punjabi-language super-hit Dubai Chalo (1979, directed by Haider Chaudhry, Pakistan), which depicted the city as a place of opportunity with the film and its songs inspiring the popular expression “Dubai chalo” (“Let’s go to Dubai”). The city offers the possibility of living wages unavailable at home, enabling remittances to family. Other films, such as the Malayalam-language Vilkkanundu Swapnangal (Dreams for Sale, 1980, directed by Azad, India), nonetheless foreground dangers of migration to the Gulf.

Location shooting in Dubai today is often unrelated to historical migrations. Dubai has world-class production facilities, which it actively promotes with generous tax incentives to entice Bollywood and Hollywood producers.3 Dubai, however, is not always legible on screen. Dabangg (Fearless, 2010, directed by Abhinav Kashyap, India) masks Dubai as “just another” Indian city, whereas Star Trek: Beyond (2016, directed by Justin Lin, US/Hong Kong/China) camouflages Dubai’s desert as a planet in another solar system. Arthouse films, such as Code 46 (2003, directed by Michael Winterbottom, UK/US) and Dubaï Flamingo (2012, directed by Delphine Kreuter, France/Portugal/UAE), reactivate orientalist tropes, rendering the city as dystopic nightmare or fodder for provincial jokes—both of which re-center Western exceptionalism. Even when such films avoid the orientalist cliché of the adhan (call to prayer) as establishing shot, they encourage a looking down both visually and discursively. They invent new clichés to establish Dubai as location, such as highway traffic stopped by stray camels, thus casting the city as backward despite its wealth.

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Looking down on Dubai as Shahrukh Khan defeats (and saves) his Chinese opponent in Bollywood martial-arts sequence in Happy New Year (2014) by Red Chilies Entertainment (India).

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Looking down on Dubai as Shahrukh Khan defeats (and saves) his Chinese opponent in Bollywood martial-arts sequence in Happy New Year (2014) by Red Chilies Entertainment (India).

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Such films are often the only opportunity to see Dubai on film in the UAE. Until recently, feature films by Emirati filmmakers seldom screened in commercial cinemas. They screened at festivals and cultural, civic, and educational institutions. Missing a film’s one-week run often meant missing the film entirely before streaming platforms began to host them. By contrast, Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol (2011, directed by Brad Bird, US/UAE), Tian ji: Fu chun shan ju tu (Switch, 2013, directed by Jay Sun, China), Happy New Year (2014, directed by Farah Khan, India), Geostorm (2017, directed by Dean Devlin, US), Gong fu yu jia (Kung Fu Yoga, 2017, directed by Stanley Tong, China/India), 6 Underground (2019, directed by Michael Bay, US), and other foreign films are readily available at mall cinemas, often for long runs. If residents appear, citizens are reduced to silent or incomprehensible (non-subtitled) bodies; (non-Western) expatriates, to service staff. Making matters worse, aspiring filmmakers are often herded to shooting locations to watch and learn, as though “industry” professionals from Hollywood have something to teach young Emiratis or Arab and South Asian expatriates.

With the closing of the fourteen-lane Sheikh Zayed Road in 2008 for the shooting of a film by twenty-seven-year-old Ali F. Mostafa, anticipation over “Dubai’s first big-budget film” was unavoidable. Emiratis speculated about how Dubai would appear on screen. For many, Mostafa’s City of Life (Dar al-Haya, 2009, UAE), hereafter referred to as City of Life, would be a first glimpse of the UAE free from a foreign gaze. The film defuses Western orientalism in its first shot of a camel under power lines, then shows Dubai from different perspectives of people who live and work there. None of the characters are tourists. The film moves between their experiences of Dubai, starting with an unnamed man, credited as Old Filipino (played by actor J. R. Itlas), collecting cardboard. His labor may be informal, but his story is one of Dubai’s. Working for his father’s real-estate company, an Emirati man named Faisal (Saoud Al Ka’abi) negotiates tensions between his generation’s lifestyle and that of his father in a city that has been altered by massive demographic changes. Working as a flight attendant, a Romanian woman named Natalia Moldovan (Alexandra Maria Lara) navigates spaces for single white women. Working as a taxi driver, an Indian man named Basu (Sonu Sood) remits money home to his parents while pursuing his dream of Bollywood stardom. Each gets distracted by extravagant opportunities, only to later recognize necessary priorities.

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Satire of western camel-on-highway shot in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Satire of western camel-on-highway shot in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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The film rejects the foreign view of looking down on Dubai as conspicuous excess. Each character learns to ignore the distraction of glitz and bling for something that they may have ignored in the past. They transcend self-deception. Faisal finds happiness and purpose by marrying and becoming the kind of son that his father wants. Natalia finds happiness as a future mother back in Romania, not defined by a husband, and perhaps as a dance instructor. Basu finds happiness in the potential of acting, though perhaps in character roles rather than leading parts. These stories snare and sometimes entangle but seldom knot. Natalia rides in Basu’s taxi; otherwise, the three only occupy the same physical space during an automobile accident. The film conveys different experiences of Dubai as an uneven and unequal place, but it also conveys how acts of ingenuity and resilience make Dubai a “city of life.” Rather than a scenic view at a distance—from afar and on high—the film renders urban spaces as “lived social realities” of an actual city.4 The convergence of stories is less significant as an element of plot than as a reminder that all stories take place in Dubai. They signal different relationships to different moments in globalization. Stories overlap, mingle, compete, align, and realign in spaces that are experienced differently. Lives entangle but do not entwine into community.

Rather than reducing the film to an example of “national cinema” or “world cinema,” it is more productive to understand it as a film about a city that is itself produced through relationships to multiple places. Dubai is a contact zone in Mary Louise Pratt’s sense of “the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations.”5 Comparable to Elvira Notari’s city films in southern Italy during the 1910s and ’20 s, City of Life can become an “archeology of knowledge,” reclaiming marginality and difference to “reveal discontinuous, diverse, and disqualified areas” and “alternative practices” of shared spaces.6 Moreover, it can evoke what Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift call a practice of “seeing like a city” by restraining conventional distanced “outside-in” gazes and adopting an “inside-out” way of seeing that acknowledges how “different connections and possibilities become apparent,” “different visibilities hove into view,” and “different kinds of being can be invented” within city infrastructures that also reveal “peculiar forms of cruelty as well as promise.”7

City of Life evokes elements of Youssef Chahine’s short essay film Cairo as Told by Chahine (Al Kahera Menawara Be Ahlaha, Egypt/France, 1991), in which an Egyptian filmmaker (played by Chahine) and his students translate modern Cairo for a foreign audience of French producers. They make suggestions about what French audiences might expect (pyramids in Giza, feluccas on the Nile, and belly dancers in Palmyra cabarets) and how they might expect such images to be realized—the “city of the dead” in the style of the new wave or neorealism. The film focuses on inequities and injustices, both economic between classes and political between government and citizens. Actor/director Khaled Youssef portrays an unemployed university student who navigates between informal employment opportunities such as cruising white tourists or acting in films, demonstrations against the state for failing to ensure employment, and the temptations of fundamentalism. The film’s story and themes are situated at the time of the first US invasion of Iraq, when power in the Arab world was redistributed from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. Cairo is not simply the Egyptian capital; it is a contact zone.

City of Life questions expectations for another moment of massive social, economic, political, and cultural change. It also looks at how neoliberal globalization is affected by previous globalizing forces that accumulate to shape the history of Dubai. Mostafa presents Dubai as a complex place—a “real city” rather than a “crazy tourist destination.”8 By making the film, he wanted to present it as more than its grittiest realities, such as conditions in the Sonapur (literally, “city of gold” in Hindi and Urdu) labor camp at the time of the film’s production. Mostafa’s film does locate its taxi driver in a private flat rather than a shared dormitory room in a labor camp, but it does not entirely avoid gritty realities—some of which might not register to audiences unattuned to how neoliberalism operates. Places can be provisional, visible, and hidden. More than a conflict zone, as the Middle East is often conceived with jihadi terrorists and nepotistic dictators, Dubai is a contact zone. City of Life shows how emotions are a way of knowing via empathy—and how emotions can be complex and even ambivalent—rather than the kinds of realism favored by international film festivals.

The United Nation estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Many residents are migrants from rural areas; others, from abroad. The twenty-first century’s so-called global cities are not facile spaces that “contain the world”; instead, they are spaces of unequal and often unjust interactions and encounters shaped by global relationships. Contact zones under neoliberalism differ from those under colonialism and imperialism that Pratt examined. Contact might happen at a distance, perhaps via proxy. Space is less segregated by race/ethnicity, as in the company towns of the oil-concession era, and more segmented by economic class shaped by transnational capitalism. The Gulf extends what Stuart Hall theorized about the Caribbean. The Caribbean’s multiple “presences”—African, European, American, Indigenous, South Asian, East Asian—analogically signal multiple presences in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean, where slavery and indentured servitude were also historically present with Western imperialism.9 These presences are visible and audible. They cannot be contained by Arab cinema’s focus on Arabic-language films, nor by Middle East cinema’s interest in Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Kurdish, and Turkish. Conversations in Dubai take place in Amharic, Bangla, English, Hindi, Malayalam, Nepali, Singhalese, Tagalog, and Urdu, among others. Each language indicates different moments of connection, most predating the modern nation-state. Conceptualizing the Gulf differently might achieve what Chen Kuan-Hsing argues about understanding Asia “as method”: it can “decolonize and de-imperialize” the disciplinary habits in our scholarship.10

Indeed, Emirati filmmaking cannot be located on the conventional maps of world cinema.11 It does not necessarily conform to categories borrowed from art history, literature, and area studies. Cinema in the Gulf begins with foreigners screening foreign films in the foreign enclaves of colonial clubs and oil-company compounds. The first open-air and air-conditioned cinemas were largely opened after independence in 1971. They screened mostly Egyptian, Hollywood, and Indian films, as well as newsreels. The creation of the Emirates Film Competition in 2002 inaugurated a space for Gulf filmmakers to screen and discuss their work. Substantial investment in international film festivals and world-class film production infrastructure came later, as did commercial filmmaking. Most Emirati films tell stories about Emiratis, relegating non-Emiratis, especially non-Arabs, to the background. They produce a cinematic national space for citizens, who are a small minority of the population.

Art films by Emirati filmmakers and South Asian expatriates, however, do address or acknowledge social tensions that develop between citizens and expatriates—and within these groups. Dhil al Bahr (Sea Shadow, 2011, directed by Nawaf Al-Janahi, UAE) shows exploitation and demonization of South Asian men by their Emirati kafeel (sponsor) as a backdrop for generational tensions and a love story between two Emiratis in the northern emirate of Ras Al Khamiah. Set in the capital of Abu Dhabi, Abdullah (2015, directed by Humaid Alsuwaidi, UAE) examines the questionable usefulness of well-intentioned yet culturally illiterate Western mentors for Emirati artists in performing arts and filmmaking. Pinky Memsaab (2018, directed by Shazia Ali Khan, Pakistan/UAE) concerns a wealthy Pakistani woman’s missteps in relation to her Pakistani maid. Dubai amplifies rather than minimizes cultural and class differences.

The Gulf is conventionally slotted into preexisting assumptions about the Middle East that sever historical connections to Africa and South Asia. With the oceanic turn in history, Nile Green proposes considering the Middle East, not as a discrete area or region, but instead as three intersecting arenas: Mediterranean with its connections to the European subcontinent, Inter Asian with its connection to Central Asia, and Indian Ocean with its connections to East Africa and South Asia.12 The maritime connections connected the Gulf to world systems before European hegemony.13 “Before the discovery of oil, long distance trade to India and East Africa supported the development of cosmopolitan port cities, which had a tradition of pearling and fishing,” Nelida Fuccaro notes—long before modern urbanization in the 1960s.14 Ella Shohat and Timothy Mitchell have argued that categories derived from Western demographies and geographies, especially when related to gender, can be counterproductive.15 Dubai cannot be reduced to only what Westerners see or are willing to see.

Studies on “cinematic cities” integrate urban studies, inflected by postcolonial frameworks, not only as a condition, but “as a critical, deconstructive methodology.”16 Films like City of Life might help us see more clearly what oriental and area studies blur. By considering globalizations as world systems, port cities like Dubai become contact zones at the intersections of precolonial globalization of trade and pilgrimages across the Indian Ocean, colonial globalizations of British control via Bombay in India, postcolonial globalization of oil concessions by newly independent states, and neoliberal globalization of free zones where state laws are relaxed to court foreign direct investment. The most recent form of globalization often overshadows all that precede it, as illustrated in Mike Davis’s description of Dubai as “a vast gated community” that is “famously tolerant of Western vices” like booze and prostitutes.17 However, the city also embodies earlier moments of globalization, which were often multicultural in the sense of multiple directions of assimilation, although they were hardly idyllic since they entailed inequities and injustices.

The conditioning to look down—in the colloquial sense of belittling according to foreign assumptions—extends visual practices that predate the invention of cinema. As elsewhere, foreigners produced the first filmed images. Scenes of pre-UAE life did not begin with Lumière actualités or Pathé newsreels that introduced cinematic representations of Algeria, Egypt, India, Lebanon, Palestine, and Turkey through orientalist lenses and civilizing-mission or development narratives. Facts might be accurately described with an orientalist’s precision, but assumptions distort meaning to achieve a foreign agenda of feeling superior by looking down. In many respects, Lumière actualités were more precursors to commercial film than to documentaries since they offered Western audiences the pleasure of recognition by confirming their assumptions about foreign lands and cultures.

Emirati filmmakers contend with images of barren deserts and rare oases, framing the Gulf as a place devoid of culture or commerce before the arrival of Portuguese and British colonizers. Corporatized orientalist discourses in oil-company films, such as British Petroleum’s Abu Dhabi (1974, directed by Julian Spiro, UK) construct Emirati exceptionalism with regard to educating women and tolerating different religions to position the UAE as a cosmopolitan place for Westerners to work. In foreign films, Dubai’s complexity is reduced to landmarks. Images of the world’s first seven-star hotel, largest indoor ski slope, largest artificial peninsula and island projects, and tallest building are familiar around the world. Both awe and accusation streamline history and homogenize space.

Foreign films today reduce Dubai to predictable stereotypes that circulate on Western television under three paradigms: (1) masculine-coded pleasures of horse racing, sports cars, and STEM-related triumphs of architecture and engineering; (2) feminine-coded pleasures of souqs, restaurants, and resort hotels; and (3) human rights-oriented exposés, particularly on abuses of kafala (sponsorship system), through which expatriates obtain visas.18 The proximity of poverty to opulence shocks audiences whose lives are insulated from neoliberalism’s everyday workings—yet is familiar to other audiences. As with Dakar, Jakarta, Kinshasa, and Lagos, “dilapidated and hypermodern built environments do not necessarily signal a univocal development pattern” since “individuals can ‘step out’ of the futures expected for them” through resilience and improvisation, as in Dubai.19 Accelerated modernization does not mean that Dubai subscribes to Western notions of a universal modernity. Residents harness what Arjun Appadurai calls “modernity at large” according to their own rules.20

Support for foreign media that produces images that celebrate Dubai as a cosmopolitan playground, however, does not deconstruct (or even contradict) foreign media that reduces Dubai to excessive consumerism, villainous exploitation, draconian laws and social practices, and fake cities. Walter Armbrust argues that “cosmopolitan globalism does not necessarily right the balance; it also constructs its own version of history at the expense of other versions.”21 Cosmopolitanism can become a form of looking down inherited from the orientalists. “Most of the academic literature on cities in the Gulf,” argues Fuccaro, “can be broadly organized around two main themes: the city as a recipient of modernity, and the city as the focal point for the reclaiming of an Arab-Islamic identity,” which “ironically, as [Janet] Abu-Lughod has noted,” was “the brainchild of western orientalists.”22 It is often most visible in Arabian Nights-themed resorts designed to reassure foreign investors of political stability and cultural tolerance.

Rather than a “critical cosmopolitanism” or “cosmopolitanism from below” that promotes solidarities, neoliberal globalization encourages what might be called a “cosmopolitanism from above.”23 Walter Mignolo points to such articulations of post-Cold War cosmopolitanism as working against their alleged noble principles.24 They reduce Dubai to a business-friendly space, allegedly home to more than two hundred nationalities, where cosmopolitanism serves as a means to manage social difference, both between different tribes and ethnicities, who have citizenship, and between foreign expatriates, who constitute about 90 percent of UAE’s resident population. Cosmopolitanism minimizes, if not outright excludes, perspectives of the most vulnerable through false equivalences under discourses of diversity and inclusion. Cosmopolitan Dubai becomes “the city as corporation” for embodying neoliberalism’s logic.25

It is hardly surprising that Hollywood and Bollywood films render Dubai into a cosmopolitan backdrop for privileged foreigners, who choose to travel as tourists or high-paid professionals. Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Khan promotes Dubai tourism to middle-class South Asians through the #BeMyGuest campaign (2017–19). Hollywood’s Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Zoe Saldana promote the city to (female) Western tourists in the cringe-worthy short film A Story Takes Flight (2019, directed by Reed Morano, UAE). City of Life rejects these consumerist fantasies of foreign stars who welcome tourists to “their” Dubai with promises of mystery and adventure. The film acknowledges inequities and injustices within a contact zone. It decenters the mosque or souq as the center of life. It also disrupts assumptions about Gulf cities as places where men drive gold-plated Jaguars with “exotic” animals, often actual jaguars, in the passenger seats and where women see their mobility limited only by the weight of heavy shopping bags. Life in Dubai is mostly people going to work and school, falling in and out of love, making mistakes and learning from them. The city’s stories are mostly about families eating shawarma or hamburgers in parks or people shopping at Apple, Cartier, H&M, and IKEA in malls. City of Life conveys the popularity of Land Rovers, which feature prominently in the film, over Lexuses.26 The film may not reveal the “sites of refuge” produced by Bangladeshi men, who gather to drink karak (masala chai) outside money exchanges on weekends when they remit money home, but it shifts the focus from looking down to looking around from inside the city as a contact zone.27

As a counter-narrative to the totalizing vision of looking down, Michel De Certeau examined “ordinary practitioners of the city” who are “foreign to the ‘geometrical’ or ‘geographical’ space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions” that appear in foreign films.28 As a filmmaker from Dubai, Mostafa conceived City of Life to weave stories rather than tell a singular story. The film challenges audiences to think about noticing connections, rather than take comfort in confirming assumptions. It does not reward audiences with voyeuristic consumption of the city in its totality. It requires thinking between multiple postcolonial and transnational practices of the city.

City of   Life reveals cultural textures in Dubai neighborhoods like Deira, Satwa, Karama, and Jumeirah 1, where different waves of residents—citizens and expatriates—produce space with cultural textures. Space is literally infused with scents, tastes, languages, idioms, and accents of the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia that date to at least the first century CE—alongside newer scents, tastes, languages, idioms, and accents, notably from the Philippines after the US invasion of Iraq when US-accented English became valued over British-accented English due the Arabian Peninsula’s increased military significance to the United States. Space is neither contained in transitory places of free zones and luxury resorts, nor in heritage neighborhoods, renovated by the state. Al Bastakiya’s architectural elements like the wind tower (barjeel or, in Farsi, badgir) and alley (sikka) link Dubai to Bastak in Iran, despite its recently Arabized name of Al Fahidi. Instead, conceptions of space focus attention on constant movements that cannot be contained in the voyeuristic gaze of a disembodied establishing shot.

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Guy takes Natalia around The World in his private yacht in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Guy takes Natalia around The World in his private yacht in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Neoliberalism’s restructuring of Dubai is visualized in an overhead shot of a yacht, owned by the British expatriate Guy Berger (Jason Flemyng), taking Natalia “around the world,” referring to the built islands that physically embody the fragmentation of space into privatized islands. The film, however, consists mostly in eye-level shots. Images of the street play a role in making audiences acknowledge that majestic aerial shots typically conceal more than they reveal. The film’s opening-credit montage moves through and looks around at space produced through human interactions rather than looking down from a skyscraper. It enters into Bur Dubai, an older part of the city where different classes mingle. Dubai is a contact zone for different economic classes when Faisal and his best friend Khalfan (Yassin Alsalman) are introduced.29 Faisal lives in a less accessible part of the city where Old Filipino would never reach. Khalfan lives along Sheikh Zayed Road in Jumeirah 1, an older neighborhood known for its single-story houses and residents who work in state jobs.

Old Filipino directs audiences to notice inequities, which are not rendered as victimhood, but instead as resilience. He moves between neoliberalism’s segmented classes of “local,” “expat,” “migrant.” He encounters Faisal, who is throwing away a bloody kandura (white thawb worn as national dress) after a fight near Al Ijaza Cafeteria, a popular juice shop on Beach Road in Jumeirah 1. Natalia nearly runs over him in her SUV as she is not looking out for pedestrians as she flees Guy’s villa in Al Barsha in New Dubai near the Palm Jumeirah. Old Filipino cannot afford Basu’s taxi, so their stories do not cross. His dreams are not rendered on screen like Basu’s dream of becoming a Bollywood star. Instead, they follow trajectories more akin to ones in Dubai (2005, directed by Rory B. Quintos, Philippines), which takes a kababayan (Tagalog for “fellow countryman”) perspective on Dubai and offers practical advice for expatriates. Its pedagogical narrative on how to navigate neoliberal space is charged with emotions, much like City of Life.

City of Life guides audiences to engage in practices of looking around and listening in a place transformed from maritime entrepôt to neoliberal city.30 South Asian construction workers are shown in shots of the Burj Khalifa (then Burj Dubai) under construction, as are South Asian painters on other high-rises. Montage sequences look around. They provide vital context. They reject objectifying gazes onto Dubai’s pristine architecture in foreign films that obscure evidence that these buildings are built and cleaned by human labor. Sequences in City of Life emphasize Dubai as a lived space, allowing some connections, but not others. Closed interior spaces of vehicles are places where encounters—however limited and superficial—can occur but do not forge community. When Natalia rides in Basu’s taxi, they do not speak until she notices that she cannot pay her fare. For Basu, Natalia is unapproachable; for her, he is invisible. They inhabit different spaces.

When Basu speaks to his family on a pay phone along Khor Dubai (Dubai Creek), he occupies an interstitial space between UAE and India that other main characters cannot feel or know. His body is physically located in Dubai but his thoughts are located with his family since “we are often more embodied in a virtual space (such as the space of the other side of the phone connection) than we are in material space.”31 The phone opens state territory into a contact zone that is different from free trade zones. Moreover, the development of this area of Dubai was impacted by trade, not oil, which is evident in spaces that historically catered to needs of dhow crews.32 It also signals the production of other spaces between a Middle East and a South Asia. In their analysis of nonprofessional “home movies” produced by Non-Resident Keralites (NRKs) and Gulf-returned Indians and that circulated only within private homes on VCD, DVD, or via YouTube, Bindu Menon and T. T. Sreekumar argue that “home films have often functioned as maps for the cultural and social geopolitical imaginaries and realities of everyday life.”33City of Life intersects with such media, though not under conventional categories in film studies.

The narrative device of a traffic accident on the main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, shows how space is configured in ways that require both postcolonial and transnational frameworks. Segregation by race/ethnicity in oil company towns is not exactly the same as segmentation by economic class in labor camps and gated communities. There are points of potential contact such as roadways. Rather than foregrounding examples of victimization, by intercutting stories of different segmented experiences of Dubai, City of Life emphasizes acts of resilience and ingenuity in the face of restrictions of top-down urban planning. Yasser Elsheshtawy argues “we should not just focus on the misery of its inhabitants, which will inevitably make their conditions worse by stereotyping and marking them as a dangerous other,” but instead “uncover the world that these residents inhabit.”34 In other words, we need to perform the empathetic labor of imagining other perspectives.

Privileged characters perform cultural scripts based on neoliberalism’s vertical segmentations and horizontal integrations. They do not always look around. Encased in her own bubble of Western privilege, Natalia is less capable of noticing others. Inside Basu’s taxi, she does not even notice that he resembles Peter Patel, the Bollywood star for whom her (white) flatmates lust with a passion equivalent to that for the “rich Arabs” encountered at ladies’ nights. Natalia is earnest but self-absorbed, easy prey for British womanizer Guy. She lives elevated above the streets in a high-rise lifestyle that contains little sense of community. After she becomes pregnant by Guy, her Russian flatmate Olga (Natalie Dormer) sleeps with him, interrupting her dreams of happiness. City of Life almost anticipates the colonial feminism of Sex and the City 2 (2010, directed by Michael Patrick King, US), set in Abu Dhabi, with its white “feminist” fashionistas, who imagine Emirati women are only liberated when they “unveil” to reveal European couture, rather than jalabiyas (“traditional” Arab garments), under their black abayas (cloaks worn as national dress).35

By contrast, Basu lives alone in a one-room flat in a low-rise building and remits money to his parents. Neighborhood children encourage him to attend Bollywood auditions, yet the horrific crash that disfigures him occurs as he rides from the lower-middle-class neighborhood of Karama to an audition in the Dubai Media City Free Zone. He becomes unemployed and homeless. He cannot afford to ignore others. Apart from a brief cameo by Mostafa as a passenger in Basu’s taxi, Emirati characters never see Basu. Rejecting Hollywood’s white savior tropes, City of Life shows that brown men like Basu and Old Filipino, living in economically and socially precarious situations, can live with dignity and can care for themselves, albeit with luck facilitated by wealthy brown men. Faisal’s father (Habib Ghuloom) may finance the lottery, but Old Filipino has agency. He looks around to notice what has been dropped, like Charles Baudelaire’s ragpickers and Walter Benjamin’s flâneurs, moving between social spaces and recuperating insights and treasures from the discarded refuse of early consumerist culture. He sees Dubai at the level of the street, as does the film’s audience.

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Old Filipino (J. R. Itlas) finds lottery ticket in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Old Filipino (J. R. Itlas) finds lottery ticket in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Old Filipino closes City of Life, as he opened it, in silence. He appears to find a winning lottery ticket. He is not distracted by the glitter of shopping malls and the sparkle of glass towers. The film acknowledges how labor is exploited by white-collar professionals like Guy, who nearly gets Natalia fired to meet his own work deadline. It foregrounds how distracting expectations of Dubai’s extremes—excess and victimization—can blind us to what requires diligence and empathy to discern. The narrative device reworks one in Bollywood’s Rehguzar (2006, directed by Faruq Masudi, India), also set in Dubai. Old Filipino wins 1,000,000 dirhams (273,000 US dollars), adding to the vast remittances by nearly 700,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the UAE—and perhaps compensating a little for the vast amounts extracted from the Philippines under Spanish and US colonialism.

Like Old Filipino, Basu refuses to become a victim. He reinvents himself after he is disfigured in the accident. He literally dreams in a Bollywood idiom. He will not become a disposable person, visualized in his photocopied headshot, tossed away by Guy. If he cannot be a hero like Peter Patel (also played by Sood), the Bollywood star whom he resembles, he can be a scarred villain like one whose image he sees on a poster. Basu claims his place during an audition, earning the admiration of producer Mr. Khan (Javed Jaffrey) and thus Dubai’s larger middle-class South Asian community. Mr. Khan’s Bollywood nightclub is authentically Dubai. Geographers Robina Mohammad and James D. Sidaway find “writing on Gulf cities frequently compares them with science fiction worlds or stresses their artificial modernity” but “it might be more apt to invoke Bollywood’s scripting of heroes and antiheroes and the ever-tantalizing prospect of happiness, true love, or riches as a foil for their allure.”36 They note that “stints in Doha [Qatar] might not be lived quite like the fantasy sequences in Bollywood movies, but they could also be experienced as forms of escapism from the everyday responsibilities back home.”37 Much like the expression “Dubai chalo” (“Let’s go to Dubai”) in past decades, Indian dreams in Dubai today being mediated by Bollywood films, songs, and stars are common, if one looks around.

Image 6.

Basu (Sonu Sood) dreams in the idiom of Bollywood song-and-dance sequence in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Basu (Sonu Sood) dreams in the idiom of Bollywood song-and-dance sequence in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Films about cities invariably draw comparison to city-symphony films like Berlin: Symphony of a Big City (1927, directed by Walter Ruttmann, Germany) and The Man with a Movie Camera (1929, directed by Dziga Vertov, USSR), which mobilized the new medium of film to examine emerging political and social realities that could be considered contact zones of their day. They disrupted and questioned the totalizing gaze of the camera (“seeing is believing”) through the intrusion of editing (context, counterpoint) as a primary means to make meaning. Rather than a symphony of music, City of Life is a polyphony or cacophony of voices. It makes conversations in multiple languages audible, and it alludes to what is not said directly or cannot be translated. It offers a mode of thinking through the city in globalization as a methodology to compensate for what facile conceptions of world cinema at international film festivals and in introductory textbooks leave hidden in plain sight.

Recent films on cities examine fractures and fragmentations within urban life by weaving together different stories, such as Amores perros (2000, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico), Crash (2004, directed by Paul Haggis, Germany/US), and Yuva (Youth, 2004, directed by Mani Ratnam, India). City of Life shares more in common with Babel (2006, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, US/Mexico), which plays on the ripple effects of actions in distant parts of the world, than globe-trotting, white-savior franchises such as Bourne (2002–16) or Taken (2008–14).38 Like Chongqing senlin (Chungking Express, 1994, directed by Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong), City of Life deploys different visual styles to convey different realities and reject the illusion of totalizing vision. Lola rennt (Run Lola Run, 1998, directed by Tom Tykwer, Germany) intercuts scenes, framed and shot in self-referentially stylized ways, borrowing from art cinema, wartime propaganda, music videos, television advertising, soap operas, and video games to understand a newly reunified city (Berlin).39

Image 7.

Basu (Sonu Sood) sees his headshot become trash in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Basu (Sonu Sood) sees his headshot become trash in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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City of Life intercuts different visual and narrative styles to convey different aspirations and challenges among the city’s residents. Rather than a distanced, totalizing gaze, the film moves between various ways of seeing by adjusting the idioms of narrative, characterization, and even cinematography. “It was literally like we were shooting three different short films,” explains Mostafa about the different cinematic, editing, and acting styles for the stories.40City of Life appropriates conventions from popular film and television—Gulf musalsalat (television serials), Bollywood films, Western soap operas—rejecting the possibility of a singular, unified, or coherent point of view. The film’s seemingly incompatible styles reflect different realities of life in Dubai, including experiences that cannot be translated for everyone to understand. Filming Dubai from multiple perspectives, thus, involves encountering the irreconcilable and irreducible. City of Life rejects the privileging of a voyeurism to an allegedly universal spectator, particularly one who constructs a view of the world based on rational distance as a privileged and allegedly unbiased way of knowing.

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Scarred Basu (Sonu Sood) sees himself and his future in poster of scarred Bollywood villain (Nomair A. Kashif) in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Scarred Basu (Sonu Sood) sees himself and his future in poster of scarred Bollywood villain (Nomair A. Kashif) in City of Life (2009) by AFM Films (United Arab Emirates).

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Western films are generally structured according to Aristotle’s notions of catharsis or emotional release as audience pleasure and narrative closure, whereas Bollywood and other forms of popular film are structured according to catalysis or activation of emotions.41 Although dialogues and song lyrics are integral to the stories, audiences feel emotions—and, thus, understand stories—without knowing Hindi or other South Asian languages. Familiar objects become symbols for daily struggles. Stories are told visually through framing, editing, and emotions. In City of Life, photocopies and movie posters are charged with emotion. Ephemera become indomitable, even when not preserved in an official archive. Emotional distance is as counterproductive as any other form of looking down.

Emotional cartography maps ways that space is produced by feelings. Such conceptions of space are omitted by conventional cartography, which prioritizes allegedly rational and objective data of demography and geography. City of Life conveys different experiences of the city unknowable from a distance (euphemism for “objectivity”). The film refuses to provide the comfort of emotional distance by employing a multi-story narrative depicted through multiple cinematic styles that foreground emotions typically considered “excessive” by Western standards. Lives of Emiratis resemble Ramadan musalsalat; South Asian expatriates, Bollywood masalas; Western expatriates, daytime soap operas. The film appropriates their visual and narrative strategies to convey different relationships to the city. By intercutting between them, City of Life visualizes segmenting aspects of UAE film culture.

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Plaza Cinema showing No One Killed Jessica (2001, written and directed by Raj Kumar Gupta, India); photograph by Dale Hudson, January 2011

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Plaza Cinema showing No One Killed Jessica (2001, written and directed by Raj Kumar Gupta, India); photograph by Dale Hudson, January 2011

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By rejecting a unifying style, the film also reactivates aspects of film culture when neighborhood cinemas throughout the UAE screened a heterogeneous mix of Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Hollywood, Indian, Palestinian, and Pakistani films. Although he trained at the London Film School, Mostafa acknowledges the influence of Hollywood and Hindi films. Rapidly disappearing neighborhood cinemas screen primarily films in Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu. When films screen at malls, audiences largely self-segregate with Westerners attending Hollywood films; Arabs, Egyptian films; and Filipina/os, Philippine films. Only Bollywood and perhaps Mollywood films cross over as popular with most audiences.42 With his second feature, From A to B (Min alif ila ba’, 2014, UAE), Mostafa echoes his comments [cited in Gulf News, Dubai’s English-language daily] about the Bollywood road trip blockbuster Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011, directed by Zoya Akhtar, India), with the film focusing on “beautiful cars, beautiful girls” and “having fun.”43

Image 10.

Bollywood icon Shahrukh Khan in advertisement for Fair and Handsome on an abra in Khor Dubai; photograph by Dale Hudson, December 2011.

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Bollywood icon Shahrukh Khan in advertisement for Fair and Handsome on an abra in Khor Dubai; photograph by Dale Hudson, December 2011.

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City of Life developed from an idea of making a film about a Shahrukh Khan–lookalike in Dubai when he saw such performers at a place called Bollywood Café.44 Like other stars, Khan is beloved not only for his ability to emote, but to dance and lip-synch to songs by leading playback singers, an aspect of Bollywood important in Basu’s story. Bollywood is about “the emotions.” Spaces are made meaningful through emotional engagement, not objectifying distance. As Tejaswini Ganti explains, aesthetic concepts of rasa (modes of affect) and bhava (emotions), elaborated in the Natya Shastra (c. 200 BCE–200 CE), a Sanskrit treatise on dramaturgy, enter into contemporary film via multiple intermediaries.45 Like Hindi cinema, City of Life is partly structured on coincidences that would be deemed “too obvious” for Western film critics: the twenty-euro note that Basu accepts from Natalia and hopes the Kashmiri driver (Nitin Mirani) will accept from him; Faisal’s first bloody kandura with a few drops of blood after being hit by Khalfan, echoed in the later one, soaked with the blood of his dead friend. The conventions of the camera that circles around Faisal and his father inside their villa draws upon musalsal conventions. Old Filipino finds the lottery ticket that Khalfan discarded as he raced to save friend Faisal from a group of thugs.

In the postcolonial and transnational context, melodrama is hardly escapist.46 Gulf dramas address issues of rebellious youth, substance abuse, and family drama, often around fear of negative influence from foreigners. Such stories differ from Egyptian and Syrian musalsalat, which address “the demise of socialism, the perceived failures of nationalism, and the rise of Islamism,” yet they employ similar visual and narrative strategies.47City of Life extends practices in Gulf filmmaking that draw upon musalsalat, evident in Gulf films like Al-Za’ir (The Visitor, 2004, directed by Bassam Al-Thawadi, Bahrain) and Arbaa banat (Four Girls, 2007, directed by Hussain Al Hulaybi, Bahrain). The convergence of television and film is not merely a consequence of limited infrastructure. Unlike parts of South Asia, where cinephilia is ubiquitous, television is the most popular media in the Middle East.48

City of Life draws upon the heterogenous mix of films (and television) screened historically throughout the Gulf, including popular films from Bombay, Cairo, and elsewhere, thus reminding us that audiences select films that are proximate to their feelings of identity, rather than alienating to them—as Hollywood and European films can be for much of the world. Dubbed into Arabic, Bollywood films and Hindi serials are broadcast on Gulf television. Hindi cinema enters into Emirati cinema. It may be less evident in feature films, but it is visible and audible in the short films that seldom travel to Western festivals and are excluded from film histories organized around conventional concepts. Ahmed Zain’s Safi (2012, UAE), for example, examines friendship among Emirati men around their love of Sholay (1975, directed by Ramesh Sippy, India), the Hindi superhit about dosti (friendship). Sholay also appears in Abdullah Al-Daihani’s short film Now Showing (2014, Kuwait), along with Bruce Lee films from Hong Kong. Gulf films embody the heterogeneity of the Gulf—and its cinemas—as contact zones.

Promoted as inaugurating a new moment in Emirati filmmaking, City of Life premièred alongside Merzak Allouache’s Harragas (2009, Algeria/France), Pedro Almodóvar’s Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces, Spain, 2009), and Michel Khleifi’s Zindeeq (2009, Palestine/UK/Belgium/UAE). More significantly, it earned the Special Jury Prize at the Gulf Film Festival, which focuses exclusively on Gulf films, and second place in box-office receipts during its opening weekend in the UAE.49 The film’s producers hoped to screen it at Cannes. Looking at Cannes’s programming, it is hardly surprising City of Life was not selected. It does not exactly conform to Western expectations for Arab or Middle Eastern cinema. City of Life tells stories that do not register to foreign gatekeepers.

Trained within the discourses of festivals, Western journalists who attended City of Life’s première at the Dubai International Film Festival noticed the film’s appropriation of narrative and stylistic conventions from other media. One remarked that the “air hostess segment is the soapiest” among the film’s “soap-style dilemmas,” adding that “the [Emirati] characters of Faisal and Khalfan potentially offer more of an insight, [but] they’re the most underwritten of all Mostafa’s chess pieces.”50 The assumption that the film should explain the “real” Dubai and present Emirati cultures in ethnographic ways that foreigners can understand suggests both entitlement and ignorance. From a different perspective, Alia Yunis notes that the expatriate characters in City of Life “seem to be borrowed from generic television plots in those [Western] countries rather than being organic to the Dubai setting,” adding that any disappointment about a “lack of insight and originality about expats” could serve as an example of the film “playing it close to reality.”51

Indeed, City of Life frustrates Westerners’ self-image by not offering a sympathetic white character with whom they can relate; instead, it shows colonial narcissism through Guy, the film’s only monolingual character. High-paid expatriates like Guy often occupy Dubai’s glitzy spaces of clubs and parties, dropping “Inshallah” or “Mabruk” into sentences to flaunt cosmopolitan credentials without knowing much else in Arabic—or worse, appropriating Indian expressions such as “do the needful” as “what we say in the UAE.” City of Life deconstructs this privilege by presenting stereotypes of British expatriates as provincial and ill-mannered; exploitative; and, like privileged Western and Arab expatriates, benefiting indirectly from kafala without the stigma of being a kafeel. The film also complicates stereotypes of Eastern European women as hapless victims of sex trafficking. Moreover, it recognizes middle-class South Asian communities and addresses controversies within Emirati ones. City of Life examines what is missed, not only by tourists, but also by residents. Faisal falls victim to “foreign” distractions of fast cars, available women, and plentiful alcohol before returning to values of family, love, and religion that enabled early generations to survive. The film nearly missed its première when the National Media Council banned it, likely for depicting Emiratis drinking in clubs with foreigners.52 Western critics largely missed the film’s complex visual and narrative strategies—and instead focused on how they saw the film represent Westerners like themselves.

Conventional concepts from film studies can render films like City of Life invisible and inaudible. Much of contemporary film studies draws upon films selected for international festivals, which Thomas Elsaesser has defined as privileged “gatekeepers.”53 Western film festivals embody gatekeeping as cultural imperialism through programming, much like Western film funds do. Most films escape the notice of these gatekeepers. They are illegible because they convey different perspectives and perhaps even challenge the gatekeepers. Lúcia Nagib identifies four requirements for Western support for non-Western filmmaking by European Union television funding and the Sundance Institute: “local color,” “realism,” “private hero,” and “improbable but convincing event.”54 Compromises to story, theme, style, and even politics are common. Western critics adored Nadine Labaki’s Sukar Banat (Caramel, 2007, France/Lebanon) and Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda (2012, Saudi Arabia/Germany), for example, because they allegedly translated Lebanese and Saudi perspectives into a Western-friendly format.55 Cannes and other international festivals demonstrate how films are expected to reinforce certain ideas about national, regional, or cultural identities. They enter a market, where their significance is discursively produced through networks of exchanges that reinforce social biases and political inequities, even when these identities are not overly essentialized. With funding from the Gulf often linked to the festivals in Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi, other perspectives became possible.56 When such funding was available, filmmakers did not need to cater to Cannes or Venice formulas.

The derision of City of Life by Hollywood’s industry magazine Variety and Western expatriate–oriented Time Out Abu Dhabi highlights how proximity to “unfamiliar” modes of filmmaking triggers defensiveness. Such criticisms are naïve in their assumptions that Western modes of filmmaking can be universalized as a global standard. They reproduce the provincial tone of 1950s-era British film critics, who belittled Hindi films in ways that Rosie Thomas characterized as “at best irrelevant and also often racist” in an article published over three decades ago.57 In the context of the Gulf, rejecting different modes can reinscribe discourses of purity that erase the Gulf’s connections to East Africa, Iran, and South Asia. Numerous scholars have argued how selective focus on only Gulf Arabs is both historically and ethnically problematic.58 So-called mixed identity is addressed in short films, including Amal Al-Agroobi’s documentary Nisf Emirati (Half Emirati, 2012, UAE) and Ahmad Al Tunaiji’s Arasian (2017, UAE). Such films complicate notions of Arab or Middle Eastern cinema, popularized by festivals and critics, thus pointing to the significance of questions posed by Andrew Higson and Stephen Crofts about national cinemas nearly three decades ago.59

Unfortunately, discourses of purity can take the form of well-intended foreigners, who “mentor” aspiring Emirati artists without having deep knowledge of the region or the various artistic practices that intersect in the UAE, or worse, opportunistic foreigners, who make their own films with Emirati characters because they want to “save” Emiratis from negative stereotypes. Western producers and mentors are able to advise Emirati filmmakers to make their stories legible to Western gatekeepers. Such mentoring, however, can be counterproductive since it encourages modes of filmmaking that are allegedly internationally legible, reinforcing eurocentric insularity of “sanctioned ignorance” that frames “certain texts, contexts, and histories marked as too ‘regional’ and thus ‘peripheral.’”60 Such modes segregate by nation or region. They extend exoticizing, outside-in tropes that juxtapose alleged incongruities, such as mosques next to malls, or reveal unexpected “discoveries,” such as hijabi women who are also fighter pilots, jujitsu champions, entrepreneurs, or feminists. They reduce Dubai to an “undiscovered” location where foreign film crews can project fantasies and anxieties over rapidly changing global orders. They sustain and amplify prejudices by severing Dubai from history and framing it as a playground for transients, whether tourists, traffickers, or terrorists—a dislocated place, where no one really lives, like Disneyland or Second Life. They gaze at the city from outside-in rather than look around from inside-out.

City of Life’s première was partly undercut by roughly coinciding with speculation about “the emirate’s risk of defaulting on its multibillion-dollar loans [which] had exploded across the world’s front pages.”61 After the global financial crisis in 2008, Western journalists highlighted stories about luxury automobiles abandoned at airports as evidence of “unfair” laws on debt rather than as evidence of expatriates living beyond their means, most visibly by upgrading from modest flats at home to palatial villas in UAE. It is within this context that Mostafa conceived City of Life. The most vulnerable and least protected expatriates are denied dignity when objectified as agentless victim or framed as “migrant workers.”62 Foreign journalists rushed to unveil exploitation, often reproducing discourses of “saving” that Lila Abu-Lughod located in Hollywood’s selective concern for the suffering of Afghani women under the Taliban. Burqas and chadors are unacceptable, but causes of women’s poverty, malnutrition, and illness passed unnoticed. Hollywood lent its cultural capital to mobilize popular support for US military interventions, distracting from “ways that policies are being organized around oil interests, the arms industry, and the international drug trade.”63City of Life acknowledges that Dubai is neither free of social inequities nor defined by them. Dubai is a place of possibilities and risks. It is a contact zone with all the contradictions that contact zones always contain.

Like other films about cities in globalization, City of Life engages a looking around and moving through space to trace connections. Transcultural relationships help locate empathy and understanding within the segmented spaces and bureaucratic hierarchies of intersecting globalizations. Such relationships do not have to obliterate indigenous perspectives or reject them as “fake” simply because they do not conform to expectations from outside. Dubai may increasingly appear as an empty landscape of desert dunes or impressive skylines in foreign films, but such films do not explore how the city feels as a lived space—as a dwelling or home, the dar (دار) of City of Life’s Arabic title, Dar al-haya, which is also a colloquial name for Dubai. By closing with Old Filipino, the film conveys how not all stories can be fully translated for all audiences or the mythical universal audience that commercial festivals propagate. The film offers audiences an opportunity to consider Dubai as a lived city—and film studies an opportunity to consider the city-as-contact-zone as another methodology.64


Thomas L. Friedman, “Protect Islands of Decency in Middle East,” San Antonio Express-News (November 12, 2014),; Syed Ali, Dubai: Gilded Cage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).


Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 92.


Kay Dickinson, Arab Cinema Travels: Transnational Syria, Palestine, Dubai and Beyond (London: British Film Institute, 2016).


Mark Shiel, “Cinema and the City in History and Theory” in Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 2.


Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2007), 8.


Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1992), 5.


Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift, Seeing Like a City (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2016), 4–6.


As cited in Phil Hoad, “The responsibility is insane,” Guardian (April 9, 2009).


Stuart Hall “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 222–37.


Chen Kuan-Hsing, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).


Alia Yunis, “Film as Nation Building: The UAE Goes into the Movie Business,” CINEJ Cinema Journal 3, no. 2 (2014): 50–75; Alfio Leotta, “Small nations and the global dispersal of film production: A comparative analysis of the film industries in New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates,” The Political Economy of Communication 2, no. 2 (2014); Dale Hudson, “Locating Emirati Filmmaking within Globalizing Media Ecologies” in Media in the Middle East: Activism, Politics, and Culture, ed. Nele Lenze, Charlotte Schriwer, and Zubaidah Abdul Jalil (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 165–202.


Nile Green, “Rethinking the ‘Middle East’ after the Oceanic Turn,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34, no. 3 (2014): 561.


Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).


Nelida Fuccaro, “Visions of the City: Urban Studies on the Gulf,” MESA Bulletin 35 (2001): 176.


Ella Shohat, “Area Studies, Transnationalism, and the Feminist Production of Knowledge,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26, no. 4 (Summer 2001): 1269–72; Timothy Mitchell, “The Middle East in the Past and Future of Social Science,” in The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines, ed. David Szanton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 74–118.


Ananya Roy as cited in Johan Andersson and Lawrence Webb, Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media (London: Wallflower Press, 2016), 38.


Mike Davis, “Fear and Money in Dubai,” New Left Review 41 (2006): 62, 64.


Examples of this first paradigm include Discovery Channel’s Impossible City: Dubai (2008, directed by Alex Flaster, US); Cerebellum’s “STEM curriculum resource” MegaWorld: Dubai (2008, Canada); and stories in television magazines such as 60 Minutes’ “Dubai Inc.” (October 14, 2007). Examples of the second paradigm include Let’s Shop: Arab Gulf States and Let’s Shop: Abu Dhabi (both 2006, directed by Kevin Fox, Canada) with Cheryll Gillespie. Examples of the third paradigm include MFA Films’ Dubai: A City of Dreams (2010, directed by Robert Tutak, US) and 20/20, “Dark Side of Dubai,” ABC (November 17, 2006).


AbdouMaliq Simone, “A Town on Its Knees? Economic Experimentations with Postcolonial Urban Politics in Africa and Southeast Asia,” Theory, Culture & Society 27, nos. 7–8 (December 2010): 138, 137.


Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).


Walter Armbrust, “The Ubiquitous Nonpresence of India: Peripheral Visions from Egyptian Popular Culture,” in Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance, ed. Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008), 218.


Fuccaro, “Visions of the City”: 175, 182.


Fuyuki Kurasawa, “A Cosmopolitanism from Below: Alternative Globalization and the Creation of a Solidarity without Bounds,” European Journal of Sociology 45, no. 2 (2004): 233–55; James D. Ingram, “Cosmopolitanism from Below: Universalism as Contestation,” Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory 17, no. 1 (2016): 66–78.


Walter D. Mignolo, “The Many Faces of Cosmo-polis: Border Thinking and Critical Cosmopolitanism,” Public Culture 12, no. 3 (2000): 721–48.


Ahmed Kanna, Dubai, the City as Corporation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).


Range Rovers hold a particular significance in UAE; Lexuses, by contrast, do not. See Selina Denman, “Land Rover’s Ties to the UAE Go Back A Long Way and Continue to Flourish Today,” The National (October 2, 2016),


Yasser Elsheshtawy, “Everyday Urbanism: Mapping Diverse Encounters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” in Lifescapes Beyond Bigness, ed. Khalid Alawadi (London: Artifice, 2018), 348.


Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 93.


As a musician, Alsalman is known as Narcy, formerly The Narcicyst.


See The Persian Gulf in History, ed. Lawrence G. Potter (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); David Commins, The Gulf States: A Modern History (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012); The Persian Gulf in Modern Times: People, Ports, and History, ed. Lawrence G. Potter (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


Jason Farman, Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (New York: Routledge, 2012), 23.


Adina Hempel, “Khor Dubai: Urbanism and Choreography of Life Follows Trade,” in Alawadi, Lifescapes Beyond Bigness, 186–87.


Bindu Menon and T. T. Sreekumar, “‘One More Dirham’: Migration, Emotional Politics and Religion in the Home Films of Kerala,” Migration, Mobility & Displacement 2, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 17.


Yasser Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle (New York: Routledge, 2010), 68.


On colonial feminism, see Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).


Robina Mohammad and James D. Sidaway, “Shards and Stages: Migrant Lives, Power, and Space Viewed from Doha, Qatar,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106, no. 6 (2016): 1414.


Mohammad and Sidaway, “Shards and Stages”: 1410.


Pardis Mahdavi mentions the Taken films in her prologue to Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011) in the story about a conversation with a Syrian teacher, who complains that these “dumb movies” always situate the trafficking in “Europe or the U.S., but inevitably the Arabs are behind it,” 2.


Barbara Kosta, “Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run and the Usual Suspects: The Avant-Garde, Popular Culture, and History,” in German Pop Culture: How “American” Is It?, ed. Agnes C. Mueller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 165–79.


As cited in Ed Lake, “Peaceful Scenes,” The National (September 14, 2009).


Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Film, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 140–48.


Klaus Schoenbach, Robb Wood, and Marium Saeed, “Mainstream Cinema,” Media Industries in the Middle East, 2016, Northwestern University in Qatar and Doha Film Institute (March 8, 2016),


Manjusha Radhakrishnan, “Ali F Mustafa’s ‘From A to B’ Journey,” Gulf News (October 23, 2014),


Shannon Wylie, “Dubai Movie City of Life Making Its Mark,” Ahlan Live (April 29, 2010),


Ganti, Bollywood, 140–41.


Sheetal Majithia, “Rethinking Postcolonial Melodrama and Affect with Deepa Mehta’s Earth,” Modern Drama 58, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 1–24.


Christa Salamandra, “Arab Television Drama Production in the Satellite Era,” in Soap Operas and Telenovelas in the Digital Age: Global Industries and New Audiences, ed. Diana Isabel Arredondo Ríos and Mari Castañeda (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 276.


Alexandra Buccianti, “Arab Storytelling in the Digital Age: From Musalsalāt to Web Drama?” in The State of Post-Cinema: Tracing the Moving Image in the Age of Digital Dissemination, eds. Malte Hagener, Vinzenz Hediger, and Alena Strohmaier (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 50.


Shance McGinley, “City of Life makes AED500,000 in opening weekend,” Arabian Business (April 30, 2010),


Fionnuala Halligan, “City of Life” (review), Screen Daily (December 15, 2009).


Yunis, “Film as Nation Building,” 60–61.


Alfio Leotta, “Imag(in)ing a Nation: Ali Mostafa about the Emergence of Emirati Cinema,” Senses of Cinema 80 (September 2016).


Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 88.


Lúcia Nagib, “Going Global: The Brazilian Scripted Film,” in Trading Culture: Global Traffic and Local Cultures in Film and Television, ed. Sylvia Harvey (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey, 2007), 96–98.


For a case study of Nadine Labaki’s Wa halla l’way or Et maintenant on va où? (Where Do We Go Now?, 2011, France/Lebanon/Egypt/Italy), see Wissam Mouawad, “Lebanese Cinema and the French Co-production System: The Postcard Strategy,” in Cinema of the Arab World: Contemporary Directions in Theory and Practice, ed. Terri Ginsberg and Chris Lippard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 71–86.


Unfortunately, only the Doha Film Institute and Sharjah Art Foundation continue funding for noncommercial films.


Rosie Thomas, “Indian Cinema: Pleasure and Popularity: An Introduction,” Screen 26, nos. 3–4 (May–August 1985), 117.


James Onley, “Transnational Merchant Families in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Gulf,” in Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf, ed. Madawi Al-Rasheed (London: Routledge, 2005), 59–89; Neha Vora and Natalie Koch, “Everyday Inclusions: Rethinking Ethnocracy, Kafala, and Belonging in the Arabian Peninsula,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 15, no. 3 (2015), 540–52; Rana AlMutawa, “Monolithic Representations and Orientalist Credence in the UAE,” Gulf Affairs (Autumn 2016): 22–25.


See Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema,” Screen 30, no. 4 (1989): 36–46 and Stephen Crofts, “Reconceptualizing National Cinema/s,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 14, no. 3 (1993): 49–67.


Manishita Dass, “The Cloud-Capped Star: Ritwik Ghatak on the Horizon of Global Art Cinema,” in Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories, ed. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 250.


Ben Walters, “Can Dubai become the City of Life of Emirati Film?,” Guardian (December 23, 2009),


Non-victimizing narratives appear in other documentaries. See Dale Hudson, Songs from India and Zanzibar: Documenting the Gulf in Migration,Studies in South Asian Film & Media 10, no. 2 (December 2019): 91–112.


Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?: Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (September 2002): 789. More recently, supported by the US Embassy, the American Film Showcase screened Half the Picture (2018, directed by Amy Adrion, US), a documentary that skillfully mobilizes white corporate “feminism” to contain nonwhite agency and critique.


I am indebted to the intellectual generosity of Ella Shohat and Sheetal Majithia for their comments on earlier drafts; students in my Understanding MENASA Film and New Media course, who have offered insights into the film; Maher Jarrar and Walid Sadek for organizing the American University of Beirut Center for Arts and Humanities conference on space and place, where I originally presented portions of this article; and Afterimage editor Karen vanMeenen and the anonymous readers. The article is for Sheetal.