Ali Esbai talks funny horror, winning awards and plans for the future..
His friends know all about Ali Esbai’s success as a filmmaker – lots of them were roped in to offer help along the way. But, for much of Bahrain, he’s more commonly known as Ali Fingerz, awardwinning comic to be found opening for the likes of Omid Djalili and Maz Jobrani. So, just what took the Bahraini funnyman from the deserts of Bahrain to the streets of LA – and all the way back again?
Ali had been doing stand-up comedy since his student days in Dublin, in 2005, and continued when he moved back to Bahrain in 2007. Within a year he had been chosen to open for Omid Djalili and was well on his way to becoming a regional star.
Competing in The Funniest Person in Bahrain 2013 brought him into contact with a film crowd and at that point, he decided he wanted to be an actor. A call came from Muneer Al Busaidi and Tariq (Riq) Sharif to work on a short comedy, A Heated Interview, which was written and directed by Muneer and shot in the UAE where it was entered into a competition. The film triumphed but Ali realised: “It was funny but, if I had written it, it would have been funnier! That’s no disrespect to Muneer, I’ve said the same to him and we’re still good friends.”
Realising his future lay behind the camera, in 2017 Ali was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study for a filmmaking degree in Los Angeles. “I wanted to be Muneer’s Sam Jackson, but I took a different path,” he laughs. “I thought I was going to be an actor, I wanted to be in front of the camera but I became frustrated at being a tool in somebody else’s story.”
Every semester students had to work on five films, one of their own and the rest in various roles on their colleagues’ productions ensuring they learn every aspect of the filmmaking process from production design to directing.
Ali continues: “The course ends with a thesis film. You fund it, write it and do everything on the film. I have to thank Rashad Faraj and Nawaf Kanoo [for funding] because it’s LA and you have pay to shoot anywhere – you even need a permit to shoot in your own property. It cost USD26,000 to hire crew etc. I had to tell them they would get nothing out of it. If it’s selected there’s a redcarpet screening at Warner, but that’s it. They said, it’s a donation to your film and an investment in you!”
That film was Incarnate which went on to win the Fareed Ramadan Student Film Award at the Bahrain Film Festival. On the success of the film, he says: “To be honest, that was what I hoped would happen when I wrote the film – it’s a mix of local folklore and Midwestern horror. It’s a statement. I’m in Bahrain [after] learning to make films in Hollywood and I still [want to] to tell Bahraini stories. “To get the film made I just reached out to friends and, luckily, they came! Emira El Kooheji [an Instagram and TV personality] came out to LA twice at her own expense. We opened Malja together at the hosting ceremony back in the day and we often worked together after that.
“And Reem Edan, an Iraqi comedian, is working in LA, she went to Nadeen School here, then moved to the US. Her mother got in touch on FB and got us back in contact.” Arriving back in the Kingdom just before Covid hit, Ali had a few comedy gigs lined up bringing him back in contact with Mahmood Alshaikh, they’d been school friends but never worked together. He, in turn, welcomed Ali into the Bahrain film scene and he [Ali] worked on a music video with DJ Outlaw and another for Flipperachi. “I conceptualised it with him, we wrote it together and we even filmed at Flip’s home – we couldn’t go anywhere else due the Covid restrictions,” he says. The chance to get back to doing what he loves gave Ali the confidence to register for a CR to start doing work for hire while developing his own stories.
He says: “People were calling me for jobs, so I decided to make it official, and I set up Wikkid Productions in July 2020. It has been a very lively journey since we started. There have been different projects and I’ve loved seeing people recognise the value of my work and that there’s a difference to it. People know me as the funny guy and for Capoeira [his other passion]. I was afraid that being the guy who makes people laugh or the acrobat…it’s not so professional. So, now, the comedian has grown into a filmmaker.” As well as doing some corporate video work, Ali is currently writing a full feature horror concept. “Yeah, I know, a comedian writing horror!” he laughs.
“It will be a faith-based horror – a bit like The Exorcist is for Catholics – it’s about the supernatural stuff you encounter in Islam, such as jinn. It features a Bahraini psychiatrist who spends her whole career debating it [the supernatural] then encounters a patient she can’t help and realises there is more to life [than we see] – it’s like an onion made up of different layers.” And a future, so far top-secret, plan is also in the making. All we can say is it will feature his beloved canine and feline family members.
Of the more distant future, Ali says: “In five years, I see myself doing what I do now but on a bigger scale. I’ve just established Wikkid Productions. In five years, I see it having different divisions, specialising in different areas. I also want to have a full feature film playing on platforms like Netflix!” And of the big change in his life, he concludes: “It happened through an obsession with constantly wanting to change things. I never liked what I did, always felt it was missing something and that’s what ultimately drives me to keep doing more.” ✤