The annual Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) has had a key role in nurturing this culture and offers an opportunity for film enthusiasts to watch some of the most acclaimed international titles from around the world.
Emirati Butheina Kazim, co-founder of Cinema Akil, an independent cinema platform on wheels (sort of) has been instrumental in bringing these films to the Dubai community. They host free pop-up screenings of indie, art house, experimental, and alternative films that usually don't screen in theatres, all across the city. They have done pop-ups in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Dubai Design District (D3), Burj Khalifa Park, as well as at basketball courts. The initiative started in July 2014 with a small pop-up screening at the Third Line Gallery in Al Quoz.
"We are a cinema inspired by the people that make up Dubai. We wanted to see what the appetite of the audience here was for festival-grade and critically-acclaimed films that don't really get a big window at the theatres and are constantly competing with Bollywood blockbusters, Malayalam cinema, Egyptian/Arabic cinema, all the Marvel superhero films, etc. We started with a small venue with just beanbags and popcorn stands," says Kazim.
The aim behind Cinema Akil was to create a window for people who are interested in indie films to have the opportunity to see and share the experience with people and not just in isolation.
"We are in the age of Netflix so people have access to this content but it is not part of the larger cinema experience of watching and being mesmerised by films and sharing the experience. Our aim is to get people together where they can hang out. We have chai pop-ups, and collaborations with restaurants, where people are encouraged to stay, discuss and think about the film. Sometimes we even do a panel discussion or a talk," she adds.
Cinema Akil has hosted various screenings right from a Saudi romantic comedy, to the Apu trilogy, Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, a Palestinian film called When I Saw You, among others. They have hosted over 35 pop-ups till now. Sometimes they can go as big as 18 films over a month or it could just be a single screening.
Another initiative that hopes to develop a meaningful film culture in the UAE is Loco'motion, a community-driven cinema group that aims to reach out to members of various communities in the city through film and all their screenings are free to attend.
Founder Vikas Punjabi highlights, "We launched in 2013 and organised screenings around the UAE on breast cancer awareness. In 2014, we launched our first season of open-air screenings at Safa Park, themed 'Inspire Life'. In addition to inspiring residents, we also raise awareness on social causes and shared human values."
The group observes a range of international days, covering topics such as Environment, Health, Happiness, Women, Children, Arts, Food, Culture, etc. Their screening locations vary from community parks to universities, theatres to cultural venues, labour camps and more.
Loco'motion is currently planning their fifth season of community screenings that will take place between October and May and their objective is to foster a sense of community amongst residents through meaningful and inspiring content.
"When I was a young observer, I realised the potential of cinema and how its magic influenced us. Unfortunately, mainstream cinema was and still is predominantly focused on violence and entertainment. When I returned to the UAE in 2013, I felt it was time to share, inspire and roll on to more meaningful pastures," Punjabi adds.
Kazim shares that when she first started, she was unsure if a bustling city like Dubai would be interested in slow-paced films. She recalls being refreshingly surprised with the turnout, for which she credits the diversity of the city.
"Dubai has the ability to transport us to other countries without ever leaving it thanks to the different cultures here. The city is so diverse that people come here with their different cinematic histories and traditions and everybody brings their experiences to the table. Sometimes even if we get one person who shows up, it's worth it to run the show because that one person will eventually become four and the audience will grow. It requires a lot of tenacity," she says.
When asked about her future plans for Cinema Akil, Kazim says, "Ultimately, we want to have a permanent home for (this kind of) cinema and for people to have access to it any day of the week. But we also believe in being on the road and going to different communities, to use film as a language and tell a particular story. It has been a long and exciting journey. We have an exciting programme coming up from mid-July to the end of September and it will surely be a packed summer."
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