She Speaks: The Pandemic Through the Eyes of an Arthouse Cinema Founder

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Photo: Courtesy of @butheinahk

Like us, you’re most likely binging on both comfort food and Netflix to make it through the day (in fact, what day is it today?) and a night at your local cinema now feels like a distant dream. But what if bringing arthouse movies to cinephiles is your bread and butter? Here, Savoir Flair speaks with Butheina Hamed Kazim, founder of Cinema Akil, about what these unprecedented circumstances have meant for her line of work.


As the founder of a cinema, how have you been personally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
This time is not about me or any other one person – it’s a time for all of us founders, storytellers, and individuals to park the personal for the whole. It’s a time of unity and collective solidarity. Whatever the impact has been on me is not mine alone and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. If there’s anything this has done, and I hope it continues to do, is make us realize the tremendous privilege that many of us have – the privilege of shelter, access, writing these words, making decisions, reminiscing, a stable government, and even being able to even choose to social distance.

It’s a time for all of us to park the personal for the whole.

Cinema Akil was founded on the principles of bringing communities together, and it was on that basis that we made the decision to shutter our doors to protect that very community and do our part in keeping our team and audiences safe by social distancing. I am confident that our bets on collective care, conscious practices in conducting business, and a solid community will always stand strong – despite the challenges this brings. On a personal front, while I miss the joy of bringing people together and convening around a love for cinema, I am astounded by the level of support and engagement we have received and witnessed by our partners, our community, members of our team, and the actions taken by the government to manage this outbreak.

cinema akil dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Cinema Akil

From a professional perspective, which aspect about all this concerns you most?
The economic impact this will have on small businesses and cultural enterprises like ours will be difficult and tremendous. Our survival is dependent on daily ticket and concession sales, as well as our pop-up activities with their respective sponsorships to keep us going. And all this has come to halt. However, we are not alone in this, and it’s a challenge we’re all going to have to face by supporting each other, keeping perspective, maintaining open communication, and coming up with creative solutions in the interim.

What is the one question you’re asked most frequently these days?
“Can you launch a streaming service online?”

Films have rescued me from insomnia, myopia, and lack of perspective.

What advice would you give to people worldwide who run independent cinemas and are therefore struggling?
I’m not in a position to advise others as the entire industry is facing a very serious crisis. But what I have seen this through our networks in the region at NAAS, CICAE, and Art House Convergence is that independent cinemas all over the world are banding together, not losing faith in the magic of cinema and putting community first. Our priority here is to remain loyal and present for our team and our audiences by communicating clearly and sharing-sharing-sharing. We’ve launched a series of initiatives including:
1. a partnership with Mubi, a VOD platform for independent films, where we’re offering our audiences 90 days of free access.
2. Filmsphere, a series of guest-curated film anthologies with recommendations of must-see films from our network of thought leaders, artists, practitioners, industry names, musicians, and directors.
3. Watch & Learn film resources where our audience can catch films that have been made legally available for free access, as well as film education and learning resources for film lovers and filmmakers.

Photo: Courtesy of @mild.moon

What five films have you discovered and loved while social distancing?
From our Mubi partnership, my recommendations are: Indian drama Ghare-Baire, globetrotting textile documentary The Grand Bizarre, comedy-horror crossover One Cut of the Dead, Soviet war film Arsenal, and genre-bending Japanese film Journey to the Shore.

What do films – and the escapism they allow – mean to you at a time like this?
I never thought of films as escapism – for me, they have been a form of elevation, growth, and wander. Of joy, empathy, and consciousness. Of sensation and sensuality. A quote that has always stayed with me is, “Cinema is magic in the service of dreams.” It’s by master filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose films everyone should see.

Films have elevated me, they have bolstered me and, these days, they have rescued me from insomnia, myopia, and lack of perspective. They have rescued me from sadness, loneliness, and apathy. Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” What about showing ourselves stories and seeing ourselves in them? That, for me, is living.

Photo: Courtesy of @bovvary

Contagion aside, are today’s circumstances reminiscent of any movie you’ve ever watched?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of post-apocalyptic referencing by looking at images of doom and gloom, empty streets, masks, and surveillance, conjuring up movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Apocalypse Now, and Children of Men. But I refuse to give into just that – these days are experienced differently depending on where you are. Our heroes on the frontline might be watching a totally different set of films, while others are turning to movies for solitude, contemplation, genius, connection, confusion, and friendship. And some simply don’t have the luxury of turning to imagined worlds when their reality is more dire.

What can our readers do at a time like this to support the local arts and culture scene?
First and foremost, support artists, freelancers, and independent cultural institutions by paying them what they’re owed if they’re owed anything, offer them your services like legal and financial if you have them, hire them, commit to patronage, fund them through platforms like Patreon, and find out what fundraising initiatives they’re launching. You can also pre-buy tickets, purchase merchandise, and sign up to paid screenings, conferences, and other digital events that will help keep them afloat. And when it is safe to do so, go en masse when they reopen. Support them because they will need it.

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