Normalization deals offer growing economic, security, and political ties beyond relations with Israel or even the United States.
Founded by Emiratis Butheina Kazim and Mishaal Al Gergawi in 2014 in Dubai, Cinema Akil intends to be “a space for conversations around cinema.” The founders set out to build a fixed space for independent films and in the process began hosting pop-up film events at various locations in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, including a series over the hot Emirati summer that encouraged an appreciation of the sun by screening films inspired by it. The first art house cinema in the Gulf, Cinema Akil has hosted events on the historical trajectory of hip-hop culture, independent fashion, and a program of films from around the Gulf. Akil, in Arabic, means one who embodies wisdom, knowledge, and intellect: the cinema’s archetypal visitor.
AGSIW: Where did the idea for Cinema Akil come from and what do you hope to achieve through it as a platform for film?
Butheina: Mishaal was trying to start this years ago in the form of a space, in parallel with me trying to do it on the free-to-air network space. He was in finance and parked the project for awhile. Eight and a half years later I decided to resuscitate it. The need for having a headquarters or a space for a physical cinema was rooted in the idea that there was this gap for people to experience film, or experience cinematic art, and then have a conversation about the meanings and the discussions that typically ensue. We needed for there to be a home and a space for that dynamic to exist. Although we have the Dubai International Film Festival, which has an amazing selection, it only comes to Dubai for 10 days a year and then it is gone. Outside of that there wasn’t any other, beyond the very grassroots, very informal events that would take place from people’s personal DVD collections. There wasn’t much happening. People needed a space to congregate, share ideas, meet, and discuss the notions that are being showcased through cinema. We wanted an independent home for cinema. There is a lot of cultural investment from the government, but this needed to be an independent setup, governed by the people who it was trying to attract and by the programing and the stories that we are trying to focus on and not part of a larger infrastructure, because that was the only way it could hone in on exclusively being a home for cinema.
What I didn’t want to do was set up another elitist, cinephile-only, exclusive space. I really wanted Cinema Akil to be a space for all echelons of society: all segments, languages, and demographics. Maybe that is a utopian idea and there is always going to be some prohibitions that keep people from taking part, but I want this to have at least that intent. Hosting pop-ups really allowed us to do that – to take it out of the arts and cultural world and realm. We did a pop-up outside the mall, in a residential area where people came with their kids and pets and picnic – people who would never come to any of the arts events. We have been able to speak to many different people in the community.
Also, there are films supported here in the UAE, made by people close to home, and you have a better chance of seeing them in London or Berlin or New York. Additionally, Palestinian and Moroccan films often receive funding from the UAE. There’s this big missing link when it comes to theatrical exhibitions. The blockbusters and multiplexes are not interested in showing these films or they do it only in limited windows without enough exposure so the film doesn’t get the awareness that it deserves. This is another thing we are very focused on – contemporary, Iranian and Arab cinema and how it needs to have a home closer to home.
AGSIW: Tell us about Cinema Akil’s activities and how it is generating interest and connecting life in the city with an appreciation for films.
Butheina: We set out to build a space and in the meantime we decided to build the pop-up model, which evolved organically. Our first pop-up was in a gallery in Al Quoz. It was a series of independent films, a big range, classics, contemporary Japanese, Hitchcock, Chilean, and Bangladeshi movies, a huge range. That was the first time we put out the name to introduce Cinema Akil and it was incredible. It was the summer and many people weren’t here but it was full every single time. It took on a life of it’s own. A year and a half later we have done 25 different pop-up programs. Some have lasted six months. We aren’t only in Dubai now. We’ve done programs in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, so we have a range of locations, but also formats – we’ve done a six-person cinema and a 250-person format.
We want to create the kind of space where viewers can reflect on their reality, take a moment to think about the space that they occupy and their place in the world. That is something we do with every program. Placement is one way of doing that. We showed the documentary “The True Cost” by a mall, a consumerist environment. Another program we did was called “Where We Dwell.” We looked at the notion of the home and that came from thinking about people that lived in the UAE and called this place a home. What does it mean to belong to a place and what are the physical aspects of that? We really take the opportunity to think it all through, and that is the added value of our curatorial aspect. We don’t want to just show interesting films or films that have had critical acclaim just because of that acclaim; our lineups are very specific and pertinent and considerate of the reality here.
AGSIW: Can you talk about the developing film industry in the UAE and the Gulf and how state efforts like Dubai Design District (D3) might contribute to its growth?
Butheina: In 10 years, the art world has gone from small art fairs in Madinat Jumeirah to now what is the biggest regional fair that taps into the Pakistani, Iranian, Arab, Gulfie, and larger market for contemporary and modern regional art. The Dubai International Film Festival has become the most important film festival in the Arab world. It is the festival where you can see the latest pan-Arab films. Productions funds from the UAE have had a lot to do with the growing industry, enabling Arabs to produce and make films. These funds were set up 10 years ago, and have contributed to many MENA [Middle East and North Africa] films and continue to encourage not just regional filmmaking but also Gulfie. There are more feature films coming out of the UAE and the Gulf, with production companies and spaces and hubs like media city Dubai studio city, which allow for films to be made with much more infrastructural support. And although very few are producing in Dubai, and few are creating art in Dubai and the bigger percentage of cultural production from the contemporary landscape is still happening elsewhere, that’s something that can change and I hope will change with the emergence of D3 and such projects that are dedicated to promoting local artists and designers to operate out of Dubai on a freelance basis and to focus on their art.
AGSIW: Cinema Akil’s stated aim is to create awareness and interest in film, how do you envision that adding value to daily life and culture in the Emirates?
Butheina: My favorite quote is from Martin Scorsese, “Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our lifetime, we need to keep them alive,” and I fully embody this idea. I think movies are litmus tests of different movements in life and history, and film can have us travel to different times and places, experience and understand different people and other points of views. I don’t think any medium can do this in such a powerful way, you can’t unsee it. When you watch a film, you go through a journey. This can add value to any experience or human context. I believe in the universal power of film.
Specifically, how that can play out here? I think it is very tragic that this is such a diverse country and yet people are not able to understand each other better than they do and more deeply, and I think cinema can enable that understanding because, while watching, you allow someone’s story into your life. Let’s say you have an Emirati or Lebanese or British audience, and they come to our screening and see a very specific story from the 1950s in Bengal, within that hour and a half you completely transform their perspective and imagination of what that reality is like. Film can never be fully representative. It is always a sliver; but sliver upon sliver you get closer to a more universal and larger understanding around you. As shared experiences, great films embody visceral, universal truths that across borders, places, and time remain powerful and resonant. That is why I say it’s urgent to bring cinema here.
New talks reflect a broad range of regional and international developments in recent years.
Robert Mogielnicki discusses the centralization of economic policymaking and the consolidation of power amid the fast pace of new initiatives in the kingdom since the launch of Vision 2030.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More