“From A to B”
U.S. cinema is probably responsible for perfecting the wafer-thin road movie. These multiplex-friendly tales not infrequently feature a cluster of entitled college kids driving across country to party somewhere – for spring break, say, or a pal’s wedding.
A road movie need not be a light-hearted affair. The genre works off two premises: the travellers must move across an alien landscape and interact with its natives; the relationships among the travelling characters, often involving some long-standing unresolved differences, must change.
Ali Mostafa’s sophomore feature “From A to B” takes American road movie convention and displaces it to the Middle East.
Omar, Rami and Youssef are three middle class twenty-something men who live and work in Abu Dhabi. Once close, they drifted apart after a bomb killed their pal Hani in Beirut in 2006. Given the date, Hani’s presumably meant to have expired during Israel’s month-long bombing campaign against Lebanon.
Five years on, life has drifted by for the three surviving friends. Omar (Fadi Rifaai) represents those who live in the real world. He’s married to Arwa (Yousra El Lozy) and the couple are awaiting the birth of their first child.
Rami (Shadi AlFons), on the other hand, embodies internet-obsessed contemporary youth culture. A self-styled vlogger (video blogger), he composes pro-Arab Spring videos in his bedroom – using a green screen to make it appear as though he’s in the thick of the action – while living with his widowed, over-protective mum (Maha Abou Ouf).
More disengaged still is Yousef (Fahad Albutairi). The child of a Porced Irish-Arab couple, he’s developing a profile as a DJ – he prefers to be called “Jay” – while living off an allowance his estranged businessman father provides.
For reasons disclosed over the course of the movie, Omar particularly misses Hani. Just before he was killed, the now-absent pal was trying to coax Omar, Rami and Yousef to join him on a road trip to Beirut, widely regarded as the party central of the Arab world.
Now Omar gets in touch with Rami and Yousef to actually do this road trip, which would see them arrive in Beirut in time for Hani’s birthday. The road is long, sort of, requiring them to cross the frontiers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria – the latter being in the throes of civil war.
“A to B” is an Arab Spring movie told from the perspective of the United Arab Emirates, and not merely because of the year and place that it was made. Aside from his death, the one significant fact revealed about Hani is that he was born on New Year’s Day, which gives his premature death a readily grasped metaphorical resonance.
“A to B” is also very much a follow-up to Mostafa’s debut feature, “City of Life” (2009), a three-plotted movie following three characters from Dubai’s more-or-less self-enclosed Emirati, Euro-American and South Asian communities.
Like “City of Life,” “A to B” is interested in depicting the United Arab Emirates as a cosmopolitan ambit. While its three protagonists live and work in Abu Dhabi, none is an Emirati citizen.
Omar is the son of a Syrian diplomat, now living in Egypt, who’s wife Arwa is also Egyptian. Rami is himself Egyptian, while Yousef/Jay is Saudi. Hani was evidently Lebanese.
The script plays on the dramatic frisson of incongruity – as when Syrian pro- and anti-regime gunmen confront the expat diplomat’s son, self-declared Saudi DJ and camera-toting Egyptian Vlogger. The script never wanders far from the story’s light-hearted promise, however, and the more ominous of the lads’ two Syrian encounters is also the most comic.
Mostafa is credited with the film’s story but he shares screenplay credits with three other writers, including his producer Mohamed Hefzy – a screenwriter whose Egyptian production house has a soft spot for young indie filmmakers.
In its geographical displacement of a U.S. genre type, Mostafa & Co’s story is reminiscent of the more successful work of Lebanese-American writer-director Ziad Doueiri.
Though the principal actors are unknowns, a menagerie of Arab talent make cameo appearances here – Hefzy regulars Khaled Abol Naga (speaking Shami) and Yousra El Lozy; Palestinian actors Leem Lubany (from Hany Abu Asaad’s “Omar”) and Ali Suliman; up-and-coming Saudi filmmaker Ahd Kamel appears as Youssef’s sister Rana.
Even Hefzy and co-producer Paul Baboudjian (director of the film development engine Screen Institute Beirut) have Hitchcock-ian walk-on roles.
The multi-cultural audience Mostafa & Co evidently had in mind in assembling the story may also appreciate the gestures made to bring some Gulf verisimilitude to what is basically an American genre picture.
Westerners will be relieved that dialogue among the principal characters is liberally sprinkled with English. The film also nods to the characters’ Perse origins. When Omar and Rami meet for the first time in years, Rami speaks Masri. Omar speaks Shami.