Culture
29 November 2021

An Incomplete History of Cinema, Part 3

Hind Mezaina

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Read part 1 here, read part 2 here

This essay series is my way of bringing attention to an overlooked and sometimes forgotten cinema heritage in the UAE. I highlight what has disappeared and what is possible. This final chapter is by no means a conclusion—it may never be possible to have a completed version of this history. But I hope it clarifies why it matters.

The development of cinema culture in the preceding decades faced an unexpected turn of events by the mid-2010s with the demise of the UAE’s main international film festivals.

Abu Dhabi Film Festival

In 2014, the Gulf Film Festival was “postponed” and never came back. In 2015, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival ended with the aim to “focus on new initiatives to support local filmmakers as well as attracting more international movie productions to the country.”

In 2018, Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) announced it would take place every two years from 2019, but it never materialised. It was also sadly the end of DIFF 365@VOX, an initiative to screen films all year in a dedicated theatre at VOX Cinemas in Mall of the Emirates launched in 2017. Its purpose was to “champion films that entertain, challenge and expand film fans’ perspectives” and show independent films that might not traditionally be released in our cinemas. Fourteen years of DIFF’s online archive disappeared overnight.

The end of these festivals was a blow to what had been a slowly developing film industry responsible for funding local and regional films, and exhibiting non-mainstream films. Such works were clearly too insubstantial to establish an ecosystem capable of carrying on without them. In hindsight, the system was flawed from the start—film education and a national film institute should have been established before the film festivals.

Mirage City Cinema, Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Cinema Akil

Louvre Abu Dhabi

The Rise of Art Institutions

The emergence of new initiatives by art institutions and independently run spaces to screen films also occurred around the same time. In 2013, Sharjah Art Foundation opened Mirage City Cinema, a self-owned outdoor venue featuring regular screenings from October to April, conceived and designed by filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and architect Ole Scheeren for Sharjah Biennial 11. It was refreshing to finally see a local contemporary art institution build its own cinema space, albeit an outdoor one in use only half of the year, and demonstrate its commitment to film culture, offering production grants to filmmakers and artists. If only the Foundation could find an indoor venue to prolong its film programme all year. The screenings consist of curated programmes exploring specific themes or genres, and are normally free to attend, but sadly not usually well attended. I always wonder why artists and aspiring filmmakers are not regulars at these screenings.

In 2018, SAF launched Sharjah Film Platform, an annual film festival “to advance film production in the United Arab Emirates and the surrounding region,” showing diverse films, hosting talks and workshops, and providing film grants.

Over the past few years, other art institutions across the UAE like New York University Abu Dhabi Arts Centre, Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, Warehouse 421, Louvre Abu Dhabi (where I curated film screenings for two years before the pandemic halted them), and The Africa Institute have included film screenings in their programmes. Even Jameel Arts Centre has a gallery room dedicated to the moving image, although, ideally, it needs a dedicated cinema (preferably indoors) to help support and champion films.

In 2014, Abu Dhabi saw the launch of Cinema Space, an independent and fully voluntary initiative screening classics and contemporary films, also for free. Its current home is Manarat Al Saadiyat where screenings are usually presented in collaboration with embassies and institutes like the Korean Cultural Centre, Italian Cultural Institute, and Institut Français.

In Dubai, after launching in 2014 as a pop-up cinema and cultivating a large following, Cinema Akil opened its permanent space in 2018 in one of the Alserkal Avenue warehouses. The programming there normally consists of well-known titles from the film festival circuit, collaborations with embassies or other institutions, and, occasionally,classics.

Also in 2018, Alliance Française in Dubai revamped its auditorium and converted it into a cinema and theatre space, hosting regular film screenings in partnership with the Institut Français, including contemporary and classic Francophone films subtitled in English. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to curate themed international film screenings which I hope adds to cinema offerings in the city.

While the creative and culture industries are more focused on visual arts and design, film as an art form is still side-lined here: the multiplexes position them as fast entertainment, and art institutions treat them as secondary programming. Even though there’s a small increase of films being produced here, we still lack a national cinema that can be taken seriously, locally and internationally.

CineMAS 2021, Courtesy of Manarat Al Saadiyat

There Is A Way…

The pandemic has thrown cinema culture around the world into crisis. Many cinemas were closed for more than a year, reopening with limited capacity and slowly seeing a rise in attendees. It’s worth noting the multiplexes in Dubai closed on March 15, 2020, for just 12 weeks and since then have been running their normal schedules, showing new films plus a few re-releases during the first few months of re-opening. Drive-in cinemas made a brief comeback, and paradoxically new multiplex branches have opened (Roxy Cinemas in Khawaneej, Vox Cinemas in Wafi Mall).

There is no shortage of films, despite alarmist headlines most of last year about no new film releases due to Hollywood delaying its anticipated blockbusters.

I recently curated a small-scale one-week festival called CineMAS, for Manarat Al Saadiyat to celebrate its reopening and attract visitors to the venue. The experience gave me a glimpse of what is possible, and to encourage watching films on the big screen instead of streaming which took over during the pandemic. The line-up included a diverse selection of films including contemporary, classics, and experimental films. It was a way to celebrate films and watch them collectively without the red carpet and PR hoopla usually associated with film festivals here.

Cinema culture isn’t just about watching films from prestigious film festivals, nor are cinemas intended just to view loud blockbusters. There is a wealth of cinema past to dig into, alongside new and exciting cinema from around the world spanning fiction, non-fiction, and experimental.

With talk of a ‘new normal,’ perhaps now is a good time to gain support for more adventurous film programming, and to encourage multiplexes to program with greater imagination and diversity: there is a genuine need for counter-programming, since they all show the same films. In parallel, art institutions need to support cinema not as a gap-filler for their event calendars, but as serious, curated events.

Admittedly, screening films in non-traditional cinema spaces faces restrictions including National Media Council fees and approvals, and local film distributors who normally charge double or even more compared to distributors abroad.

More importantly, local filmmakers need access to a funding body for financial support and venues in which to show their films, and for a thriving film culture, we also need publications that support writing about cinema and film criticism, not just entertainment news and PR friendly reviews. Whatever little we had of film writing in the local media has decreased during the past decade, with publications more focused on already heavily marketed blockbusters and international film festivals, than directing readers towards alternative screenings happening in their own back yard.

Hind Mezaina is an artist, writer, founder of theculturist.com, and co-founder of Tea with Culture podcast. She curates film screenings across the UAE.

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