The big interview: Cinema Akil co-founder Butheina Kazim

The brains and passion behind UAE's arthouse cinema

The big interview: Cinema Akil co-founder Butheina Kazim

If Cinema Akil were a person, it would be Vivienne Westwood, or so says its co-creator, Butheina Kazim. And if the independent platform is as flamboyant, original and fearless as the great British designer, then we’re 100 percent on board.

The arthouse cinema has a makeshift, recurring home at Warehouse 421 in Mina Zayed, though if Kazim has anything to do with it, Cinema Akil could be putting down permanent roots in the capital sooner rather than later.
Its permanent home in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue drew back its curtains in September 2018, and sitting down among mismatched furniture and patterned wallpaper certainly feels like nestling in the living room of an old eccentric. Everything from the recycled cinema seats down to the donated bergères ooze a sort of shabby regal chic.

Every last detail in the whimsical auditorium was picked out by Kazim, and while the 34-year-old holds court over a cup of the cinema’s trademark chai karak, her passion for independent cinema is palpable.

“I love when that magic happens and I’ve got a converted cinephile,” she says. “I don’t think we could have imagined being anywhere else. This is just so right, in terms of audience exchange, even in terms of collaboration across different concepts. I love it.”

Cinema Akil started life as a pop-up across the region in 2014 and has gone from strength to strength, sharing dozens of unique and independent films every single week and representing unheard voices and communities from the UAE and around the world.

“Primarily our goal is to be a voice of the community and to be a home for the film-loving community or communities that can congregate around the conversation to do with cinema”, says Kazim.

“We want to be a reflection of the country that we’re part of and the way we think about our programming allows people to come together in a different way than they would in a regular multiplex cinema.”

She continues: “We focus on films that have a lot of high artistic integrity or value. They reflect either human experience or excellence and cinematic creation or important critical issues that that we are facing as mankind.

“These are things that drive us rather than just commercial return or entertainment or escapism – and if that happens, great – we’re happy when we get full houses and our box office works.

“But we believe that the only way that’s going to happen is through people’s own investment in the place and recurrence through good programming.”

So what’s happening in Abu Dhabi?

“I hope we will eventually have a permanent space in Abu Dhabi. There are no plans in the works right now, but we do have an outdoor series every month, when the weather’s good,” says Kazim.

“We started that this year in November, and the series ends in April, and we do a series of shorts and features focused on a theme but specifically on contemporary Arab cinema.

“This year, our season is focused on women. It’s basically films by women or about women with a female perspective at the forefront of the conversation.

“We love that space in Abu Dhabi. It’s outdoors and it has a very similar vibe to the cinema in Dubai.”
Kazim says that her love for cinema started “at birth”, and some of her earliest memories are of visiting independent cinemas in Bahrain as a child.

“The wonderful thing about it that always drew me was the idea that you could transport yourself through this experience, or through somebody else’s story or a song in a film and just being able to see another place. So that’s always been an obsession for me.”

So where does Vivienne Westwood come into it? Well, Cinema Akil recently screened Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist and self-proclaimed feminist Kazim also makes sure that female filmmakers and voices are strongly represented throughout.

“She [Westwood] is very in line with our values and her character is sort of an extension of what we’re trying to build here at the cinema, too, so it’s such a perfect fit really,” says Kazim, who credits her long-standing team for her success.

“We have a very strong feminist voice through our programming and it’s something that not directly preaches but also tries to flag some causes or issues that can be tackled differently if done so collectively.”

If you haven’t yet been down to Warehouse 421, it’s high time you fixed your eyes on something stimulating on the big screen.

In the words of Westwood herself, we can’t think without our glasses.

Dates and times vary. Warehouse 421, Mina Zayed, www.cinemaakil.com.

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