Butheina Kazim, Co-Founder of Cinema Akil Discusses the UAE Film Industry and the Supporting Local Talent

Lindsay Judge   |   02-07-2021

Butheina Kazim’s passion for film is something she has always carried with her, but in 2014 she took that passion to the next level with the introduction of Cinema Akil, an innovative film platform that brings Arthouse cinema to the UAE, but also brings together communities and invites visitors to open a conversation around film and the messages it portrays.


After a number of years organising pop-up cinemas around the country, Kazim opened her first permanent cinema space at Al Serkal Avenue and it was met with great success. The cinema space which is inspired by old movie theatres, is not only a place for showcasing classic and new independent movies, but also an area for a community of creatives to come together have discussions about the concept of film itself and the messages that play out on the screen. Here, we discover more about the concept, why it’s such an important platform to have in Dubai, and the vision for future development.


Tell us about the vision and objective of Cinema Akil and why you decided to venture on this journey?

The journey started in the summer of 2014 when we showed a small series of films that we felt were necessary to show to Dubai. It was at a time when the Dubai International Film (DIFF) Festival was at its peak, we had a lot of local talents coming through, a lot of regional films being funded by the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), regional films making it to international festivals etc. but there was very little space for people to be able to watch them. There was DIFF and ADFF but these only took place for limited periods. So quite pragmatically we wanted to create a platform where people could access this regional cinema experience in the city as opposed to watching Arab films more easily in other cities around the world.


The more philosophical dream was to present the type of cinema that represented, spoke to and built on the consciousness of the Dubai community. So offering films that not only reflect or connect to people’s experiences or speak in their language, whether it’s cinematic language or in an actual linguistic sense. There were very few opportunities to present the world of cinema outside of the commercial cinema that you have at the multiplexes. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s great, and the UAE has the highest number of screens in the Middle East per capita, but there wasn’t a single cinema that offered this kind of programming which is much more comprehensive and is more reflective of how we are as a diverse, multicultural community. I felt like this needed to be urgently addressed as the city was starting to form its identity and the development of the arts and cultural scene here. Film had a very important role to play in that and that was the thinking behind the idea.


So then we had to ask ourselves how we deliver on that? We started with a programme of films shown inside a gallery called Third Line Gallery. There were a lot of new places that were open to experimentation at the time and they also shared our vision of presenting films that not only reflect life experiences, but also challenge our notions of how we go about our daily lives, how we push boundaries and how we approach some of the changes that are rapidly confronting us in this fast-paced, very complex, diverse environment. So we started with all of these ideas and tried to test them in a number of different formats. We started with a programme that showed a selection of films from Alfred Hitchcock films to Pablo Larraín’s “No”, to many more from around the world that addressed global issues and highlight life experiences that people can really connect to. We also showed films by artists that are usually only shown in exhibition spaces. We were trying a little bit of everything to see how people responded and what kinds of conversations we could start and how we could bring people together in an informal sharing space for a conversation around the language of film.



Since the beginning how has your objective developed and where are you at with it now?

Now we’re at the fourth phase of our journey. We started up with pop-up programming where we would tie-up with different events or partners and that was the only physical manifestation of Cinema Akil at that time. Then we had the “Now Playing” project that we did in partnership with Al Serkal Avenue which was a temporary cinema to test whether people would come out and watch these films. It was super experimental, and it was a success that saw start-ups and creatives coming together to give life to this project for a short, concentrated period. Then the third phase was opening a permanent space which we did in 2018. So far, we have had 25 different festivals since we opened, everything from film weeks to presenting series, conversations around different genres of film, as well as experimental things like our cat weekend – which showed only films about cats! Then when the pandemic came, which wasn’t very friendly to cinema environments, so it was quite hard for three months, but we were lucky. We are a member of the Network of Arthouse Cinemas in the region and several other international groups, and many spaces were hit a lot harder than we were. We were able to find ways to make it work and we got creative. We really saw people’s insistence on the survival of the space and the decision of people to come to the cinema despite all the challenges. When we reopened, we didn’t know what to expect, but sure enough, people came!


Following that, we are now in a phase where we are doing a lot of different things around the idea of cinema. We didn’t just want to be a space that shows films, we wanted to build a community around it, and we have a lot of partnerships with other organisations and events, bespoke experiences and even cinema design to cater for specific events. That’s quite exciting and we are trying a lot of different things that the slowdown of the pandemic allowed us to rethink and try. And it’s also exciting to see what will happen to the film industry in general after the pandemic.


What is in the pipeline for Cinema Akil and what would you still like to achieve with the platform?

This summer we have an extended series with our biggest programme yet. We are starting a time travel series that will run through to September. Starting with the sixties, and progressing through the seventies, eighties and nineties. It’s a selection of iconic films and defining films of each era and it’s important for us to showcase a broader spectrum of films than what we think of as classic or iconic cinema. We are opening people’s minds to a much more diverse world of film, and we are even showing films that have never been on a big screen before. It is a mix of discovering new films and seeing the great classics that you will always love to see in the cinema.


After summer, we will restart our outdoor season which first started after the lockdown. We have an outdoor cinema space in Al Serkal Avenue which has a full programme throughout the season. Then we have the Gulf Film Festival returning later in the year and we are working on a lot more concepts for later in the year. We are also launching a merchandise line in the summer, so a lot is happening!



And what would you still like to do that you haven’t done yet?

I think what I’m still yearning for is to find different ways of activating the space as a place for experimentation, for artists to take over, and potentially a residency programme for people to engage with a cinema environment in a different way. I want to see how we can further double down on our message and our objective to create a space for debate and political engagement and to present pressing issues that we all must contend with. There is the escapism side of cinema but there’s also the part that ignites parts of you and challenges you to think differently or to think in a more engaged way about everything, from our very strong feminist programming to looking at issues like climate change or sustainability and asking how we can use films and documentaries in the UAE to highlight these issues and allow people to really engage with them. We previously had a series called “Debateables” which focused on hot topics and highly controversial issues that are part of life. We would follow the screening with a discussion that invited the audience to participate in and I would like to bring that back.


Why did you choose Al Serkal Avenue to be the location for Cinema Akil?

There was nowhere else that made sense. This was the perfect place with the right environment. You have the informality of an industrial space which represents being in an imperfect, constantly changing environment and being in close proximity to neighbours that are also going through that process in their own disciplines. We have neighbours that are theatres, photography studios, exhibition spaces, galleries etc. It’s a hub beyond that phrase of it being a cultural district, there is a communal attribute that’s very hard to replicate and I don’t think there is anywhere else in Dubai that has achieved that yet. That is in big part thanks to the founders of Al Serkal Avenue who have a very strong belief in the spirit of independent initiatives, and they have supported the community and allowed it to grow. So for me, it was an easy decision when choosing the location and it’s always going to be our flagship home.



Would you look at expanding further across the region?

I’m very excited about the prospects for independent cinema in the region, specifically in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is an incredible place, not only in terms of the actual market size but in terms of the curiosity and talent that is there, but I think everything in due time. Everything we do has to respond to the environment it is in, otherwise we are just a space, and a big part of engaged community building is listening to what people want and even what they don’t know they want yet. In a different market or context, we would listen very closely to the community as we do in Dubai and double down on partnerships and collaborations, because that’s how we started and that’s how we will always work, wherever we go next.


Who is a person that inspires you and what’s a message you would give to them?

I don’t have a single person because I’m quite resistant to the idea of holding anyone to that level of perfection. I do however find myself constantly looking to women creators – artists, filmmakers, designers, writers, poets – over the age of 75. I like to have a reference point to see how they go about their lives, how they carry themselves, how they respond to their younger selves and their unique balance of confidence, softness and emotional intelligence that I think is very attractive and strong for me.


Why do you think Emirati Women’s Day is important and how do you think women in the UAE have progressed and adapted?

Emirati women have been doing great things for a long time and are now doing great things in fields that are perhaps more relatable. And I think it’s interesting at least as an opportunity to create curiosity in an environment that has so much energy and potential and so many different stories every day, to take a step back and look at the women who have been doing this for a while – what are they doing? What have they been working on? What are they curious about? And I think in that sense it’s an approach that could be helpful when you’re dealing with a lot of different voices, and I think Emirati women are a segment of that so it’s important to recognise them. In terms of progression, I don’t think there was a specific turning point, progress is a cumulative process and I think we are still in a chapter of that.



What’s your favourite film and why and what film should we go out and watch today?

This is the worst question to ask me! I have a hard time being very selective about the things that inform me. I believe you can fall in love with every film for a different reason, the same way you fall in love with people. I think what is exciting and interesting to watch are genre films that come out of the global expectations, I find that exciting and challenging, especially films made by women. There is a new film called “Atlantic” by a Senegalese-French film-maker Mati Diop, that’s really incredible and it deals with some really interesting issues, it’s very complex and layered and it’s a very good example of what happens when you give people the reigns to tell their own story.


What’s the professional motto that you live by?

There have been quite a few but I think one thing that keeps coming back to me is “empowered women empower women.” That’s something that I hope to continue living by and build on, both institutionally and personally. I want to have a professional environment that is responsive to the space beyond empowering women. It translates to my everyday life where I try to work with women as much as I can in every aspect of what we do. A lot of the concepts within Al Serkal Avenue are women-led and that helps to create a lot of uniqueness in the environment here.



The UAE celebrates 50 years this year, what is a message you would send to the UAE after 50 years?

Congratulations! It’s an incredible place to be, it’s an aspirational place. I grew up here, I saw it go through a lot of different phases and I think what is exciting now is seeing the way the younger generation is thinking about the country and challenging ideas of how progress is made and how cities are built. I think Dubai has always been a great place for experimentation, Abu Dhabi has been a great place for stability and creating a good infrastructure that allows for a celebration of people and to also have the ability to attract a serious conversation on what types of progress can be obtained in the region and I think that’s not an arrival point. It’s beautiful to have

this milestone to look back and acknowledge how far we’ve come and to have a reference point for where we’re going, but I think that it’s no longer a young country. I’m rooting for this country and I hope the next 50 shows us even more progress. I think this year has been quite remarkable in terms of new policies with historically significate initiatives being introduced. Once you allow a country to go beyond the idea of just being multi-cultural and really harness we see what kind of outcomes are born out of that diversity and that’s when we can the vision forward.