December 28, 2021 8:23 AM EST

Sudan Film Week was just about to begin at Cinema Akil, Dubai’s first arthouse cinema, when COVID-19 hit in early 2020. Suddenly, founder Butheina Kazim was forced to close up shop amid lockdown orders. It was, as she puts it, a “very precarious situation” for her beloved theater. But Cinema Akil survived, in part by offering subscription-based online film screenings and discussion groups. When Kazim was finally able to reopen in June 2020, she rethought her programming to better reflect moviegoers’ mood—an important move for someone trying to nurture the city’s growing cinema community.

Kazim is part of a new wave of socially-minded entrepreneurs in Dubai focusing on broadening the city’s cultural offerings by building new spaces for artistic creation and curation, while her theater’s success is a testament to the growing popularity of and appreciation for the arts among the city’s residents and visitors. “We want to be a place that grows with the city and is part of its decision-making and story,” she says.

Butheina Kazim, co-founder of Cinema Akil, an independent cinema platform in Dubai.
Natalie Naccache for TIME

Kazim decided to work in cinema 15 years ago, when she first saw Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses, about a family of Kurdish orphans on the Iran-Iraq border. She has since come to view cinema as a way to challenge viewers’ biases and center under-represented groups and cultures. “A big part of my personal interest is showing films that champion notions of social justice,” says Kazim, who often showcases films that fight racism and discrimination and promote women’s rights, such as Soudade Kaadan’s The Day I Lost My Shadow, about a woman’s experience in the early days of the Syrian civil war.

The early seeds that led to Cinema Akil were planted in 2009, when Kazim, who was then working for entertainment conglomerate Arab Media Group, pitched an idea for a pan-Arab cinema channel somewhere between Sundance TV and Turner Classic Movies. But the project was shelved amid that year’s financial crisis. Instead, Kazim started showcasing independent films at one-off events in community spaces around Dubai. “I flipped the model from free-to-air with a potential audience of 360 million, to targeting a very small community in Dubai,” she says.

Kazim’s first shows were free, but she soon believed she had enough interest to sustain a permanent space. In 2018, she found a home for Cinema Akil in a warehouse in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue creative district, a former industrial zone that now hosts a variety of art galleries, studios, record shops and more. Cinema Akil is in many ways the centerpiece of the area, which is emerging as a must-visit destination showcasing Dubai’s emerging creative and artistic scenes.

Butheina Kazim, co-founder of Cinema Akil, an independent cinema platform in Dubai.
Natalie Naccache for TIME

Cinema Akil now offers a variety of film festivals and pop-up events, and showcases many movies that would otherwise not be screened in Dubai, ranging from independent Palestinian short films to lesser-known Latin American titles and even some cult American hits like Home Alone. Kazim has also been working to cultivate a sense of community among locals and visitors who share her passion for film. She designed the space itself with that goal top of mind: mismatched furniture and lamps evokes the warm feeling of being in an eccentric but beloved relative’s home, the damask-patterned wallpaper references the decor of formal Arabic gathering spaces called majlis, and 40 red seats rescued from the Golden Cinema—Dubai’s longest-running single-screen theater, which was demolished in 2017—tie the space to the city’s cinematic history. Kazim hopes the theater offers visitors a feeling of sanctuary, especially for those new to the city. “I think the sense of displacement [for newcomers] is so unnerving that it really becomes important to find places of stability that keep your feet on the ground,” she says.

The pandemic has been a turbulent time for Kazim’s business, which has had to operate at 30% capacity to ensure social distancing. But her spirits are renewed every time someone tells her how impressed with her work they are, or how much Cinema Akil means to them. “I get an email every few months from somebody who left Dubai and still remembers it, and wants to express whatever it meant for them at the time,” she says. “This is what this space is supposed to be, and I hope there is always going to be a need for that.”

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