April 5, 2021
An Incomplete History of UAE Cinemas, Part 1
Pre-2000s popular culture in the UAE is a site of cultural amnesia, and this memory loss has facilitated the rise of ‘firstism’—un-fact-checked, often unfounded claims of being the first, the trailblazer. This is particularly acute within the country’s blurry cinema history: conflicting claims abound as to the UAE’s first film, first (male or female) director, first independent cinema, first arthouse cinema, first drive-in cinema, and so forth. Firstism actually reinforces the lack of documented history, confounding both continuity and legacy. Without an established national film institute, or even a film archive, this history remains largely invisible.
In the UAE, five seems to be the ideal number of years to bracket discussions of change and evolution. This tendency to compare the present state of culture to where it stood five years prior moves us even further away from a sharper view of the past, confused more deeply as new actors and initiatives join the field. When the ‘culture industry’ prioritises market value and tourism, a consistent and long-term strategy to engage with a home-base population gets overlooked, further intensifying cultural amnesia.
While filmmaking is a fledgling industry in the UAE, watching films in cinemas dates back to the 1940s. Addressing this history means relying on memories, anecdotal evidence, old records, articles or publications – if you know where to look. Before the 2000s, there is insufficient documentation of UAE cinemas/movie theatres.
This three-part series of articles is an attempt to shed light on what is known of this history. Based on personal findings, recollections, and chats, it aims to create awareness, instil curiosity, and, who knows, maybe even fill in the historical gaps.
The Flourishing of Standalone Cinemas
According to the Sharjah Museums website, the first cinema was in pre-UAE Sharjah—an outdoor affair with the words Sharjah Paramount painted on the wall. Inaugurated in 1945 (or 1943 or 1949 based on other records), the cinema screened feature films and documentaries. “Cinema visitors used to sit on empty kerosene steel drums half filled with sand,” recounts the text accompanying a recreated version of this cinema in the Mahatta Museum. In its own burst of firstism, the website touts the cinema as the first in the Gulf, although presentations at the Film and Visual Media in the Gulf conference (NYU Abu Dhabi, 2018) mentioned cinemas in Kuwait and Bahrain as early as the 1930s.
While interest in the UAE’s modern architectural heritage and its preservation has recently surged, for cinemas, it’s a little too late. Dismissed as entertainment venues instead of cultural sites, they nonetheless played an important role as community spaces. Sadly, they were excluded from the UAE’s cultural heritage and narrative.
Although exact years are hard to determine, a spate of independently run, standalone cinemas flourished between the 1960/70s and 1990s, before the worldwide multiplex model prevailed. They showed mostly Indian films, but also English language films from the UK and America, and occasionally Arabic films from Egypt and Lebanon. Various sources reveal film titles including Antar Wa Abla (Niazi Mustafa, 1945), Dosti (Satyen Bose, 1964), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), and Play It Again Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972) to name a few.
Like Sharjah, Dubai’s first cinema, Al Watan Cinema (National Cinema) on Nasser Square (today known as Baniyas Square), was also outdoors. Opened in 1953, it is the object of scarce documentation, and has no museum reconstitution, as does the cinema in Sharjah.
In 2011, Gulf News profiled Ahmed Golchin, founder and director of Phars Film, one of the UAE’s leading film distributors, thus: “When it comes to cinema-going, he's credited by those in the industry as the UAE's founding father.”
I saw people sitting to watch movies they had bartered for with Indian gold merchants… But nobody knew what time they [the movies] would screen. It was hard to communicate in the '60s — no radio, no television, no newspapers. I put banners on the abras crossing the Dubai Creek to tell people where and when films would be screened so more people could watch. – Ahmed Golchin
As a child in the 1970s, I remember, in a back-seat-of-the-car haze, whisking past Dubai cinemas like Strand Cinema, Dubai Cinema, Deira Cinema, and Rex Cinema (Dubai’s first drive-in cinema on Khawaneej Road where Etihad Mall now stands). There was also Al Nasr Cinema in Oud Metha, which closed in 2006 and caught fire in 2008. My first cinema memory was a school trip to Al Nasr Cinema to watch Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. In the 1980s, Galleria Cinema opened in the Hyatt Regency Galleria residential complex.
Abu Dhabi boasted Al Firdous Cinema and Al Maria Cinema. El Dorado, known as Abu Dhabi’s first twin-screen cinema, opened in 1970 and closed in 2017. During its heyday in the 1980s, the Cultural Foundation regularly screened films, and was a formative venue for some of my cinephile friends in the capital.
Sharjah, too, had independent cinemas: Haroon Cinema, Concorde Cinema, and Al Hamra Cinema (currently undergoing renovation). Further afield was Khorfakkan Cinema, a modernist gem of a building that opened in 1978 and closed in 2006. Sharjah Art Foundation recently acquired the cinema, intending to preserve and restore it.
Today, almost all the standalone cinemas mentioned here have been demolished and replaced by commercial buildings.
An Invisible History
In the past few years, exhibitions like “Plaza Cinema” (Alserkal Avenue, March 2017) and “Cinemas in the UAE” (Project Space, NYUAD, October-November 2018) featured photos by the artist Ammar Al Attar accompanied by found objects sourced from soon-to-be-closed cinemas. They helped bring attention to a widely unknown cinema history. The latter exhibition was described as “a comprehensive account of cinema culture in the UAE,” and whilst Al Attar’s efforts at collecting and documenting cinema ephemera are commendable, they mustered neither archival rigour nor artistic expression, making them a mere nostalgia showcase. More importantly, what happens to these objects after their brief public outings in gallery spaces?
My cinema habit started in the 1990s at Al Nasr Cinema, a single-screen theatre with balcony seats. I watched the latest Hollywood releases like The Bodyguard, Speed, and Titanic there.
I also went to Grand Metroplex, a cinema on Sheikh Zayed Road, Lamcy Cinema in Oud Metha, and the Galleria Cinema. I watched films like Seven, The English Patient, Jerry McGuire, A Thin Red Line, Twelve Monkeys, Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead, to name a few. These were the ‘mainstream’ films at the time, interesting compared to today’s equivalent of spectacular but vapid franchise and superhero films. While these distinctions weren't prevalent here at the time, these were our arthouse/indie cinemas and our multiplexes rolled into one, so formative to my lifelong cinephilia. It saddens me how this chapter of Dubai and my life only exists in memories, and I regret not having documented the cinemas, or kept a record of what I watched during that time.
The lack of centralised institutional support to hold the historical record of cinema culture in the UAE creates a reliance on personal recollections. This, in turn, further exacerbates the blurriness of local cinema history.