Screen test: Cinema Akil brings arthouse movies to the Gulf

DUBAI: “Welcome to Cinema Akil,” says Butheina Kazim, the arthouse cinema’s co-founder and managing director. She is standing next to the venue’s box office, its deep red curtain a visual throwback to the days when cinema-going was a regular Saturday afternoon outing.

Once a pop-up platform dedicated to bringing the world’s best independent films to Dubai, Cinema Akil now has a permanent space within Alserkal Avenue. It is the city’s first arthouse cinema.
Opened at the tail-end of September, the single-screen, 133-seat cinema represents a significant milestone for Kazim, who has spent the past three years traveling to film festivals around the world, making contacts, and building a network that has enabled her to make Cinema Akil a fixed-base reality.
“For it to have taken this long for an arthouse cinema to actually come to life, or a neighborhood standalone cinema to come to life, is kind of mind-boggling,” says Kazim. “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.”
Nostalgia looms large at Cinema Akil. Sections of the auditorium’s seating were salvaged from the Golden Cinema in Bur Dubai, while the venue’s outdoor sign is an old-school light box. There’s a wall of collectibles, too, with posters and photographs and an old map of Dubai that hangs near the entrance.

Then there’s Project Chaiwala, a chai diner and Indian eatery that helps to replicate the aromas and experiences of long-lost single-screen cinemas such as the Al Nasr in Oud Metha.
“We’re trying to honor that experience,” says Kazim. “We’re not trying to bank on the nostalgia alone, but that was part of the authentic experience of cinema-going in Dubai. It wasn’t Pepsi and gigantic truffle popcorn. It was popcorn, chai and samosas, and then some great films. That’s really what we’re trying to present here.”
The venue’s opening program has included Cannes contenders such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” 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 lineup is something of a coup for the fledgling venue.
“All of the films that we tend to show have a personal crazy that goes into the their production,” says Kazim. “They’re not films that are led by their financial viability. They’re films that are inspired by someone’s story, experience, obsession, or even their torture. Those are the kinds of films I tend to gravitate toward.”

For now the focus is on having a broad and eclectic range of films that speak to different crowds. “Because that’s the only way that we’re going to be able to really stress-test the concept of having a place that’s inclusive for everybody,” says Kazim. Later will come special events and focused programming.
“It’s been amazing so far. I mean, we’ll find out at the end of the month when we start having to pay our bills and our payroll and all of that stuff,” she says with a laugh. “But the moment we released our program, everybody was talking about it. I knew people would come, but it was just the nervousness associated with setting up a place that’s built on a shoestring budget, is located in a warehouse, has power limitations and all the joys of industrial ACs. All these things that you don’t really think about or know about until you decide to open a cinema.”

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