Beyond the multiplex: a look at the arthouse film scene in the UAE
Summer has arrived and where better to retreat from the heat than the air-conditioned cool of a cinema. But with many showing the same, middle-of-the-road films and Hollywood blockbusters, what’s on offer for film fans who want to watch something less mainstream?
One of the few places to see restored classic and arthouse films in Abu Dhabi is Cinema at the Space. Entrance is free, it has a capacity of 60 and is run entirely voluntarily. But its home – The Space is an artistic hub at the twofour54 building – has been closed for refurbishment, and the long-term future for the cinema is uncertain; screenings are currently being planned on a month-by-month basis. Its curator Mohammad Khawaja is hopeful his Cinema project can stay, but he is concerned about the outlook for local arthouse cinema more broadly.
“It’s a very challenging situation,” he tells me. “Dubai is lucky to have Cinema Akil but nobody seems interested in arthouse cinema in Abu Dhabi.”
Khawaja, who grew up in the UAE and works for twofour54, still remembers regular screenings at the Cultural Foundation which catered to film buffs, along with many embassies, which also showed films. But despite some involvement by European embassies today, foreign language screenings are sporadic.
There is some reason for cheer, however: in addition to the European Film Screenings, an event, usually run in October, that showcases the best of European contemporary cinema, some venues have started open-air cinema events, such as Sheraton Abu Dhabi, Yas Marina and the Galleria Mall. Classic films are also being screened by the 7th Art programme at Manarat Al Saadiyat, an initiative from Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. A well-deserved shout-out must also must go to The Scene Club in Dubai, which has been screening arthouse films since 2007. But many of the open air venues show Hollywood films and Khawaja believes much more needs to be done in Abu Dhabi for foreign language films, particularly since the closure of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014.
“The Abu Dhabi Film Festival being discontinued was a tremendous loss. Aside from isolated things like the European Film Screenings, nobody has stepped up. No cinema, no distributor.”
An hour north in Dubai, the situation is more positive. Here Cinema Akil has proved a trailblazer for showing arthouse films and has now set up camp at Alserkal Avenue for Ramadan nights. Screenings of films such as Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis and the 2014 documentary The Overnighters, detailing the US shale oil boom in North Dakota, will take place in the Al Quoz art district later this month, while Theeb and The Digger have also been shown. It also recently partnered with Persol, a sunglasses company, to showcase new filmmakers from the Middle East, the Balkans and Turkey.
Butheina Kazim, co-founder of Cinema Akil, says she felt something was missing in Dubai’s film scene. “We have one of the most important film festivals in the region but outside of that 10-day time frame there was no cinematic activity. It was easier to see a Lebanese film in London than Dubai. That always blew my mind. Everything here was also focused on the multiplex offering.”
Cinema Akil was established in 2014, and when I ask her whether arthouse cinema is too associated with a fast-developing hipster element in Al Quoz, she points out that the aim of Cinema Akil is to reach as many communities as possible.
Cinema Akil’s pop-up cinema has travelled to Umm Al Emarat Park in Mushrif, the Al Fahidi District in Dubai, and Sharjah, and has shown films everywhere from warehouses to parks. She is also keen to bring the cinema to the Northern Emirates but this is contingent on sponsors.
Back here, Khawaja offers one simple solution that could fill the gap left by the demise of the film festival. “There is a strong audience demand [for arthouse films] – as we saw during every edition of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. I wish cinemas and distributors in the UAE would take that seriously. Distributors don’t respect the intelligence of their audiences. They don’t communicate. There’s no plan. They rely on the brand and franchise to do the marketing for them. I think that’s the wrong way, and cinemas lose out while distributors make the money.”
He believes that cinemas could very easily fill the gap left by the closure of the film festival by becoming more invested in the communities they are situated – even if they just show classic family films.
“Every mall has a cinema now. But every cinema is the same. There is no reason to go to one place or another except for the geographic location of where it is. Even if it’s one-off, once a month – try to do it and build an audience.”
Both Kazim and Khawaja praise Sanad, the development fund financed by twofour54, that supports Arab filmmakers and which has scored notable hits such as Theeb, which was nominated for an Academy Award. And Khawaja points out that Vox and Sanad teamed up to show some of the fund’s films last year. These were well attended which proves there is demand here.
Kazim, meanwhile, says that Cinema Akil aims to build a permanent cinema and that the arthouse film scene more broadly is growing.
“We want to break out of this idea of exclusivity,” she says. “All the initiatives are small but they are creating a culture here that is outside the multiplex blockbuster circuit.”
Update: this article has been amended to include The Scene Club screenings in Dubai.
John Dennehy is deputy editor of The Review.