Essa Al Bastaki has been part of the UAE’s cosplay community for over 10 years. He and his partner, Alex, who prefers to be known by her first name, won the Cosplay Competition at the Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) festival 2023, and then went on to represent Team UAE in the World Cosplay Summit in Japan. The term ‘cosplaying’ is a contraction of the words ‘costume playing’ and refers to the practice of dressing up as a character from a film, video game, or anime.
“My parents were proud,” says Al Bastaki of his stint in Japan. But that wasn’t always the case. When he first began to cosplay, the Emirati would pack his outfit in a bag and only change into it once he reached the convention hall. He says his parents had a hard time accepting all that comes with cosplaying – the making of a costume, the putting on of makeup, sewing.
“So, my parents had a hard time accepting everything. They found it childish in the beginning,” he adds. But this was before he proved himself at university. “When I was studying, we had to give a history presentation. And literally, I took all the information and created one costume based on it. I presented my report on the costume, and got an A plus for it,” he recalls. Acing his class warmed his parents to the idea of dressing up.
Years later, things changed to the extent that his parents would ask him about his costumes when he heads out in a character and what’s next for him, says the thirty three-year-old Emirati banker. For his partner Alex, 24, it wasn’t too difficult to convince her parents. “The biggest thing was that they needed to understand what exactly I was doing. Like, is it appropriate? Is it inappropriate? Let them know that this is like a safe hobby and that you're not harming anyone. No one is harming you. It's just for fun and it’s just for yourself.”
The duo, who played Shaheen and Alisa Bosconovitch from the game Tekken at MEFCC, say they “collaborate very smoothly”, even though picking a character to play and deciding on skits may take them a while. You have to collaborate, look at things from the other person’s point of view and communicate before deciding on an act, they explain.
And then there’s the budget, which, they say, is the biggest challenge of cosplaying. This can make or break your outfit, especially if you decide to make it from scratch. If you should decide to make the ensemble, first you need to source your raw materials – and this usually takes trips to shops across the UAE, if you want to get things right and within your pre-decided spend. Then comes the next challenge - putting it together. “I have three sewing machines in my room,” says Al Bastaki.
It can take months to prepare a good costume. “A medium complexity costume, if you want to make it look good would take a month or two of constant work,” adds Alex.
But she offers a quick fix for those with low budgets. “Try closet cosplay. It is very accessible. It's when you pick out clothing that you already have in your closet and match them to whatever character you would like to cosplay. It's not a very accurate cosplay, but it's a very good start. After deciding on a character and readying the costumes, it’s time to prepare a skit but that means research and really knowing who you are playing.”
When it comes to getting into character, she says, she likes to study the source. “Whether it's from a game or a movie or a comic book. To better understand how the character acts with their personality you must ask, ‘how do they respond to other characters? Do they have any iconic catchphrases?’ This is something I then write down. What I do sometimes is, for example, if it's a character with a personality, I would stand in front of a mirror and practise like if they have any special poses, I will practice poses. If they have any special facial expressions, I will practise them. Now, why this is important is because when you go on stage or a photographer comes by, and they want to take a picture of you, you want to look original. You can't really see what you're doing. But you would want to bring that character to life as much as possible.”
It’s also recommended that you carry back-ups for any wardrobe malfunctions that may happen at a meet. Al Bastaki recalls his trip to Japan with fondness and talks about how his shoes suddenly tore minutes before he was to go on stage. “Fortunately, we are always prepared,” he laughs. “I had a repair kit, which I used to patch things up just in time.”
Alex says it was her love for certain characters that got her into cosplaying. “The first-ever character that I was a big fan of was Ariel from The Little Mermaid. To be Ariel brings me a lot of joy. It’s fun, it boosts my imagination and creativity. And so, it kind of went from there and I started exploring other characters.”
In Al Bastaki’s case, he ran a manga club in the university and he sold costumes. But it took a friend to talk him into wearing a guise and trying it for himself. “Once I was in cosplay, I felt I had become the character,” he says. It was a heady feeling; one he was going to feel again. His favourite character is the Joker (the late Heath Ledger’s version). He’s spent a great deal of time perfecting his voice and his dialogues. And one day he left his script lying around. “My father got such a shock,” he says.
The duo represented the UAE at Japan’s World Cosplay Summit and they are proud of the accomplishment. “It was amazing; honestly the best feeling ever to just to go there and represent the UAE as a country. I feel very humbled, you know. It feels really, really nice,” says Al Basktaki.
It also meant a lot to them because of the respect they have for their community. “The community is really nice. We have a lot of creative people around. I've been in the cosplay community for more than 10 years right now…it's amazing.” Alex concurs, saying: “One thing I really like about the cosplay community is, we're all open to anyone coming up to us and asking us, ‘Oh, how do you do this? How do you do that?’. We're kind of doing the same thing, but not exactly, and someone might be really good at one type of craft than the other, and this whole communication among the cosplayers makes us a very strong community.”
Presently, Alex and Al Bastaki are in serious discussions about the characters they would play in their next convention coming up in February. Who shall they play? The possibilities are endless because when you want to act out a character, you have a whole world of dramatis personae to choose from and dress up.
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