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  • The Soul of Dubai through Windows and Mirrors:Ali Mostafa's Don't Judge a Subject by Its Photograph
  • Ioannis Galanopoulos

Ali F. Mostafa's short film Don't Judge a Subject by Its Photograph was screened in September 2014, during the fourteenth Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), as part of the commissioned program "The Soul of Dubai." The title of the film is clearly written in the imperative form, but despite its directness, it is destined to speak vicariously to the audience. After the success and wholehearted reception of Mostafa's first full feature film, City of Life (2010; see Malzahn), Don't Judge a Subject by Its Photograph continues his intention to depict Dubai as an actual, cosmopolitan city beyond the glamour highlighted by its tourist industry.

Twelve Emirati films were screened during the European Film Screenings series in 2015, demonstrating the evolution of the country's film industry, of which Emirati-British filmmaker Ali Mostafa has been credited as a forerunner (see Leotta). Mostafa gained international attention and local fame when he won the award for "Best Emirati Filmmaker" at the fourth edition of DIFF with his graduation short film, Under the Sun (2005). His debut in the full feature genre was with the film City of Life at the sixth edition of the festival. His second full feature film, From A to B (2014), opened the last edition of the discontinued Abu Dhabi International Film Festival (ADFF), the same year Don't Judge a Subject was screened at DIFF.

This article hearkens back to John Szarkowski's notions about photography in the 1978 catalogue accompanying the famous MOMA photo exhibition, to delineate the juxtaposition with Mostafa's film. According to Szarkowski, photographers followed [End Page 411] two main aesthetic tendencies under which photographs functioned as mirrors or windows, the former demonstrated in Eugene Atget's solemn untouched objective gaze and the latter in Alfred Stieglitz's untouched, but lyrically enhanced, documentary approach, as Szarkowski notes in the foreword of the exhibition catalogue:

The two creative motives that have been contrasted here (at the show) are not discrete […] The distance between them is to be measured not in terms of the relative force or originality of their work, but in terms of their conceptions of what a photograph is: Is it a mirror, reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or a window, through which one might better know the world?


We are living well beyond 1978, and reviewing older (Barthes; Sontag) as well as newer scholarship (Clarke; Cotton; Hall), fortifies the belief that photographs are "windows" leading to multiple worlds, discursive ideologies, feelings, and modi vivendi, due to the representational ambiguities of the photographic sign. The same applies to films. Through films we gain access to new interpretive worlds as multiple ideologies, meanings, and worldviews, all jumping out of the screen and asking the viewer for identification, adoption, negation, or no action at all. Regardless of this realization, Szarkowski's classification of "windows and mirrors" remains current as it touches upon subjective and objective ways of art-making. Therefore, this article examines Mostafa's film as representational artwork within the context of mirror or window and asks: Is Mostafa's Don't Judge a Subject by Its Photograph a mirror of or a window to the world of Dubai that he describes? Can it function as both? Knowing the "institutional framework" (see Nichols) from which the film derives, as a commissioned work meant to show Dubai to the rest of the world, one would answer, a window. This link is rather simple, and I explain throughout how Mostafa not only tries, but also succeeds in creating this relationship. What is more difficult to establish is that his film is also a mirror reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it. The following discussion highlights the questions: Is Mostafa's short film also a mirror reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it, or only a window through which one might better know the world he describes? How does one of the film's main characters, a photographer, represent both interpretations?

In explaining how Mostafa succeeds in informing the viewers to reframe...


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pp. 411-423
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