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Lights, camera, action

Fans of indie cinema and foreign films are frequenting a growing number of arthouse venues and pop-up screenings as a thriving new scene takes shape in the UAE. Words by Olivia Cuthbert.

The lights dim to darkness and there’s a gentle shuffle as people settle back in their seats. Heavy red curtains roll back and an expectant quiet fills the room as the screen flickers into life. Cinema Akil, the UAE’s newest arthouse cinema, has only been in its permanent venue for a few months, but already it feels like an institution – somewhere for film fans and culture buffs to appreciate the artistry of movie making in a setting that elevates the ordinary viewing experience and celebrates the cinematic craft.

Cinema has always done well in the UAE. Even as streaming services like Netflix challenge its supremacy and lure viewers online, queues still gather outside UAE box offices every time a new blockbuster hits the screen. The Dubai Mall is home to a 26-screen Reel Cinemas, the largest cineplex in the world and the brand’s flagship venue. Guests can select from multiple viewing experiences, including the luxurious Platinum Suites, complete with reclining chairs and a personal butler service to keep the fizzy drinks flowing and popcorn tubs topped up. Competitor Vox Cinemas operates 186 screens in the UAE alone, far outnumbering the 47 it runs in Oman, 30 in Bahrain and 15 in Lebanon.

Glamorous red-carpet events, including the Dubai International Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival have added to the prestige of cinema in the UAE and raised the profile of a budding local film industry. Productions by Emirati directors have become a regular feature at film festivals, including Sea Shadow by Nawaf Al Janahi, From A to B by Ali F. Mostafa and A Tale of Shadows by Tariq Alkazim. There’s also a growing body of international films being shot in the emirates, including Mission Impossible 6, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Kingdom and Furious 7, many of which made use of the country’s spectacular scenery for dramatic desert footage.

Even outside the summer months, when air-conditioned movie theatres offer respite from the searing temperatures outside, the appetite for cinema remains high in the UAE. But it’s not all about big-ticket action films and star-studded romcoms. At a growing number of film clubs and arthouse theatres, movie-goers are finding new ways to consume cinema in the emirates – with outdoor screenings, pop-up movie nights and several dedicated venues showcasing alternative productions that cater to a more distinctive demand.  

The UAE’s first arthouse cinema

Posters outside the new theatre in Dubai’s artsy Alserkal Avenue advertise indie films not normally seen on the big screens in Dubai. Butheina Kazim launched Cinema Akil in 2014 and quickly built a following with pop-up screenings at venues across the emirates, including Third Line Gallery in Dubai’s Al Quoz, Sharjah Art Foundation and Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi, but it wasn’t until late last year that she set up shop in a permanent theatre. Now, UAE fans of arthouse cinema have a purpose-designed venue for the first time, complete with low-lit lamps and plush upcycled seats that Kazim salvaged from the old Plaza Cinema in Bur Dubai – the emirate’s first standalone screen.

The new venue in Alserkal Avenue is a response to the growing demand for a new kind of film experience in the emirates, says Kazim, who aims to diversify the cinema scene and offer audiences access to high-quality productions from different eras while showcasing some of the most exciting new work from upcoming directors around the world. Snacks, always integral to the cinema experience, are served at Project Chaiwala café, where movie-goers can sip steaming chai and tuck into platters of sweet potato masala fries, beef brisket wraps or a healthy mung bean quinoa salad.

Cultural exchange

Indie screenings have been part of a behind-the-scenes cultural community for some time in the UAE, but in previous years, not everyone knew where to look. Ossama El Shammaa, cultural events manager at Alliance Française in Dubai, believes there is a mounting demand for more independent movie screenings in the UAE. “They offer a real social experience and cultural exchange where filmgoers can mingle and talk about different movies, have cinema debates after the show and meet with movie directors.”

This intimate experience is all part of the indie cinema scene appeal, which attracts like-minded film fans keen to participate in industry dialogue. In March, Alliance Française will host the Women Film Festival featuring productions by female film directors followed by post-performance discussions. The centre recently revamped its cinema hall and hosts regular screenings on Tuesday and Saturday evenings featuring new and classic French films for Dubai’s multinational community. Francophiles can also take advantage of special showings by La Comedie Francaise and Opera de Paris.

Creative collaborations

With an increasing number of arts venues offering a variety of settings for screenings across the UAE, film fans are finding new spaces to host pop-up cinema nights or movie clubs on a regular basis. Mohammad Khawaja set up Cinema Space in 2014 to share restored classics and contemporary world cinema with his community. The focus is on rare and remarkable films that have been revived to “highlight the need to preserve our world’s shared cinema heritage,” he says.

The events take place on Mondays and Saturdays at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi and attendance is free. Audiences are drawn by the “strong sense of community” and unique opportunities to discover the power of visual storytelling from cultures around the world.

Also on Saadiyat Island, two of the emirate’s leading universities recently came together to showcase a contemporary Arab cinema series. Cinema NA, a collaboration between Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi and NYU Abu Dhabi, screened films including Hedi by Mohamed Ben Attia and Wajib by Annemarie Jacir, followed by Q&A sessions with the writers and directors.

Back in Dubai, Cinema Akil is partnering with Alserkal Avenue to present a programme of public, open-air, film screenings at The Yard. On the agenda is Wild Relatives by director Jumana Manna, exploring the relocation of an agricultural research centre from war-torn Aleppo to the Bekka Valley in Lebanon, dramatising the laborious work of migrant women tasked with re-planting seeds.

In an ever-changing world, this type of cinema has a unique capacity to reflect the transformations going on around. “It allows audiences to empathise with the lives, hopes, dreams and realities of people across the world that they might otherwise never know except through films,” says Khawaja. “It’s also key to building bridges between cultures.”


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