It’s a bold decision to be the only cinema in the UAE to screen Leaving Neverland, and an even braver one to open up a debate around the most controversial documentary of the year. Step forward Butheina Kazim, Co-Founder of Cinema Akil, the first and only independent arthouse cinema in the GCC, and a fearless game-changer who’s not afraid of asking difficult questions. So much so, she’s launching Debatable, a new panel discussion series to continue to conversation about the sensitive subjects raised in the Michael Jackson documentary and beyond.
“It’s a very difficult and a very emotional watch. It’s impossible to walk out of that film without some sort of reaction,” Butheina tells Grazia from her favourite seat in the red velvet auditorium at Cinema Akil. “We spent a lot of time thinking about Leaving Neverland with our own internal debates and a very charged decision-making process ’til we got to the point where we decided we were going ahead with the screening.” She notes, “Not every film that we screen reflects our views or opinions of the issue itself, but we are on the side of discussion especially when it’s an issue as serious as this. Every film lends itself to a discussion but some really leave big rifts among people and Leaving Neverland is one of those films.”
The first Debatable discussion will take place following the 2pm screening of the documentary on Saturday 27 April. The 45-minute debate will be moderated by Dubai-based film critic William Mullally and features Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director at NYUAD Arts Center; Reem Hameed, Co-Founder of The Dukkan Show podcast; and Andre Neveling, Editor of the celebrity magazine Ahlan!.
“This film, to many, has become a disruptor in terms of not only the way we think about Michael Jackson, but about how we talk about sexual abuse, paedophilia, and what are we able to believe,” she reflects. Topics Butheina hopes to open up during this conversation include how stories develop in the age of social media and the notion of separating the art from the artist. “How do you do that, where are the boundaries, how do we even start to think about boycotting, deleting or cancelling specific artists because of allegations such as these, and how do you go about that if you choose to?” she questions. “So it’s also important for us as an organisation, as a reflective process, to start thinking about how we function with that.”
She continues, “This discussion will bring all the different sides of the table to one space, where people aren’t just cyberbullying or reacting but actually sitting together in the real world and tackling the subject head-on.” She adds, “We’re encouraging those attending not to use social media and record any of it during the conversation so that we create a safe environment and allow people to really speak their minds.”
With her pioneering spirit and quest to push the boundaries, one year on from the cinema ban being lifted in Saudi Arabia, unsurprisingly, Butheina’s already involved in shaping the next generation of filmmakers in the Kingdom. “Right now I’m engaged with a project by Art Jameel. I’m on the jury of a design competition of the cinema they’re opening in Jeddah,” she reveals.
“Saudi Arabia is a very robust environment for content creation,” she observes of the current cinematic landscape in KSA. “They’ve been making films even before the cinemas were open, and actually leading the charge in Gulf storytelling by finding ways of doing it even through YouTube and social-media content in lieu of the feature-film format or the festivals that are now taking place.”
So will be Cinema Akil be opening in Saudi anytime soon? “Saudi needs to take own course before another gold-rush moment,” she cautions. “You could recreate the same exact space but you need to be truly responsive to the environment that you occupy and to the challenges and questions people are having. It would need very engaged and locally driven thinking around the programming and around the space.”
More importantly, she points out, “The role of alternative or parallel cinema is to challenge and push back against something. So until there is a healthy, commercial mainstream cinema in place and functioning in KSA – which still hasn’t really taken off – you’re not really pushing back against anything, you’re just importing.”
But arthouse aficionados hoping for a Cinema Akil in their neighbourhood needn’t be discouraged. “If the moment is right and the partners are right and the engagement is authentic and sincere, then we would go to the moon.”
• Leaving Neverland is showing at 7pm on 24 April and 1 May, and at 2pm on 27 April, followed by the Debatable panel discussion. For more info, visit cinemaakil.com
Photos: Courtesy of Tryano and Cinema Akil