Butheina Kazim, Founder of Cinema Akil discusses her passion for film and her vision for the future of this unique concept.
Butheina wears Panerai PAM1248, Luminor Due 38mm steel, Ivory sun-brushed dia
When Butheina Kazim founded a travelling cinema concept in 2014, it was always going to be about much more than just screening movies. The Emirati entrepreneur wanted to find and bring together a community of people who have a common interest in delving deep into the meanings and messages behind films, and opening up a conversation around them. After screening films in various locations across the UAE for several years, in 2018 she opened Cinema Akil, the country’s first and only independent arthouse cinema. Located in. the cultural district of Al Serkal Avenue, Cinema Akil is a single screen theatre the showcases a vast range of movies from all around the world. But Butheina believes it’s about much more than just watching a movie. As the industry has been turned on its head over the past two years, she has been working on even more ways to bring together like-minded people through the film and is currently on the path of discovering how this can take her company to the next level. Here we find out what’s in the pipeline for Cinema Akil and discusses the cinema industry in the UAE and further afield as a whole.
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Can tell us a little more about the concept and vision of Cinema Akil?
Cinema Akil started as a nomadic travelling cinema with a series of pop-up screenings that took place all over the UAE – anywhere that had a wall we could turn into a cinema and bring the kind of films that we thought needed to be shown to an audience here in Dubai. We wanted to reflect on the kinds of conversations that people were having in the kind of environment that encourages communities to come together and have important discussions. So that was the spirit on which the idea of Cinema Akil was built, and we implemented this through the language of cinema. I’ve always loved film and bringing people together around it and having lengthy discussions after having shared that experience.
Can you share more about your passion for film and cinema?
Cinema for me is everything, it’s life itself, it’s a reflection of who we are, it’s a memory that’s captured on camera and it reminds us of what we can be in the best and the ugliest of ways. It brings people together, it gives you a view of what life can be outside of yourself, what questions you haven’t thought to ask, and it helps put you in a different world and universe. It brings people together somehow in this magical moment in a shared time capsule of a cinema room. When watching these pieces of work come to life you almost witness the spirit of a person and all the people that worked on creating this snippet of reality and fiction and see their dreams come together in this magical experience. One of my favourite directors from Senegal says “cinema is magic in the service of dreams” and I’ve always believed in that idea. Those are the kinds of films that I try to bring to the cinema. Films that make you reach deeply within yourself and try to imagine a different kind of world that you could aspire to.
What does a working day look like to you?
There isn’t a single day, I think what I would like the most is the mundanity of the cinema environment of being scheduled and completely structured to seep into my life, but that hasn’t happened yet! My days are very chaotic and all over the place but they’re always full. I don’t like standing still and I don’t like stagnation so I’m always doing something; talking to someone, trying something new. I try to keep busy as much as I can but also try to be there for the people that need me and the people that I love. So that’s what my days look like: a combination of things that I need to do, things that I want to do and things that I love doing.
What does time mean to you?
It’s incredibly elastic, abstract and opaque at the same time. That’s how I think of time. It’s something that takes several forms. It can be scary, beautiful, infinite, mysterious and that’s my relationship with it. There is this elasticity that always governs the way that I think of what has passed in the moment and moving into the future. There is a certain romance about it too and a certain kind of terror.
This month the UAE is celebrating 50 years – what does this occasion mean to you?
This occasion is a testimony to where time stands still. To pay homage and tribute to a milestone and to a really important moment that I have been lucky enough to witness the majority of my life. I grew up here I’ve seen the country grow and mature. I’ve seen it through its most spectacular moments, its biggest mistakes, its shortfalls, its glory, its achievements, its power and its humility and I can’t wait to see what will come in the next 50 years and the 50 after that.
What is the biggest challenge you face in what you do?
I think the biggest challenge is being in a place as dynamic, fast and ambitious as it is being here in the UAE; a place that’s so addicted to change. It’s like one big conveyor belt. It’s exhilarating, exciting and motivating and you’re always trying to get to the next thing, but I think the biggest challenge with that is infusing some sort of criticality to it and being understood for the depth of field and the work that arts and culture at large represent. And that’s something that I still struggle to articulate and to get across, but I also take a lot of joy in that because I think those changes come incrementally and I’m happy to be at the centre of that challenge.
How do you think the film industry has changed over the last few years and what would you like to see happen moving forward?
I think everything about cinema is changing by the introduction of streaming companies. Entire business models have been upended, film festivals are no longer film festivals in the same classical way, and there’s a lot of questions about what is considered acceptable from a moral, ethical, practical point of view in terms of the stories that we tell. Everything about the industry is completely changing and there’s a part of it that’s extremely exciting.
If you’re thinking about the moving image at large beyond cinema as we know it, we are now living in a world where everyone could potentially become a filmmaker and I think that ownership and challenge presents a very exciting, yet messy juncture. Where we as Cinema Akil fit into that ecosystem is by really thinking about what the future of cinema houses will be. We are not a cinema that’s based on volume and the number of seats, our selling point is that we can bring people together and I think we saw a lot of that during the pandemic as communities fought to keep arthouse cinemas alive all around the world.
The kinds of films that we are able to show are not necessarily bound by a very short time frame and in that sense, there is certain longevity that comes in what we do. But I think the most challenging part is to continue to deliver on the promise of creating that community aspect and keep bringing exciting content while still putting your audience and your community at the centre and really understanding who they are. This is a big challenge for us in the UAE because we live in such a diverse place. We don’t have a fixed audience as such; although there is a common denominator that everyone that walks through these doors is looking for something different. One of our challenges is going to be really figuring out who our audience is and really serving them.
What are your thoughts on the film industry in the UAE specifically – where it’s at and where it could be?
I think one thing that we do miss greatly and we would benefit greatly from as an industry is some sort of resurgence of the Film festivals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. These events were incredibly important, not only as a place to see celebrities on the red carpet and have that exciting glamorous moment, which is part of what it’s all about, but also bringing decision-makers together that are able to green-light
projects and meet with filmmakers from the region and help with funds that can kick-start projects. It also allows the audience to watch an incredible number of films from all over the world, specifically from our region and give regional films the same prominence that all international productions are given. And I think that’s something very unique and has a lot of power and responsibility. So I think it’s a tragedy that we lost these events and I hope they will return.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
I don’t think there is a single formula or a model for success. I don’t believe in this idea of idols and great women and great men and beacons of hope. There’s a lot of different ways that people can inspire each other but I am a firm believer in collective inspiration and support systems and community, and that’s the work that I do here. So I would say that the most important part is to build yourself a really solid system of supporters, allies and partners that will really lift you up because that’s what matters in the end, no matter what you’re doing.
What’s in the pipeline for 2022?
As far as I’m concerned I think we’re already in 2022! We came out of a very challenging moment of the pandemic and it wasn’t great for a lot of people and industries. Cinema was certainly hard. So we are now riding the wave of the backlog and excitement and answering live of what is yet to come and how cinemas will live moving forward. There are all these conversations happening around the world about cinema and what’s exciting is defining those as we go along, taking on new projects, really doubling down on the reason that we started the cinema. It wasn’t necessarily just a space to exhibit the films that needed to be shown but also really rooted in the idea of bringing communities together and I think what’s coming up is certainly a move towards that objective, whether it’s here in Cinema Akil, in multiple places, different forms, experimenting with different modalities of cinema and certainly a whole host of important, incredible and ground-breaking storytelling.
If we were to go out and watch one film over this festive period what would you recommend?
We’re showing a film that’s an epilogue of the Jubilee celebrations. We are going into an incredible weekend of programming and festivities across the country which is incredibly rejuvenating and exciting and full of love and joy and celebration, but I think there is an opportunity to reflect on what happens after.
So we have tied up with Al Serkal Avenue for a programme that reflects one week later after the National Day weekend to programme a whole host of activities and conversations. We’re screening a film called “None of Your Business” by Kamran Heidari, an Iranian filmmaker. This film looks at a specific kind of music that became popular in the seventies and it’s a genre of music that’s very close to this part of the Gulf because of the style and instruments that are used. It’s very celebratory and it’s a great reminder of where we are and how much of a Nexus this place can be, even when it’s not trying to be.
Butheina wears kaftan by CHI-KA