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Butheina Kazim and Luz Villamil: "Breaking Barriers of Cinema in Gulf Countries" | Talks at Google


[MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] SPEAKER 1: Whoa, this is much more than expected Welcome to Google

I'm extremely honored to have both of you here I admire strongly what you've done in the last few years Luz is a very close friend of mine But, Butheina, I can call you a friend as well BUTHEINA KAZIM: Absolutely

SPEAKER 1: It's family when I go to this cinema every time And thank you for coming to Google and our colleagues here I would start maybe with a short introduction by you, of course– best place to say what you do best Butheina worked in a TV and radio station You're also a producer of a short documentary that is called "Letter to Palestine" that won a local award

You're part of many juries– Iran, also Europe, including the Sarajevo Film Festival You were there recently, if I'm not wrong And you're the co-founder of Cinema Akil, which is kind of like the reason why we're here today together And last week, you won an award from Grazia, if I'm not wrong, and the Emirates Woman Award for Art and Culture in 2019 [APPLAUSE] BUTHEINA KAZIM: Thank you

SPEAKER 1: So first of all, congratulations for that BUTHEINA KAZIM: Thank you SPEAKER 1: Quick introduction about Luz, she's deputy director at the Cinema Akil, creator of Alternative Latino That is the UAE's first Latina American film festival Has more than 10 years of experience in media and production, and as well sits on the jury of the 10th Zayed University Middle East Film Festival

Big things I work at Google [LAUGHTER] We would like maybe to know a little bit more about you, start maybe from you, Butheina You said in an interview that you love– that your love for cinema started at birth And some of your earliest memories are actually of visiting independent cinemas in Bahrain

Can you tell us a little bit more about this passion, and how it developed, and how it affected your life? BUTHEINA KAZIM: I mean, I don't know about birth Because it took a little bit of time to get access to film, living here in the UAE I was born in Bahrain, yes But, you know, spent a lot of my childhood here, you know, old school Dubai And that was kind of the foundation of my cinema experience

And a of that kind of spilled over to the way that we ended up building the cinema And I can talk a little bit more about that But it's very hard for me to identify that moment, you know, that very specific moment where I fell in love with a film, where– there wasn't this, you know, this sort of cinema paradiso moment, where I'm like sitting in a theater and it was beautiful Like, you know, I went to a lot of standalone cinemas here, Al Nasr Cinema If anybody is an old-school Dubaian, you would remember that

It burned down mysteriously and still remains as, like, a sort of a hole, a gaping hole, in [INAUDIBLE] Dubai Bahrain, same thing– a lot of standalone cinemas That sort of formed my cinematic experience, going to the darkness and being part of that magic But I think I've always loved the idea– I've been inflicted with this sort of condition of wanderlust I've always wanted to exist in other spaces, and live other lives, and be other people, and kind of shape-shift

And cinema has a very powerful way of doing that And I've always gravitated towards it And, I mean, some of my earliest memories of watching films was my dad used to spend a lot of time– he was in finance And, you know, he would go to the States and come back And he would go to CompUSA, if anybody remembers that? And, you know– SPEAKER 1: Anybody remembers that? BUTHEINA KAZIM: CompUSA, it's like RadioShack

It's like this relic of the past, you know, where they'd buy computers back in the '90s And there was a discount rack where they had the laser disks, if you remember those That was a very short-lived technology prior to the DVD And he would just pick up a bunch of those and bring them back to Dubai And we had a laser disk player

And I thought that was really cool because none of my other friends had them And it would be like the discount rack, so you'd have everything from, like, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," to "Lawrence of Arabia," to "Looney Tunes," to random other titles And that would be what I would watch at the time And that's kind of what got me in the habit of curating my own viewing And then obviously, that grew

And I chased films around, DVD ladies on [INAUDIBLE] Road, star movies– LUZ VILLAMIL: Everyone– BUTHEINA KAZIM: You remember those? You know, movie channels on satellite television, and then later, pay TV And then I spent time in North America and really got into the habit of going to art houses, and discovering other forms of films, and spent time at Blockbuster in certain, specific shelves And really honed in, as a broke student, on my love for exploring different kinds of movies SPEAKER 1: So there was like a mix between family, your father bringing this– BUTHEINA KAZIM: Entertainment, SPEAKER 1: Let's say DVD 10 type of thing at home, and obviously like, also like, growing up New York, in States, sorry, going on your own there

How about you, Luz? Like, what was your experience? And how did you develop this passion for movies? And how did you two come to meet each other? LUZ VILLAMIL: For me, it was a little bit of a different experience just because I was born and raised in South America So, in Colombia, I have two older brothers who are a lot older than me And they used to watch quite a lot of film And I remember me being really interested in what they were kind of looking at and what they were watching And I remember the first film that I ever watched in the cinema was "Lion King

" and I will never forget that I cried the whole way And it was a very magical experience for me And then moving on from there, actually acting is what got me interested in film and producing When I came here and I went to university, I went to the American University of Sharjah

And when I was in uni, one of the things is that I acted in a lot of films that students were making And the professor, the kind of the film professor in AUS, used to recommend me as an actress to kids that were doing film And I fell in love with kind of the process of filmmaking, in the sense of actually putting together a film And so when I graduated, I started working for the BBC I was a fixer for a few of their shows

And I just loved kind of the production aspect of it And I worked in production for a few years after that So that's how I got interested in the kind of filmmaking, and photography, and cinematography, and so on And then I met Butheina [LAUGHS] We've known each other for maybe like seven, eight years? BUTHEINA KAZIM: Yeah

We worked together on a fundraiser LUZ VILLAMIL: Yes BUTHEINA KAZIM: That was the beginning of the meeting LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah I used to have a charity that's called Flea for Charity

And we used to do flea markets for charity And we used to do different fundraising events And I was doing one for Nepal during the earthquake And Butheina got in touch with us and said, I want to show this Nepalese film And what do you think of kind of the entrance fee to watch the film, it's a donation for Nepal? And this was our first collaboration together

And then, fast forward a couple of years later maybe, or a year and so after, I was looking for a new opportunity I was looking for a new venture to kind of expand my horizons And then we met And we talked about Cinema Akil And I did my first pop-up for Cinema Akil, which was SIKKA, SIKKA Art Fair, almost four years ago

And the rest is history BUTHEINA KAZIM: She literally had the worst tech setup to deal with it LUZ VILLAMIL: Yes, I did BUTHEINA KAZIM: They were like, throwing right in the pit of darkness Like, we were in Fahidi, a historical district, we were taking over a courtyard, you know? And we had just spoken that we were going to do this

And this is only when we were doing our pop-up So Cinema Akil, as you know, or you might not know, started off for four years as a non-fixed place Like, it was a nomadic, roving iterate cinema that would shape-shift every single time, we would take over a space So we were taking over everything from courtyards, to gallery– our very first one was a small gallery in Al Quoz, which now sits right across the street from where we are right now And we were taking over, at that time, a courtyard in Fahidi District and showing films from the Gulf

And this was Luz's first project, running a pop-up And our tech partner was a bit of a disaster And everything that we said we specified in the tech rider, and the kind of equipment we wanted, they would not have them LUZ VILLAMIL: It went wrong It went wrong BUTHEINA KAZIM: And the projector– LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah, my first– BUTHEINA KAZIM: Combusted

LUZ VILLAMIL: My first experience, my first screening at Cinema Akil, I remember we were doing this Emirati feature film And the film starts And we're worried about the spotlight that is, like, at the audience And I'm looking for somebody to turn the spotlight off And the next thing you know, literally the projector overheats and it goes off

And there is no movie [LAUGHTER] So it was– BUTHEINA KAZIM: She literally followed us into the dark LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah, it was interesting SPEAKER 1: And you know what? This leads, actually, to my next question Which is Cinema Akil is the only independent cinema in the Middle East

And you said you started in 2014 as a pop-up And then you opened up in September 2018 in Alserkal Can you take us a little bit back in history, and also through your ugliest moments? You were saying before like we had very ugly moments BUTHEINA KAZIM: How much time do we have? SPEAKER 1: We have some time, until people leave [LAUGHTER] And more about what are the values that this Cinema stands for? BUTHEINA KAZIM: I mean, look, I can take you back to the crux of the matter, you know? When I came back from Toronto, I started doing independently organizing different screenings all over the city

This was at the time when Dubai's sort of heydays of the growth of the cultural scene, what is seen now as the cultural– you know, the beginning of the cultural scene, which was about 2008 2003 I left 2008, there were a lot of galleries, and a lot of different pop-ups happening all over the city If you remember, Shelter was taking shape There were all these different community centers that hadn't really existed in that form at that time

And I started independently sort of becoming interested in showcasing these films from my own collection, collaborating very informally with different community groups to show films in different spaces And I've always had this idea of trying to bring people together around the language of cinema, around these films that you couldn't find anywhere But then that got shelved somewhere I left the country, went to New York, spent a couple years there, spent a lot of my time at the Film Forum at Angelica and all these different spaces, and then came back And I really thought that this was the time that Dubai had the real kind of appetite, and moment, and maturity stage to absorb something like this

And started with a test pilot of an iterate cinema in a gallery called the Third Line Gallery, which now became our neighbor down the street on Lane 1 But they had a very small space, a very informal kind of setting, warehouse We put a bunch of beanbags You know, Man'oushe Street was the concession stand LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah

BUTHEINA KAZIM: And we showed everything from Pablo LarraĆ­n's "No" to Hiro Kore-eda's "Like Father, Like Son" to Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," like the whole gamut We were just like, we're going to test this out, you know? And I ran a bunch of surveys and started to see kind of what could happen from that And that was really the seed This was July 2014

And then about a year later, different things happened market outside the box, and I was trying different things And then we connected and decided to really grow this pop-up thing and not really fixate in parallel on opening the space We wanted to sort of do both at the same time What started out as an afterthought or sort of a test period became the core business, became the way that we would learn and collect information So there's a lot of different pop-ups we can talk about, different experiences

Maybe the Cineconcert was one of our highlights– LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah BUTHEINA KAZIM: –a four-person black box in a gallery in Flag Island in Sharjah was maybe one of our low-lights SPEAKER 1: What I'm very curious about is you also, in terms of programming– and, you know, you kind of need to fit into a very interesting niche And some sort of, like, custom– it does not necessarily go to, or they do, but they're also interested in coming to your cinema that is not necessarily like a regular multiplex cinema BUTHEINA KAZIM: Yeah

SPEAKER 1: I'm really curious to know like, how do you attract these users and what's unique about this space? LUZ VILLAMIL: Well, I think– going back to the pop-ups and how we started, I just think that the experiment of doing the pop-ups or starting Cinema Akil as a nomadic traveling cinema really became– also simultaneously and not intentionally, in a way, it became the longest kind of marketing campaign for this space Because at the same time, it was through these experiments of taking over different spaces in different cities that allowed us to expose ourselves to very different audiences And at the same time, when it came time to open the space, people were already familiar with the name of Cinema Akil So it made it easier for people to understand what we were trying to do Although I do feel like we're still doing quite a bit of an educational kind of journey, in the sense of, we're still trying to show and test the audiences here in Dubai and in Abu Dhabi and wherever we are

But I do think that the appeal is on the fact that a lot of people have followed our journey And we do have kind of a group of cinephiles and people who are generally very passionate about alternative and independent cinema, that have followed us from the moment that we used to do our pop-ups at A4 Space, which was a 60-seater cinema in Alserkal Avenue And now, it just translated into those people that come to watch almost every single film at Cinema Akil BUTHEINA KAZIM: But I think the one thing that I'm going to add to that is, I think there's definitely that sort of shifting community and being kind of a linchpin for a certain set of values And that's kind of what you were you were asking, is about, what it is fundamentally– and this is something we've been thinking about a lot in the past month

Because we celebrated our first year as an actual fixed space [APPLAUSE] So we're very happy Thank you so much And it is a time that we're spending, thinking about what it is that actually this brings to the city, other than the films that we show And that's fundamentally always going to be our core focus

And that's the pudding, you know? But in a city like Dubai, where you have all these impossibilities, the amalgamation of the bizarre, the ski slopes in the desert and the lions and the cars and the peacocks on the street and all of the other stuff that happens, what does it mean to build an art house inside a warehouse in Al Quoz And why do people come? Like, what is the thing that actually people culminated around? And I think it's a lot of different things, you know? But I think, fundamentally, it's a chance to leave your isolation It's a chance to put your shoulders down, to connect with other people, to go through the shared experience of, not only laughing together– because you do that in a lot of multiplexes– but also reflect together There's an idea about sort of walking– and that's why we wanted a home We wanted to put a roof over our heads, because we wanted people to not just see those films

We wanted them to have to have the opportunity to interact with each other And then come out of the cinema, and really carry through what the films are doing, and really have this moment to reflect, a certain kind of awakening, not just a surrender Because I think the thing with the movie-going experience, it's been sort of tarnished with this idea of almost inherent escapism And that's not what we're trying to do You may escape in some moments

But I think, ultimately, it's actually a growth source LUZ VILLAMIL: A connection BUTHEINA KAZIM: And it's something that raises your consciousness And that's what brings people to our doors SPEAKER 1: Yeah

And let's say that, in order to give this type of experience to people, programming also is very important And what I notice is that I feel female filmmakers and female voices are strongly represented in your movies Can you explain why it is important now in the Middle East and your point of view on this, especially coming from two women? BUTHEINA KAZIM: Yeah Luz has been at the forefront of this discussion of the our female voice LUZ VILLAMIL: Yes

Yeah, I think that, overall, our programming has been very focused, on not only female filmmakers, but also female stories overall We have done several programs that focus on women, and not only under contemporary Arab cinema, but also even when I was curating the Latin American film week and so on We do try to highlight voices that we feel like need highlighting, that need to be talked about, whether it's a minority, whether it's women, whether it's whatever the case may be But women have been very, very kind of a focal point for us And when we had our first-year anniversary, we actually put together all the covers of all the film guides

So we print our film guides every single month And we put all 12 of them together And there were 11 women, and there was Diego Maradona [LAUGHTER] So we do make a very conscious decision to highlight female character When you enter the cinema, you are welcomed by a woman, as well, which is this massive photo of one of the first films that we showed at Cinema Akil in our opening

And we do feel like it is important to represent those female voices, because it doesn't happen enough So it does need to be a conscious effort SPEAKER 1: Would you say that it doesn't happen enough in the movie industry in general or the Middle East? BUTHEINA KAZIM: I mean, come on, the #MeToo movement That's, in itself– I think the past year we've seen enough proof points around the world of how this misogyny actually permeates in the entire industry at so many levels I actually think, in the Arab world, there's always this discussion that we have, at film festivals and different platforms, about the dire state of Arab women in the industry

And I think that's a misconception Because we actually have a far greater representation of directors, female directors, female voices, producers, in the Arab world And obviously, the ratio of production is a different metric But there's a very strong presence of the Arab female voice in contemporary independent filmmaking across the entire region, from the Middle East and North Africa So that's something that we're very proud of

And what we feel is underrepresented is the visibility around that, is the awareness around what that looks like And also the showcase of the films at the very base level, there aren't cinemas that are showing those films There aren't cinemas that are giving voice to– and not to voice to the voiceless, but voice to the voices And I think that's something that we took on very, very strongly And also fundamentally, across not just the region, it's something that we thought was a different kind of contribution that we wanted to make, not just to jump on the bandwagon of the conversation around women, but also to bring a different perspective, a different kind of wisdom through the films that we show

So whether it's a Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, the "RBG" film, or Monir Farmanfarmaian the late Monir Farmanfarmaian, the Iranian artist by [INAUDIBLE],, or tons of films There's a whole range of films that we've done that we've taken full force Because we think it's a different kind of outlook on life And I think that's our contribution It's not just showcasing Arab films

LUZ VILLAMIL: And I do think that also we have focused on also encouraging discourse around some of these subjects, as well So through a lot of the series that we have done that have focused on women and have focused on female issues, there has been also a discussion component where we feel like it's important for females from different places to come together and actually share their experiences, as well, not only necessarily related to, say, discussing the film, but rather discussing the issues that are being presented in the film So I think that that is also another level, another layer of contribution that we bring into the table to the overall subject SPEAKER 1: Speaking of contribution, I think that all of us agree that, when we go to a movie theater here in Dubai, we kind of realize that some scenes are cut, right? You take a bolder approach– LUZ VILLAMIL: Are they? No, I'm kidding SPEAKER 1: Are they? All of a sudden, they kiss, and then, ah, they have a kid

Like, what happened? [LAUGHTER] BUTHEINA KAZIM: What kiss? SPEAKER 1: What happened? BUTHEINA KAZIM: What kiss? SPEAKER 1: They're laughing because it's true, right? BUTHEINA KAZIM: Yeah SPEAKER 1: So you guys, Cinema Akil takes a bolder approach when it comes to this And you project movies as they're intended to be watched by film directors The question is, why do you think this is important? And how do you go about it, remaining culturally sensible? BUTHEINA KAZIM: Mm-hmm I feel like I need to bring my boxing gloves for this one

SPEAKER 1: Speaking about censorship, right? BUTHEINA KAZIM: Yes, Censorship It's like, you're from the Arab world, you're from the Middle East, you operate here, it's going to come up And it is a reality It is something that we have to reckon with, in the selection process, in the curatorial process, but all the way through And all the way until the film ends, when the credits roll, that's the only moment we can be like, woo, OK, that went well

That was OK LUZ VILLAMIL: [LAUGHS] BUTHEINA KAZIM: So it is something that's part of our reality And I think the one thing that we're conscious of is that we're playing the long game out here We don't want this to be a short-lived legacy of victory and then kaput We don't want this to be another Dubai phenomenon

We want to be here for a while And what that means is that we have to think about the kinds of films that we show And the beauty about cinema and the world of film is that there is a lot to be shown And the devastating reality here is that you don't have access to a lot of those films So we have an entire universe that we can tap into that doesn't necessarily trigger the same sorts of reactions that you would be confronting head on if you select only a certain gamut of films

So there is an element of self-correction that happens in the curatorial process By the same token, we also play a much more interactive role with the censors We work very closely with the National Media Council And we take the time, unlike a lot of distributors and rights holders and theaters here We're invested in the editorial voice

We're invested in the films We're invested in the artists And we have very strong relationships with the artists, often So we make the effort in campaigning to keep the films as they were intended to be shown So we'd spend a lot of time defending film

We spent a lot of time fighting Sometimes it's ugly Sometimes it's inexplicable, also And the parameters are also very loose But the other thing that's happening is that we're reaping the benefits of 14 years of the Dubai Film Festival

We're reaping the benefits of a more progressive view at the National Media Council that is a little bit more lenient and is looking to progress in its take on cinema So I think there are a lot of different things that are happening that are helping the way that we're approaching our films And there's a larger growing conversation around the arts The opening of NYU Abu Dhabi, the opening of the Louvre, all of these different things pool into the micro details of what we're doing, and whether a film like "Cold War" will pass or not, whether we can show a film like "Leaving Neverland" 10 years ago, that would never happen

LUZ VILLAMIL: Out of the question BUTHEINA KAZIM: That would never happen LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah, out of the question Yeah, now there is definitely a lot more flexibility I feel like it's also because there is a lot more willingness from the audience to accept, as well

So I think that that has a lot of repercussion on the changes that we're seeing and on the shifting kind of nature of not only the authorities, but also of the exhibitors at the same time So for us, I think, yeah, it's always been very important to screen the films as the way that they were definitely intended to BUTHEINA KAZIM: The one thing I will say, just to be completely transparent, is that we have, in very few moments, had to make the decision of removing a film from a program, because we were asked to cut certain scenes So we'd rather not show a film then cut it The only times we've actually ever cut a film is when the director, at the moment himself, approved the cut that we were asked to make

LUZ VILLAMIL: The removal of that scene, yeah BUTHEINA KAZIM: And we had to have that direct conversation Do you prefer– we are OK with canceling the screening, because we'd rather not touch your film But if you're OK with it and you still want it to be shown here, then it's your call to make And in that case, he was open to doing it

SPEAKER 1: It's very interesting when you have a bunch of people in front of you say, hey, you know what, we're not screening anymore And what do people do? They go home They probably open Netflix And this leads me to my next question BUTHEINA KAZIM: We don't do it then

We don't do it right then [LAUGHTER] We make the decision very early on, before people get there SPEAKER 1: Very early, Yeah, I can imagine But speaking of Netflix and YouTube, there are many other platforms that, today, they make original– there is very great content out there So the question here is, how do you stay relevant to the audience that, in some ways, is overloaded by high quality content, and also from the comfort from their houses? How do you go about this? LUZ VILLAMIL: I think that that also goes back to Butheina's point earlier on this need for connection and this need to– this shared experience

I do think that we kind of tap into a very different emotional desire to share an experience together and to also have that discourse after that we talked about I do think that, of course, VOD platforms, like everything else, have their place And I myself spend hours watching Netflix and seeing different things for content But at the same time, I do think that there is quite a magic in projection There is quite a magic in that shared moment, when you're all laughing together or crying together on the same scene

We saw it with so many different films We have also shown documentaries and feature films that have already been out in a lot of VOD platforms for months And people still come to see it at the cinema, because there is some work that is meant to be seen in that kind of grandiose way, which only cinemas can adapt to And we do bring a different environment that will allow for that magical connection to happen, not only with the film and not only with that reflectiveness of watching it in the darkness together But also the ability to have a conversation afterwards with the person next to you and say, OK, what did you think about this? And we've seen that

BUTHEINA KAZIM: The actual experience of going to cinemas around the world is asking that question What are the things that bring people out of their, homes out of their own control, to the surrender of a selected film, to the specific curatorial voice And I think that's the other thing that we do that's different than a multiplex or your conventional cinema There is a curatorial voice There's an actual value system or multiple value systems that we try to plug in

There's questions There's a line There's a voice There's a certain kind of presentation of films that our audiences trust us to bring So sometimes it doesn't really matter

Whereas going and trying to chase a specific film or stumbling upon a theater, or what do we do in Dubai on a Thursday night when you have nothing else to do and you don't want to go out? We're not the recipients of that life cycle So there's a very different sort of relationship that we're addressing SPEAKER 1: Wonderful Speaking of voices, if you don't mind, I'm going maybe open up to the audience here Who has the first question

Yes AUDIENCE: So I'm curious to get your take on the– and you guys personally, on the superhero versus independent artistic film battle that's happening right now There have been a lot of comments back and forth between some of the bigger directors out there, so what are your guys' thoughts? LUZ VILLAMIL: Well, I love superhero films myself, personally I do go to the multiplex to watch superhero films I think there's an important place for that

And I think that it has a very important place already in the multiplex I do think that some of the bigger kind of blockbuster titles does overshadow a lot of the independent work that is being made And I think that that's why places like ours are so important in the landscape of cinema It's because we do bring that attention to those films that are currently not slotted in the best slots and are kind of being taken over by the Marvel films and so on and so forth But I do think that there is definitely a place for both

There is one thing to go to the cinema for entertainment and to sit and kind of that escapism that's Butheina was referring to And then there is a very different experience to going to the cinema and watching a film that is going to challenge the views that you have on different subjects in the world or different value systems and so on I think that the two are very different, but that there should be a space for both And that's my personal take on that BUTHEINA KAZIM: Yeah, we always have this conversation of Marvel versus Scorcese

To me, it's like comparing apples to a Venus flytrap It's a very different thing, because the departure points are different And I think, from an industry standpoint, cinema is experiencing a bit of a shift, in terms of whether it's the era of the remake or it's the franchise landscape that overpowers everything else There's almost like a dearth of good storytelling that you can actually access And I think that's contributing to the growth of another industry, the series and all the originals and all that stuff

And I think that also has a very interesting kind of extension of what the cinema universe used to do So you're seeing some of the best television shows and series that have ever been made And I think that's an interesting shift And it's something we have to think about in terms of the formats that we showcase But I think the departure point of a commercial production or a large franchise film is ultimately box office, is ultimately squeezing every possible– and sometimes squeezing it masterfully

And sometimes coming up with a film as– SPEAKER 1: Like the "Joker" BUTHEINA KAZIM: Like the "Joker," everybody is talking about the "Joker," you know? SPEAKER 1: Everybody is talking about the "Joker" BUTHEINA KAZIM: But you would have never had the "Joker," you would have never had a film like "Black Panther," had there not been an entire universe of cinema to draw from The "Joker" jumps on the back of– whether it's "King of Comedy" or "Taxi Driver," or even Joaquin Phoenix's previous film, Lynne Ramsay's "You Were Never Really Here" That gave birth to what we finally saw

It wasn't just this masterpiece that came out of nowhere "Black Panther" also, as a wide kind of bastion of the messages that have been slowly seeded through efforts of African-American filmmakers in the past 15 years, of the resurgence of campaigns that have insisted on integration of people of color, of cultural accuracy, a fight against cultural appropriation And that gave birth to the mastery and the considerations that ended up with something as colorful, as far-reaching as "Black Panther" So I think that they have this love-hate relationship But they ultimately stem from the very different spaces

But our role– and that's something that we always talk about is, do we go into a new market? There's all this talk about Saudi There's a lot of excitement There's a lot of filmmakers there I believe in the Saudi filmmaker story But I think you need to have something to push back against when you're presenting an alternative

And I think that's the role of independent cinema, is to have this pushback, is to have this fight Because that's where healthier conscious absorption of the kinds of films that we show comes and comes to life SPEAKER 1: So bottom line, we need both We need huge blockbusters– BUTHEINA KAZIM: We need both We need less of some

[LAUGHTER] LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah, absolutely, less of some SPEAKER 1: Less of some Second question, Eliza? AUDIENCE: Is there any idea that came out of the process of listening to them or [INAUDIBLE]?? BUTHEINA KAZIM: You want to– yeah? LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah, absolutely How do we listen to them? I do think that one of the things that I'm very proud of, and I think what makes us very different, as well, from a multiplex, is that we do have a very personal relationship with our audience I spend pretty much most of my time at the cinema

And I do know a lot of the audience myself, on a personal level, particularly the people that come on a very regular basis I'm very familiar with who they are as a people They're people that have become my friends out of coming to the cinema So I do think that we have that relationship where audiences also feel comfortable telling us what they would like to see on the screen, and requesting what they would like to see on the screen I think the Latin American Film Festival– or next year, we're also doing a Spanish film week– and we are giving a little bit more of a focus on Spanish-speaking cinema is because we got that kind of request

And we felt like there was that voice that was not being represented, even through us So there are different ways that we interact with the audience that allows us to test programming, as well And I think that it's also something that we ourselves talk about a lot, about what are the films that we could show that can also bring a new type of public into the cinema? What are the new collaborations that we can have that can explore different audiences? I still think that we're not even scratching the surface in terms of audience I think that there is a lot more room to kind of explore different sides of programming to bring in more people But we do still try to do different things and to explore different things, in terms of documentary, in terms of animation, in terms of all the different genres that we have shown at the cinema

BUTHEINA KAZIM: Yeah, and I think there is another element of, being in a city like Dubai, where you have– everybody talks about diversity and the 200 nationalities And we all love to throw that slogan around And it's great Yes, it is a reality of the place we're in But I think there is a way in which that can also be very isolated

And I think the thing that we've learned throughout this journey is that, people also gravitate towards feeling heard and feeling seen And a lot of what our films do, and bringing cinema of certain communities, or whether it's through a nationalistic sort of framework, focusing on a specific country or a geography, pride point of a particular country– like for example, "CapharnaĆ¼m" was a good example When we released that film, everybody was loving the idea that Nadine Labaki was getting all this attention, well-deserved And with the moment we opened it, our entire audience, 90% of it, was Lebanese Now we are running a film called "Papicha," which is a very strong feminist, coming-of-age story set in Algeria during the Black Decade

It premiered at Cannes in May, and we brought it here And our audiences have been very strongly, very proudly, very visibly Algerian And I think there's a lot of that happening There's other forms of rallying around interest groups and other metadata that brings people out to the kinds of thematics that we explore Like Sole DXB, for example, targets a very specific type of community, people interested in sneaker culture or hip hop or urban lifestyle and so on

So that's the interest group So there's that kind of listening But even going back to the thinking around the space, that was a lot of the learning throughout our pop-up experiences Because we had a lot of different forms of designing cinemas And we had very different dreams of what this art house would look like, reference points

I spent some time in Berlin There's a ton of art houses in that city, which is beautiful But ultimately, what doing the pop-ups told us is a lot of information about the specificity of this place So even though we ended up designing the experience, the choice of couches, it wasn't just low budget that ended up giving us a solution that we had to work with it, you know? LUZ VILLAMIL: [LAUGHS] BUTHEINA KAZIM: It was actually the informality that people craved Because you are surrounded by perfection

There is this sort of, almost like a sanitized experience of life LUZ VILLAMIL: Staged, sanitary experience, yeah BUTHEINA KAZIM: So we wanted something that would slightly disrupt that, give you a little bit of that ugly, something that is comfortable, that is human LUZ VILLAMIL: And that warmth, as well BUTHEINA KAZIM: Yeah

So that's in terms of the spatial experience Even our concessions was responsive to what people were telling us we're excited about And we did this experiment in between the pop-ups where we were traveling with the cinema and opening the final space, which was in the summer of 2017 For 2 and 1/2 months, we ran something called Cinema Akil Beta, or Now Playing And we ran the cinema every single night, the same way that we would here, with a lower ticket price

Not a single nail drilled into the wall, everything was makeshift We had acoustic curtains as walls We had wallpaper, which still is our wallpaper now, our famous wallpaper But we had donated furniture It was very eclectic

And we ran it And that became the best pilot or stress test to what we ended up with So that kind of listening also informs the decision-making around the experience and designing the experience LUZ VILLAMIL: Yeah, we initially had something completely different in mind of what the cinema was going to be And it was because of that beta period and the way that people reacted to our takeover of that warehouse, which is still the warehouse that we're in now, that really informed our decision, that made us realize that people were actually seeking that informality and that living room feel that really made people feel comfortable at Cinemark Akil

It made it more warmer And that experience was not very common here So we felt like we wanted to have a cinema that was true to Dubai, but at the same time, that would challenge a lot of the notions of what you think Dubai is coming in fresh SPEAKER 1: How wonderful is that You two, you don't even need anybody to ask you questions

You just complement other [LAUGHTER] It's like exponential Thank you I have one last question from my side You mentioned before Saudi, that everybody's looking into it

Maybe it's not for you But what's the future of Cinema Akil? Are you moving to Saudi? [LAUGHTER] Are you opening spaces in Abu Dhabi? Are you opening in some other cities in Europe? What do you think this space is going to become in the future? BUTHEINA KAZIM: I think the future is precarious for cinema at large Our hope is to continue– it's our first year And our hope is to really get even better at what we do, present even more critical programming, be a home, be really that home, and be discovered by everybody that's seeking whatever it is that we're putting out there, whatever our value systems are And then a possibility for collaborations are always things that we look out for

We're part of the Network of Arab Arthouse Screens, which is a network of cinemas across the region, from Morocco to Khartoum to Cairo, Beirut And we're constantly collaborating with each other on programming, and also challenging each other, in terms of the specificity of our context So we're really hoping to see that grow And if Saudi is a window and we find the right kind of space for it, then absolutely I think there always is room for some localized manifestation

I think that's the other thing, is that we don't want to become a chain or a franchise, or even a model Because it's a very specifically Dubai Al Quoz version that you're seeing when you come there And I think that's the other thing about Dubai is that there is a lot of this catapulting There is a lot of this parachuting of concepts, as they should be That's not what we're trying to do

We're trying to be something that is invested in this place And if there are other places that we can invest in, then we'll go through the same sort of critical life cycle and hopefully interrogate that further SPEAKER 1: Thank you LUZ VILLAMIL: Thank you [APPLAUSE]

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