Dubai’s newest art house cinema

I get ab workouts from talking so much,” says Butheina Kazim with a laugh. She is drinking chai at Cinema Akil in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, the arthouse cinema’s first permanent theatre.

“It took us three-and-a-half years to make enough money to be able to build this space,” she adds, gesturing to the venue around her. Endless meetings, travel, research, and the grunt work necessary to bring an independent cinema to life have been part of her existence for months, if not years. Hence the ab workouts.

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Yet here she is, all fresh-faced and full of life, pleased that Cinema Akil’s vision to bring great films from across the world to audiences in Dubai has graduated from an occasional pop-up platform to a permanent cinematic space.

“I’m happier when I see people coming in,” she says with an evident smile. “It’s one thing to have the cinema decked out and to have the programme. And it’s a whole other thing to have the audience that supports it and wants it and is insisting on the experience.”

 

There’s an old-school feel to Cinema Akil. The box office is a wooden kiosk with a lush, deep red curtain, while sections of the auditorium’s seating were salvaged from the Golden Cinema in Bur Dubai. There’s a wall of collectibles, too, with posters and photographs and an old map of the city that hangs near the entrance.

“This is actually from the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan,” says Butheina, pointing to a poster of Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates. “This is from a distributor’s apartment in Lebanon. This is from the original Bidoun library space in New York. That’s from Damascus, Syria. Not all of it is cinematic, but it’s worlds that collide into cinema.”

The wall of collectibles overlooks Project Chaiwala, a chai diner and Indian eatery co-founded by her brother Ahmed Kazim, which helps to replicate the aromas and experiences of Dubai’s defunct single-screen cinemas. Its pièce de résistance is the ‘signature’ – a sugar-ladened spiced tea that’s been a source of immense comfort to Butheina over the course of the stressful past few weeks.

“For it to have taken this long for an arthouse cinema to actually come to life, or a neighbourhood stand-alone cinema to come to life, is kind of mind-boggling. It would’ve been easy for us to go into a multiplex and take over a screen and call that the ‘arthouse presentation’, but I really wanted to create a space where people feel comfortable coming out of the film and hanging out, talking about the film, and building a community. I know everybody talks about building communities, but you have to create the space for that to happen.”

A collaborative project, Cinema Akil was originally intended as a two-screen cinema located on the yard in Alserkal Avenue, but has materialised as a single-screen venue just along from Shadi Megallaa’s independent record shop The Flip Side. Richard Wagner helped with the architecture and planning, Maja Kozel worked on elements of the venue’s design, while photography duo Chebmoha and Chndy influenced the cinema’s overall aesthetic. Butheina’s own dreamscape can be seen in the wall of collectibles and the cinema’s compact outdoor space. “I think there’s something about brick and mortar in this particular city of impermanence that’s always important as a solidifying and legitimising aspect of existence,” she says. “There’s always this asset mentality that unfortunately disadvantages anything that is temporal or nomadic. It shouldn’t be the case. I would’ve liked to continue as a pop-up, you know, but for many, many reasons – from that institutional necessity to the actual dynamics of the industry and being able to access films within their theatrical windows – it was best to create a permanent space.”

The auditorium itself is largely defined by miscellaneous seating and ornate red wallpaper that was purchased from an Ethiopian supplier at Dragon Mart, while the theatre’s technical set-up includes 7.1 Dolby surround sound. The latter has given Butheina greater cinematic scope, allowing for the screening of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, for example, which is as reliant on its soundtrack as it is on anything else.

Arguably the project’s greatest achievement, however, is its opening programme. Compiled by Butheina and Yazan Ghazzawi, head of film at the SAE Institute Dubai, it includes Cannes contenders such Cold War and Dogman, Ian Bonhôte’s acclaimed documentary McQueen, and the Egyptian film Yomeddine, none of which would have received a UAE release if it wasn’t for Cinema Akil. Securing such a line-up was therefore a coup for Butheina, although the loss of Dubai International Film Festival no doubt contributed to the quality of films available.

“I spent a lot of time going to festivals, building relationships, networking and also insisting on operating legitimately throughout the years,” she says. “We did pay the screening fees, we did honour our agreements, we did go through the grunt of going to the festivals, meeting the sales agents, and showing the films in their right format. All these checks and balances that we wanted to make sure were in place – even for a small 10-person screening – eventually meant that when we opened we were able to access the kinds of films we have. Because we had the reputation, we had the networks.

“Some films we still can’t get because there’s the temptation of the bigger network of multiplexes, so there is that challenge. Some films also ask for gargantuan screening fees that are benchmarked against arthouse cinemas elsewhere that are subsidised to some degree. And we also have to consider the context that we’re in. What are we able to show? That’s always a question that’s going to be part of our continuous challenge.”

In terms of censorship? “Yes. We work closely with the National Media Council in getting our films approved and what we’re trying to do is get some sort of special category for arthouse cinema, because it doesn’t exist. In a lot of ways, building this project was like a guinea pig for a lot of things. We even created a zoning change in Dubai Municipality to allow for a standalone cinema to exist in a warehouse. That was not there on the dropdown menu.”

The long-term challenge will be to ensure the cinema’s financial viability. That will mean heightening awareness of its existence, increasing advertising revenue and corporate sponsorship, adding special events and focussed programming, and attaining the support of the National Media Council in terms of adding that arthouse cinema categorisation.

To Butheina, however, it’s all about continuity. “It’s very undramatic,” she says. “The success of it is undramatic. The opening was undramatic. It’s meant to be something that is here to stay, that is sustainable, that is all-giving. And I think that’s the part that I really aspire to.”

November’s programme includes: Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, Chloe Zhao’s acclaimed contemporary western The Rider, and a special screening of the Jordanian documentary 17, which will be followed by a Q&A with director Widad Shafakoj

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