I was asked to write about the opening of Cinema Akil, the first arthouse cinema in the UAE. In a time when multiplexes get the biggest share of cinema audiences worldwide, standalone cinemas need all the help they can get. I decided to take advantage of the invitation and pen a letter to the audience.
Dear cinemagoers in Dubai,
What follows is not so much review, but a comment on the opening of a cinema as public event. Cinema Akil moved into its permanent space at Alserkal Avenue this September. Having been a nomadic, travelling cinema across the UAE for the last few years, Cinema Akil is taking root, and its activities are now enmeshed in the scents, architecture, and social fabric of a physical location.
This puts it in the company of a growing number of arthouse standalone cinemas across the region, stretching from Cinémathèque de Tanger in Tangier, to CinéMadart in Carthage, Zawya Cinema in Cairo, Metropolis Cinema in Beirut, and Sudan Film Factory in Khartoum, among others. Situated in the social and urban fabrics of cities, these cinemas, with time, become ordinary social fact. They become part of a social context in which friendships develop and pockets of communities and solidarities emerge. They are where a shared sensibility comes to be.
But like every city in the list, Dubai has a social and urban history of its own. This is why a lot is at stake with the opening of Cinema Akil: what kind of ‘space around the cinema screen’ does a city like Dubai need today?
Perhaps we have become too accustomed to critiquing cinema based on what values a film espouses. Of course, what is on screen matters. But we often forget that the social dynamics transpiring around the cinema screen equally contribute to cinema’s potential as a site of social and cultural activity. The space created around the screen, through the work of cinema exhibitors, can be one that further normalises a present social order, or it could be one that pushes against it and allows us to imagine anew the social relations that shape our communities.
For the last two years, I have worked on a project, published by The Network of Arab Alternative Screens (NAAS), that attempts to understand the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in the space around the screen. The research team and I travelled to seven Egyptian cities, and in every social and urban context found a different play of factors that influences the space exhibitors create around the screen.
Gender is one factor, so is age, class, and bodily ability. I was particularly interested in the potential of exhibitors such as Cinema Akil to engage with these dynamics, and birth a new “common sense.” Small to medium-sized cinema exhibition organisations are often more deeply invested in their surrounding social context, which could allow them to create critical spaces around the screen, spaces that show an awareness of how they contribute to a larger social order.
In fact, one of the major motivations to go to spaces like Cinema Akil - as opposed to watching a film online - is seeking a sense of community. This is true in Egypt, Lebanon, and the USA. The great potential of alternative cinema spaces lies in their ability to actually cultivate a community and work toward social transformation. This is hard work in today’s neoliberal cultural economy, but the only way - in my opinion - to reclaim our cinemas, as audiences, and exhibitors.
So go, dear audience, to Cinema Akil. Support your cinema. All this potential I am speaking of is only actualised if you go to the cinema!
NB: The potential that small to medium-sized cinema exhibition spaces hold to reimagine social fabrics and create new shared sensibilities and common sense is undeniable. But I cannot end this letter without a final note. When speaking about community and affective affinity in the space around the screen, it is crucial to talk about how this also encompasses the cinema staff.
Nour El Safoury writes, edits and lives in Cairo. From June 2016 until July 2018, she worked on Mapping Cinema Audiences: Egypt, a project published by the Network of Arab Alternative Screens (NAAS). You can learn more about the project by visiting NAAS’s website www.naasnetwork.org/all-resources