Butheina Kazim • Fondatrice, Cinema Akil
“Ça a été dur dès le premier jour”
- Un aperçu de la stratégie de programmation du seul cinéma d’art et d’essai de la région du Golfe, en particulier de la manière dont y sont curatés les films européens
Cet article est disponible en anglais.
On the occasion of the 18th Arthouse Cinema Training organised by CICAE during this year’s Venice Production Bridge (2-7 September), Cineuropa seized the opportunity to chat with Butheina Kazim, founder of Cinema Akil, the only independent arthouse theatre in the Gulf region. Kazim is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Network of Arab Alternative Screens, which also includes the Dubai-based theatre as one of its members. Our conversation focused on Cinema Akil’s curatorial approach to European films, its work on engaging audiences and Kazimi’s experience as a trainer.
Cineuropa: What are Cinema Akil’s main activities? How did you start this venture?
Butheina Kazim: I founded Cinema Akil in 2014 as a “travelling” or “nomadic” cinema. We held many pop-up screenings in different parts of the country, and we’re currently the first and only arthouse cinema in the Gulf region. In 2018, we opened a permanent space with 133 seats and we also program for our outdoor cinema based in the warehouse district [Alserkal]. For that space, we do programming for six months a year, and we do continue to organise pop up and nomadic screenings. We also ran some digital series during the pandemic, though that wasn’t something we were supposed to do [in normal circumstances]. We were primarily established to be a completely independent voice. We have no state sponsorship or government funding. We run as a limited liability company trying to sustain our operations through different commercial activities, ticket sales as well as other forms of utilising our space. It’s probably the only cinema that I know that has a window which can turn into a big room, when it’s not used for screenings. We designed it as a modular space that can be used for other types of activities — theatre, music and so on. Arthouse exhibition remains at the core, though. We programme everything, from classics to regional cinema — and by “regional”, I mean the entire SWANA area. We programme films that didn’t have a chance to be released in theatres. We came in to close that gap and to create some sort of theatrical window for this type of regional titles.
Could you share your take about this experience as a trainer?
I had just come back from Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. It’s a festival I’ve been following for a very long time. I love how they present their classics and how they continued to build the reputation of their festival and that of Cineteca di Bologna. We have had two seasons of focus on presenting classics. Unfortunately we don’t have 16mm, 35mm or any kind of projection capabilities. We only have DCP. This year, we focused on programming both classics — accessible, widely known titles — and films we wanted our audience to discover, in the attempt of disrupting the notion of euro-amero-centric definition of “classics.” I talked about the importance of continuing to play and challenge the ways you present classics in response to your audience and also about [intercepting] the mood, the real sentiment of the community. I spoke about classics as a bridge to bring people safely back to cinemas. I also mentioned, as a case study, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Cineteca di Bologna and their work with audience, and how their experience can be important for a market with no cinematheque, no archives, and with 364 screens — the highest number of screens per capita in the Gulf region — but just one single arthouse theatre.
Speaking about European titles, what type of curatorial approach do you follow?
We don’t follow a specific curatorial approach. You have to realise that we live in a country where 85% of the population is made of expats. There are 200 nationalities, 40,000 French nationals, 10,000 Brazilians, large communities from every European country, and so on... We do try to present a programme that is as varied as possible, including classics and more thematised series such as the FrancoFilm Festival, taking place every February or March. The idea of presenting European titles is something we always need to think about in terms of “packaging.” We don’t want to just host a French film week but to understand the context in which we’re operating. We always throw a post-colonial lens on it, we try to focus on films that would be relevant and we consider it an opportunity to screen under-represented films that have been co-produced with Italy, Luxembourg or other European countries. That format has been very successful. In the last edition, for example, we presented Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables [+lire aussi :
interview : Ladj Ly
fiche film], along with Algerian-French or Tunisian-French co-productions... We’re not just trying to align with the traditional idea of what programming of European films is, but we also want to find ways to speak to the experiences of the European or binational European citizens living in our country.
What challenges are you still facing? What future do you expect for arthouse cinema in your country?
It’s been challenging since Day 1. Despite knowing where the industry was heading to, the specifics of our country — here, 65% of the audience is under the age of 35, so with a very high Internet, social media and smartphone penetration — the growth of Netflix and other streaming platforms, we still try to find ways to stay relevant, to create and cultivate an arthouse audience while pushing for technical innovation: updating our systems, our website, organising digital series, inventing new formulas... But I’m also optimistic about the future of our region. For example, we see the Saudi market opening after a 35 years ban on cinemas... There’s an audience of 25-30 millions that now have access to theatres. There's a lot of talent, energy and curiosity, and I think that’s very promising and exciting.
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