Cinema Akil will always give the underdog movie a chance says MD Butheina Hamed Kazim

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Cinema Akil will always give the underdog movie a chance says MD Butheina Hamed Kazim
Butheina Hamed Kazim

Published: Tue 26 Sep 2017, 1:57 PM

Last updated: Mon 2 Oct 2017, 1:49 PM

A SUPERSTAR BARBERSHOP with promotional films the production value of which has not been witnessed since Michael Jackson's last video, drinks served in jam jars and vinyl overtaking all other physical music sales: it's official, Dubai's alternative scene is thriving. And right at the forefront of the revolution sits Cinema Akil. Although, to lump the independent film initiative with other more 'hipster' (for want of a better phrase) pursuits, would be a mistake. For what the pop-up and soon to be permanent movie-showing experience offers is true intellectual appreciation of less-known and often non-studio financed motion pictures. In short, it's a cinephile's dream.
Founded in 2014, Cinema Akil has completed 35 pop-up events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. The latest programme is the brilliant NOWPLAYING by Cinema Akil and Alserkal at Warehouse 68 in Alserkal Avenue. Until the end of this month films including The Trip To Spain, Loving Vincent and Lucky have been and will be firing peoples' imaginations as they sit on the theatre's comfy sofas, sipping hot and sweet karak chai.
We caught up with Cinema Akil's co-founder and managing director, Butheina Hamed Kazim, and pop-ups and sponsorship manager, Luz Salem Villamil, to find out more about the venture's origin and plans for a permanent fixture at Alserkal.  

From where did this love of alternative cinema stem?
Butheina: It came from a sense of wanderlust. Movies are the closest thing to travelling through time and space in the comfort of your own chair. They're an opportunity for your imagination to do cartwheels. To allow yourself to sit at the mercy of a creator, in that way, it's almost spiritual. Whether you absolutely hate it, or love the movie it's impossible not to be touched by it in some way. Theatre and other art forms have similar elements, but movies are more accessible. There's something very democratic and universal about film.
Luz: For me it's the stories. It's as simple as that. It's connecting to stories from places you wouldn't usually hear about. Not only that, you are able to connect to them visually. For me that is the fascination.

So you felt the need to share that passion with the UAE?
Luz: The idea of Cinema Akil is to fill in a gap. The UAE has a great multiplex network, but we felt there weren't many places to catch independent films. Other than DIFF, all year round, there wasn't much else. We're a travelling cinema. We believe in the concept of 'cinema everywhere' and exposing as many people as possible to alternative films.
Butheina: Dubai has matured and people stay here longer now. When that happens you seek out culture and intellectual activities. The cultural realm has developed. I'm not a fan of saying 'before a certain time there was nothing.' It was just different. Ten years ago it was a boomtown. There was no appetite for slowing things down and watching a movie critically. That has grown massively thanks to a lot of independent ventures. Ideas like Ripe Market and us have a cultural entrepreneurship quality.

How do you go about choosing the pop-up venues and films?
Luz: Alserkal has been our main home throughout the last three years. They have provided us with space and commissioned us to put together many different programmes. From the first programme, it exceeded everybody's expectations. We always try and pair our screenings with a talk or discussion if possible. The audience feels closer to the film and content. From there word spread and other venues wanted to commission us. We have done 60-seat venues to outdoor events where 400 people have shown up.
Butheina: The starting point for the films is: are they art house, independent and are they of significance? They need to have cinematic weight. Maybe they've played at festivals and haven't had a chance to live and find their right audience here. We try not to be very restrictive. We're in Dubai, and have 220 nationalities here from whom we can draw inspiration. We're very conscious of our demographic. That kind of diversity is unique to the region. Locally-produced film, at times, doesn't get enough of a life at the theatres, so we feel a certain responsibility to show these films in the right way. We want people to really engage.

Where did the name come from and are you looking to have a permanent location?
Butheina: Akil is a person's name. It's an old Arabic name. It means, the wise or the intelligent. It felt good to personify that characteristic into a space and it felt very Dubai. Old school Dubai cinemas, The Grand Plaza and Al Nasr, inspired us for example.  
A lot of what we've been able to do comes back to the importance of our relationships with our partners. Alserkal have been with us since day one. They have taken an interest in building a film culture. So where we are now at Warehouse 68 is going to be permanent. It's a pop-up now, so nothing is nailed to the walls. We're going to renovate a bit and open it up soon.

Can you define your usual audience?
Luz: It changes drastically. The people who come to Alserkal really follow us from place to place, but at the pop-ups, you never know what to expect.
Butheina: Some films are difficult to read. We showed an independent Indian film - it's a critically acclaimed film that came out three years ago and didn't get a big release here at the time, so we thought there would be an appetite for it. Nobody came. You can really never tell.

Is there ever a temptation to show something more mainstream?
Butheina: It's a difficult decision to get something that a decent number of people want to watch without going too mainstream. We showed All Eyez On Me and a lot of people asked 'why?'. But we don't want to close ourselves off. Our tendency will always be to give a chance to the underdog and show films that will not be shown anywhere else. We don't have to show it first, but we have to show it right and with a lot of love. There's nothing wrong with the mainstream. I'll go and watch Baby Driver. It's like junk food, you have to go and indulge. But then you have to have your organics and your greens and that's what we're trying to be.

By David Light

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Luz Salem Villamil
Luz Salem Villamil
A shot from NOWPLAYING at Alserkal
A shot from NOWPLAYING at Alserkal
A shot from NOWPLAYING at Alserkal
A shot from NOWPLAYING at Alserkal
A shot from NOWPLAYING at Alserkal
A shot from NOWPLAYING at Alserkal

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