The Saudi-born Londoner talks about taking inspiration from his heroes in order to forge his own path.
Mo Ali was born into poverty-stricken Saudi Arabia before travelling to England with his parents as a young child. With little formal education, his break came when he was randomly offered the chance to run on a shoot near his home in Newham. He made his way up from there, running on Blind Date for almost a year while filming music videos for the grime scene.
Shank, his directorial feature debut, wasn’t exactly embraced by critics on its release in March this year. Set in 2015, it provides an uncompromising vision of anarchic youth in the ghettos of East London. Wearing its heart on it sleeve, Shank is an endorsement of the street culture that Ali grew up in, and is heavily educated by the music video aesthetic that has become his bread and butter.
In a whitewashed PR firm in Chelsea, he told LWLies how a first-generation immigrant from London’s poorest district becomes a feature-film director, and what he intends to with that power.
LWLies: Shank is set in 2015. How much do you see Shank as a comment on London today?
Ali: It’s definitely about the here and now. One of the reasons why I wanted to use this concept was to highlight how things could turn out with the government that’s in charge now and the government that was in charge last year. There is this generation that is being forgotten about in some senses. It’s the YouTube generation, and every ounce of the money is going to the Olympics, and they’re not really focusing on the community. It’s a global thing, and the community coming up now is forgotten about. And I think the film, because it’s set in the future, could somehow make the audience understand how their life could turn out over the next 10 years.
There’s a real juxtaposition between the vibrancy of the street culture and just how disenfranchised it is, just how left alone it is...
Yeah that kind of idea came from my own background. I grew up in shanty towns and I saw it, and it’s happening now. A lot of developing countries have that way of life, and it's just about getting that concept and putting it into a Westernised country, and London is the pinnacle of global Westernisation. If you set it in London, it makes a great point, because young audiences can realise a) how lucky they are and b) how other people live. It could easily happen here, and the film is a small, subliminal message saying ‘This could happen to you.’ But it's also about escapism. As a young kid, I didn’t like films that were hard-hitting and had a massive message. I loved enjoying Spielberg and Kubrick, and their films had messages that were very much underground. So I wanted Shank to be dystopian but also escapist. I wanted it to be eye-opening and edge-of-your-seat.
Your own background sounds like it’s really educated the film?
Yeah definitely. I grew up on the streets where we made our own way. I was a little shepherd for a while as well, and it made me realise how lucky I am now. It’s taken me a long time to get here and to create film, it’s a very privileged thing and I’m lucky, but I’ve worked hard to achieve it. But it woke me up about my social group; our way of life, how it affects other people, because we were living to day to day, and when it made me become very aware of what’s going on around me a lot quicker. I didn’t have a lot of franchises blocking my way of thinking.
So you genuinely think there are communities in East London and other parts of Britain that can go that way?
Yeah man. This morning I went to visit my family in Upton Park and the whole place is unrecognizable, but there are these little elements of Shank in there; these little street markets, with meats hanging out. It completely reminded me of the market scene in Shank without the whole futuristic look. To me, I think, this is not Britain. The way you’ve got national groups in East Ham, Newham, Wood Green, it breeds these gangs. And it’s a subject that we tried to talk about in Shank. They grow up and their gangs stick to them, because they don’t know anything else. If you’re in a group with your community members, you stick together, you fight for each other, because you have no body else. You become almost programmed to think ‘Right, this is my bit, this is my turf.’ They’re forgotten children. But a lot of gangs are in essence family.
It’s an usual film visually, particularly in the way it doesn’t involve any establishing shots before a scene.
I didn’t think we needed it. It’s trying to create this closed-off thing. Everything about the film was almost cage like, engulfing buildings that look down on you and metal and wire; this idea of being closed in, like a concrete jungle.
Film sets are mad environments. They also seem to be right on the edge of chaos. You’re a young guy, this was a big project. Did you ever have any difficulties in handling it?
Do you know what? No. It was hard for the first week to adjust. The main job for the director is to make the visual original. My heroes are Kubrick and Spielberg, they’re my father figures and I felt I had to please them. It’s a daunting idea to make a 93-minute long film for a director that’s only worked on five-minute long projects, so the key thing was to break it up. I storyboarded every shot, I had a shot list of about eight pages. I made sure I planned everything to a tee, visually, before I shot.
You always felt in control?
Yeah. Well, it’s not about control, it’s about group understanding. Dictation is never good on a set. It just makes people understanding what needs to be done, and what we’re trying to achieve.
You’ve mentioned Kubrick and Spielberg. At what stage did you think to yourself, ‘I don’t just have to be a fan of these people. I can start making movies professionally.’
When I was 14. Weirdly enough, I used to live in Beckton, which is where Stanley Kubrick shot Full Metal Jacket. I didn’t go to school much, and I used to hang out with my friends and smoke and drink, and we used to hang out there and this director one day came roaring up in this 4x4, ripping in. He came up beside us and said ‘Listen, I’m looking for locations. Do you know any?’ and I showed him a couple. He was impressed by them and he said ‘Look, I’m shooting in a couple of months. Do you want to come and be a runner?’ I didn’t have a clue what that what was but I was like ‘Yeah alrite, I guess so.’ I totally forgot about it but he gave my Mum a call and he said ‘Look, I promised your son...’ and she was like ‘Great, it’ll get him out of my house.’ So I went down with a bunch of my mates to see how it all worked. They had fake guns and sound and just to see this whole world of film. Before I’d seen a lot of films but I didn’t know how they’d made it. It just seemed to make sense. So the next day I turned up without my mates and I ended up spending the rest of summer as a runner. And I’ve gone from there.
Shank is out on DVD now.