Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Ali El Arabi Of Ambient Light Films Is Helping To Change Our World
…To your point, investing in meaningful, lasting art is paramount. My team and I aim to create art that can reshape perspectives and offer new insights. Even though we’ve faced setbacks and have seen friends incarcerated, we firmly believe that art is the most potent tool for change — not just for the present but also for the future. Just as Shakespeare’s works continue to inspire generations, we need to create art that endures and provides guidance for the coming generations, helping them avoid the mistakes of the past.
I had the pleasure to talk to Ali El Arabi. Hailing from Egypt, Ali El Arabi stands as a prominent figure in the world of cinema. As the founder of Ambient Light Films, a production company with roots both in Egypt and the US, Ali champions movies that resonate with the heartbeats of Africa and the Middle East. This mission is a testament to his commitment to amplifying voices that often remain in the shadows.
Ali’s recent endeavor as a co-producer and North American distributor, “Goodbye Julia”, was the inaugural Sudanese film to grace the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Not only did it mark history by its mere presence, but it also clinched the notable “Prix De La Liberté” (The Freedom Prize) award at the festival.
Beyond just creating and producing films, Ambient Light Films, since its inception in 2016, has been a beacon for artists from the MENA region. With productions and co-productions spanning across four continents, the company’s objective remains unshaken: to give a voice to the unheard, empower MENA artists, and to pave a pathway for dialogues between the region and American and European markets.
Ali’s journey in the realm of film and production was preceded by his endeavors as a war reporter. His tales of conflict zones, refugee narratives, and rights of women and children found homes on platforms like ZDF, Stern TV Germany, and National Geographic. The crescendo of his storytelling journey was reached with “Captains of Zaatari,” his debut feature documentary that saw the limelight at Sundance in 2021. Gaining traction across 85 international festivals, the film made its mark on prominent platforms including Apple TV, Hulu, and Netflix.
Through Ambient Light Films and his individual efforts, Ali continues to serve as a bridge between cultures, highlighting stories of resilience, hope, and humanity.
Yitzi: Well, Ali, it’s a delight and honor to meet you. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn about your personal origin story. How did things begin for you? Could you share a story of your childhood and how you grew up?
Ali: It’s quite a tale. I grew up in a small village near Mansoura, which is about three hours from Cairo. Growing up, I faced significant challenges with my traditional family. They had a path envisioned for me, but I always dreamt of becoming a professional boxer. Despite their reservations, I pursued both business studies and boxing. Conversations with my family often revolved around my aspiration to be a director. My dad viewed it more as a hobby rather than a profession. When I turned 18, I left my family and went to Cairo. There, I took on various jobs and continued my passion for boxing, even branching into professional kickboxing. Over time, I discovered my true calling as a director. After about five years, I started gaining recognition. One day, my dad saw me on TV. That moment initiated our reconciliation. I was grateful to work towards healing our relationship before he passed away. I have a brother who followed in my dad’s footsteps and became a lawyer. Reflecting on my early days in the village, it still inspires and motivates me. Sports, especially boxing, played a crucial role in shaping my life. My mom was always been my rock. She was the first to believe in me and supported me immensely, even when my dad didn’t.
Yitzi: So you’ve undoubtedly experienced many adventures being a filmmaker and working on all these impactful projects. Can you share with our readers one or two interesting stories from behind the scenes of your projects, or perhaps from your travels filming a scene or from boxing?
Ali: Certainly. I’d like to begin with what transpired after I left my family and moved to Cairo. In the city, I found camaraderie and began to think about the revolution. As my friends and I became more involved in the revolution, I began to harness my skills as a director, creating short films that portrayed the events of the revolution. As I worked on these projects, I remained anonymous — producing these films without credit, driven purely by a desire to share the truth and help my people.
After the revolution, I felt a profound realization. I found my voice and knew that this was my calling. I set out to create films that told the stories of people across the globe. Collaborating with the German TV network, I traveled to war-torn regions to produce documentaries. But over time, I grew disheartened. The television narratives often skewed away from reality, treating humans as mere statistics. This propelled me to make “Captain Za’atari,” a feature highlighting refugees as individuals, complete with dreams, hopes, worries, and success stories. Following its release, the film didn’t just achieve commercial success; it made real-world impacts. The lead characters managed to secure passage to the World Cup, and the Arab League reconsidered certain refugee policies.
This drove me to set up a company with fellow filmmakers from our region. Our mission? To narrate tales — of generational gaps, of struggles with governance, of inspiring anecdotes from countries like India, Sudan, and Lebanon. My boxing background played a pivotal role in my approach to filmmaking. Boxing taught me movement, resilience, and agility. Likewise, I found myself moving between countries, dodging bureaucratic constraints, and creating impactful content with a robust team of filmmakers. We’ve supported each other throughout. After the success of “Captain Za’atari,” we attracted investors who believed in our vision. We’ve managed to double their investments, premiered a film at Cannes that won the Freedom Award, and have two more projects in the pipeline.
Yitzi: It’s often said that our mistakes can become our greatest teachers. Do you have a story about a humorous mistake you made when you first started filmmaking, and the lesson you took from it?
Ali: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a mistake, but there were times when we faced setbacks. After completing “Captain Za’atari,” I reached out to various distributors and producers in the Middle East. Despite sharing this incredible journey of spending seven years with the kids from the film, none wanted to collaborate. I didn’t have experience in this market, but I took a leap and decided to produce my film while directing it. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I learned so much as a producer, and it was from this experience that I was inspired to create a company to assist other filmmakers with unique ideas, ones that may have been deemed too unconventional for traditional Middle Eastern producers.
At first, it was discouraging because it seemed no one believed in my film. Yet after its success — having been showcased at Sundance, streaming on platforms like Apple TV, Hulu, and Netflix, and being featured in 85 festivals globally — the acclaim and positive feedback were overwhelming. One of the most touching moments was when a woman in an Algerian prison, after watching the film, told me it was the first time in five years she felt free. She said the movie gave her hope for a future outside the prison walls. With the refugee policies in the Middle East also starting to change, I truly believe everything happens for a reason.
Yitzi: With all the impressive work you’ve done, can you share with our readers some of the most exciting projects you’re currently working on and what you’ll be diving into in the near future?
Ali: When I think about all my projects, if I were to distill them into one core message, it would be this: The real gold isn’t found in the spotlight but in the ambient light. True heroes emerge from struggles.
Currently, I’m working on a film, tentatively titled “Ashish’s Journey,” although the name might change. It’s about an Indian boy isolated from the world but longing to be a part of it, and pursue his own identity and passions. He’s determined to leave his village, to find his own path, and against his father’s wishes, he runs away. His dream is to attend the last World Cup and meet Messi. Throughout his journey, he learns many life lessons. He encounters a girl who’s seeking her passion as a professional dancer and eventually finds himself in a world filled with music, dance, and soccer. The film is in post-production, and we hope to wrap up in about two months.
We have the Lebanese film “I am Arze” directed by Mira Shaib, featuring a strong woman striving to support her family after a major misfortune. In the film, to find her stolen scooter, the main character Arzé drags her rebellious son on an adventure across Beirut, navigating the city’s web of sectarianism with wit and courage while revealing to her son a long-overdue family secret.
And then there’s “Second Round” about a 25-year-old Nubian from Upper Egypt who runs away from his abusive father to pursue a boxing career in the US. When his father is struck with amnesia and joins him for his treatment, he seizes the opportunity to reinvent his father’s past in an attempt to mend their dysfunctional family dynamics and build a better future together.
These main characters, these everyday superheroes, are the unnoticed, ordinary people among us. It’s a misconception to think life’s heroes are always in the spotlight. Quite the opposite; the most genuine stories are found away from the glare. As I said, the gold is in the ambient light, not in the limelight.
Yitzi: Here’s our main question that we pose in every interview. Given all the success you’ve enjoyed, reflecting back to your early days, can you name five things you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out?
- Firstly, to be a truly great artist, you need to effectively manage yourself. I really wish I had grasped this concept earlier in my career.
- Secondly, artistic freedom isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Initially, I thought it meant doing whatever I pleased, whenever and wherever. But it’s not that simple, especially when you’re young and just starting out.
- Thirdly, there’s this misconception about needing to conquer a specific market. Over the past two or three years, I’ve realized it’s not about storming into a market and trying to dominate it.
- Fourthly, teamwork is the bedrock of success. It’s absolutely everything.
These are the main insights that come to mind. If anything else comes to mind, I’ll be sure to share.
Yitzi: You work with so many individuals from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, and you seem to have such a cosmopolitan view of the world. Given that, especially in America and globally, we see so much division and conflict, how do you believe we can foster more understanding, compassion, and empathy to bridge these divides?
Ali: Your questions are profound, Yitzi. Navigating this topic isn’t easy. Seeing the current state of America saddens me, especially for the artists there. I relate to their struggles, as we’ve experienced similar challenges here. Ever since I began my journey as a director, we’ve battled lack of funding, a non-existent market, and the overarching grip of major producers. Finding work isn’t straightforward; often, you have to seek support from unexpected quarters. But here’s what I believe: art has the potential to transform the world. Whether it’s through films, songs, or other mediums, genuine artistic expression can break barriers and heal wounds. If more emphasis was placed on the arts, and if artists were given the tools and freedom to express themselves, the world would undoubtedly be a better place. Business is vital, of course, but artists need guardians to shield them from the inherent hardships of the industry.
To your point, investing in meaningful, lasting art is paramount. My team and I aim to create art that can reshape perspectives and offer new insights. Even though we’ve faced setbacks and have seen friends incarcerated, we firmly believe that art is the most potent tool for change — not just for the present but also for the future. Just as Shakespeare’s works continue to inspire generations, we need to create art that endures and provides guidance for the coming generations, helping them avoid the mistakes of the past.
Yitzi: Here’s our matchmaker question, which sometimes works wonders. We’re fortunate that influential figures in entertainment and business read this column. Is there someone, anywhere in the world or in the US, you’d wish to sit down with for a coffee or discuss a collaboration? We could potentially make that connection through a social media tag.
Ali: You know, Yitzi, I’ve spent my entire life searching for a mentor, someone to collaborate with and to gain wisdom from. But throughout my journey, I’ve realized that the true master and teacher is the journey itself, not necessarily a single individual. However, I’m eager to meet someone who shares my goals: to uplift Africa, the Middle East, and the younger generation, helping them share their stories globally and connect with the world authentically. If we’re naming specific individuals, there are many. But if anyone can introduce me to notable figures, I’m all ears.
Specifically, I’ve been greatly impressed by Daniel Katz and David Fenkel, the pioneers behind A24. Their model is truly revolutionary. They’ve given artists the freedom to express authentically, introducing the world to incredible works in such a unique and simple manner. It would be a dream to meet them.
And, if I might add, Denzel Washington tops my list. Why Denzel? He’s not only a brilliant actor but also a trailblazer. He has reshaped the industry, elevating the roles of African-American actors and making significant societal impacts in the US. The way he selects stories and represents African-American characters is truly commendable.
Yitzi: How can our readers continue to follow and support your work?
Ali: I’d be elated if they became more receptive to films from diverse places like Sudan, Egypt, India, and the Middle East. We have compelling stories that resonate with audiences globally, regardless of their background or beliefs. Our desire is for everyone to connect with us, discuss, and provide feedback on our creations. If they take the initiative to visit theaters or search for our films on various platforms, it opens up a significant market for us. This larger audience grants us the freedom to produce the content we’re passionate about. I earnestly hope we can collaborate with artists in the US soon, and that they return to their craft swiftly and thrive.
Yitzi: Thank you so much, Ali. This interview has been incredibly insightful. I’m eager to share it, and I truly hope I can convey its depth and wisdom in writing as effectively as you’ve spoken.
Ali: I’m confident you will. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, Yitzi. And I hope one day we can meet in person, whether it’s when I return to Los Angeles, or perhaps if I visit Washington. If you ever find yourself in the Middle East, please let me know. It’d be an honor to meet.
Yitzi: Thank you, my friend. I deeply appreciate your time and insights shared today.
Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Ali El Arabi Of Ambient Light Films Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.