'The story of UAE is everybody's story': How does local independent cinema capture the nuances of Arab society?

Cinema Akil's Butheina Kazim, who recently opened another outpost at 25Hours Hotel, talks about the evolving language of cinema in the region


Anamika Chatterjee

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Butheina Kazim, owner of Cinema Akil, at 25hours Hotel, Dubai. Photos by Neeraj Murali.
Butheina Kazim, owner of Cinema Akil, at 25hours Hotel, Dubai. Photos by Neeraj Murali.

Published: Thu 28 Dec 2023, 9:11 PM

Cinema speaks a universal language. It is this language that allows us to peek into the life of a media baron in Florida (Citizen Kane), feel the helplessness of a family in rural Bengal (Pather Panchali) and view a samurai’s murder from different vantage points (Rashomon). When it comes to the Arab world, we have long relied on Western interpretations to understand the region. But today, the tables have turned.

Arab filmmakers are reclaiming the cultural space through films that talk about their lived realities, debunk Western stereotypes and showcase the complexity of an evolving society. Supporting this endeavour are young Emirati women like Butheina Kazim, the co-founder of Cinema Akil at Alserkal Avenue, the UAE’s only independent cinema. As a new outpost of Cinema Akil opens at 25Hours Hotel near World Trade Centre, we catch up with Butheina to understand how contemporary Arab films are documenting the incredible evolution of the society:

Tell us about your formative years. How did the idea of Cinema Akil take root?

I am half-Bahraini and half-Emirati, but I grew up near the Iranian Hospital in Satwa. I spent some years in Canada for both school and work, and came back when Dubai was in an expansion mode in the early 2000s. At that time, there was a lot of investment in the media — the Arab Media Group was created. I worked with them for about two years on a project that was focused on putting culture on television. That’s where I got acquainted with the life cycle of acquisition and distribution process. The first film I acquired was Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of this Sea. She is a Palestinian filmmaker whose works we have shown repeatedly at Cinema Akil.

General view of the cinema
General view of the cinema

The channel never saw the light of day. So I began reaching out to distributors to ask if we could show the films in small settings. There was a place called Pavilion, which was a co-working space in Downtown, and it had a screening room. I brought the films that the Abu Dhabi Film Festival was showing to this space. This was a time when the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) was at its prime. You had Lifetime Achievement Awards being given to Bollywood legends like Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha. They were really big names that were being felicitated at what we believed to be the biggest celebration of regional cinema. I felt it needed a counterpart. Then I received a Fulbright scholarship and went to the US. When I came back in 2013, I wanted to see how much space there was to create a space for arthouse cinema. Alserkal Avenue had evolved, there were cultural investments being made in the form of Abu Dhabi Art or Art Dubai. The city was ready for the idea that I had.

What about the outpost of Cinema Akil that has opened in 25hours?

It is a winter activation. Even when it’s not active as a cinema, it’s active as a public space that builds the relationship permanently. A 72-seater, it’s an intimate space. A study by the British Film Institute recently revealed that cinema impacts communities. There is a notion that post-pandemic, people are not watching films anymore. It’s really multiplexes that have had to deal with this, not community arthouse cinemas. A community arthouse cinema is a part of your relationship with your city, your neighbourhood. An audience here is not just a person sitting and watching something with a popcorn tub. A lot of our programming focuses on arts, fashion, regional cinema.

Is there a cultural significance of this particular spot? It is also the bridge between old and new Dubai.

I am glad you mentioned it. That’s something that drew me towards this project. 25Hours is a hotel that came from Berlin, it has had a strong relationship with the Berlin Film Festival. They have a restaurant here called Ernst, which is dedicated to the noted German filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. They believe in a similar philosophy as us in terms of creativity. We have the most luxurious and exclusive hotels in Dubai, but we don’t have many hotels that think in terms of celebrating the community before celebrating the traveller. For example, when you live in the hotel, and then you go and watch a film like Farha right outside, you create a different memory of your trip to the city. The city is not just about the wow factor. It is also about lasting memories and emotional bonds. And that’s what cinema does. For example, we showed an Armenian film from the 60s, and it’s the first time people would have seen an expression from that specific moment. You start to learn about different cultures. And Dubai has a lot to offer. I wouldn’t call it a melting pot, it’s more of a mosaic, a place of congregation. Sometimes, what we miss is the ability to look each other in the eye and genuinely experience each other’s worlds. Cinema is that bridge.

In your opinion, how does contemporary independent cinema reflect the evolution that Arab societies have gone through?

Cinema, at large, is an inflection point and some sort of a reflection. Sometimes, it is an archive of what’s happening. If you look back at a film at a particular moment, it helps you understand what was happening historically at that time. Sometimes, it just captures emotions, and just through an examination of a relationship, you understand so much more. Cinema also challenges how we think of places. Regional cinema follows the same trajectory. It also mirrors the good and the bad. It’s not utopian, it’s about the truth. We were sick and tired of the Arab world being represented in stereotypical ways in major blockbusters. We wanted regional filmmakers to be able to tell their own stories because they are more truthful and authentic beyond any kind of political representation. We got tired of being given back the wrong stories about ourselves. Arthouse cinema at least starts from the departure point of human experience rather than commercial viability.

Does the absence of big film festivals impact the evolution of local cinema, at large?

Of course. Until today, we cry over the loss of DIFF and the entire ecosystem. The festival was not only the most important one in the region, it brought international attention to films. It greenlit projects that would never see the light of day because it was the meeting point for producers, media, filmmakers from around the world. It became a safe haven for them. It became a funding opportunity for filmmakers who would either win awards or have their films picked up. It meant that you had a whole pipeline of films because of the festival. Abu Dhabi had $500,000 for Arab cinema. In Dubai, you had a pre- and post-production grant, which was received by a lot of filmmakers to complete their projects. The other part was creating a meeting point for filmmakers to draw inspiration from. It was truly a regional celebration, we were celebrating our own stories here.

A festival is also a lifeblood of any city. Every city has a major film festival. It is a place where the city shines and embraces cinema; it makes a declaration every year that we have a commitment to cinema, that it is an important part of life.

Regionally, the Red Sea Film Festival has also come into its own and carved a niche.

Of course, that’s a natural trajectory of any country that is trying to put itself on the map as a place for storytelling. The Saudi market is massive, there is so much talent there. You can see that with the films that are coming out. Filmmakers who once made films only for YouTube are now making 8-10 feature films for theatrical release or Netflix. There is a lot of promise at the Red Sea Film Festival for Saudi cinema. But that doesn’t change the fact that you need another kind of festival. DIFF had another niche: it wasn’t supposed to be a competition. It does more harm than good to try and monopolise, and go into price-bidding wars between regional film festivals that end up being detrimental to the filmmaker, because they have to choose who’s going to pay the most for their film, who is going to fly the crew out. It should be about what’s the best for the film.

Saudi is going through a transformation and that’s reflected in the films too. That market has 30 million people, so it can afford to create commercial, arthouse, independent films that can only speak to Saudi audiences and still make money. The UAE was never just about Emirati filmmaking. It was about the story of the UAE, which, in turn, is about everybody’s story. That’s a missed opportunity we never got to see with DIFF because we did not see Dubai stories, except Ali Mostafa’s City of Life. There is a whole generation of filmmakers that would have made films that are specific to life in Dubai, and understood the complexities.

Does it also mean film studies have to be looked at with a new lens in the region?

Hundred per cent. That’s a big part of the spinal cord that’s missing. You cannot get a degree as a filmmaker. It’s not a role a single entity can play. You need all layers of the ecosystem to come together. Dubai has a lot of facilities. We have the infrastructure, but from an intellectual and critical standpoint, we are missing out on a lot. Cinema Akil plays a mini role where people can see what the world is creating. But we’re not supposed to be a school or a funder.

Also, how important is film criticism to map the evolution of cinema?

We are too busy celebrating that a film finally came out. But where is the actual criticality? We need to look at engaging with the idea of the film, and how it is a reflection of our hopes, desires and ambitions as a society. Writers like Roger Ebert changed the course of filmmaking. We also miss the demand for criticism, we don’t know who will read it.

If not always, independent cinema also has subversive themes. Is that something local independent films have to struggle with?

I don’t agree. Yes, there are challenges that are specific to the region. Yes, there are themes that are worthy of introspection. But for far too long, the Arab world has been seen through the lens of social progressiveness. In other societies too, there are themes that are not easy to touch upon. That negotiation should be done by artistes and filmmakers. Historically, filmmakers are expected to tell a story of the region a certain way to be able to qualify for a European fund. Cinema is not an evangelical platform. It is a place where we look back at ourselves and see our own faults, beauty, and nuances. Human condition plays out in front of our eyes. That’s what shapes our imagination. It’s meant to poke and prod. Sometimes, it’s a love letter.

You co-produced a short documentary on Palestine. How will the current conflict be immortalised by cinema?

It’s not the cinema’s role to do that. But there is a falsity around the issue being too complex and impossible to tackle, owing to erasure and censorship of films that have been made by Palestinian filmmakers that don’t see the light of day. We have been running Reel Palestine, the Palestine Film Festival, every January for the past 10 years. Looking at the massacres, there has been dehumanisation. We are seeing people as numbers. But when you watch a film, you look into a child’s eyes. A cinema will not probably go back to the Balfour Declaration and give you a history lesson. But it tells you everything you need to know. Palestinian cinema is naturally at a disadvantage. Some of the most important filmmakers in the region are celebrated as being the best in the game because they refuse to buckle down. There was a festival called Palestine Film Days, organised at Ramallah. Because of the attack on Gaza, the screenings were stopped. They had to rely on screens across the world, including us, to show the films that were meant to be screened there.


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