It’s only 6pm and already people are gathering outside the auditorium in Knowledge Village, eager to grab themselves a seat for tonight’s screening of Ramchand Pakistani. The film isn’t due to start for another two hours, but these early birds have got the right idea. More than 500 people registered on The Scene Club’s website to attend tonight, and the auditorium seats just 350.
Making her way through the throng to meet us is Nayla Al Khaja, a small but feisty-looking Emirati woman who is proud to be the UAE’s first female independent film producer. She’s the CEO of D-SEVEN Motion Pictures, a UAE-based production house, and founder of The Scene Club, which is why we’re here tonight. This is the only place in Dubai where you can go to watch independent world cinema on a regular basis. Screenings are free and fall on the last Thursday of every month, with complimentary soft drinks and popcorn (rather generously) thrown in. Recent selections have included Land Gold Women, Mumbai-based filmmaker Avantika Hari’s film about honour killings, while tonight’s Ramchand Pakistani explores how a family is torn apart by tensions between India and Pakistan.
As the evening draws on it becomes clearer that all 500+ people just might turn up. When the lights go down at 7.45pm and the first reel begins to roll, there are people crouched on the stairs and sitting cross-legged on the floor. It’s fantastic that The Scene Club has drawn such a crowd, but it’s confusing, too. If there’s such a market for this kind of cinema in Dubai, why are the multiplexes filled solely with the most brainless action and horror movies that Hollywood has to offer?
It’s something that frustrates Al Khaja. ‘Dubai needs an arthouse cinema, that’s for sure,’ she says. ‘The government should finance it. They should give us a venue with proper facilities and maybe a film library where film lovers can rent films, a nice lounge where they can chill out… it would be so much fun.’
For now, The Scene Club stands in as Dubai’s arthouse cinema. It does so nicely – the auditorium at Knowledge Village feels more like a theatre than a generic screen in a multiplex, with its chandeliers, comfy seats and warm, red colour scheme. Even better, filmgoers don’t just queue zombie-like, staring into space with nachos and hot dogs in hand – they talk to each other. ‘The whole purpose of The Scene Club is to create a dialogue,’ Al Khaja agrees. ‘Locals come here, expats come here, and they get to really talk about the topic [of the film being shown].’
By showing world cinema, The Scene Club is helping to reflect Dubai’s many different cultures and, as such, gives its members a chance to learn about each other.
There’s also an Emirati night each January, showcasing the best in UAE filmmaking (usually a selection of short films, as the production of homegrown features remains a work in progress). ‘That usually creates a really good debate after the film,’ reveals Al Khaja. ‘Last time, we had a couple of controversial local films that expats were really shocked to see. They were like, “Really? You guys do that?” And we’re like, “Yeah, we’re humans”, you know?’
The screenings are always followed by a discussion, often chaired by Al Khaja and involving someone who played a part in producing the featured work. Javed Jabbar, writer and producer of Ramchand Pakistani, is in town tonight. Jabbar has served as a minister in the Pakistani government and drafted progressive media laws during that time. Over a coffee in Media City, he tells Time Out that restricted access to world cinema can have a damaging effect on societies. ‘The first impact is ignorance,’ he says. ‘From ignorance can flow very distorted views, and that can lead to prejudice.’ Jabbar argues that homegrown cinema is part of a nation’s literature, portraying the ideas and beliefs of that society. Because of this, he suggests there should be legislation that obliges cinemas to dedicate 10 per cent of their screening time to world cinema. He also argues it is the job of the state to construct arthouse cinemas. ‘Cinema construction should be seen as part of infrastructure,’ Jabbar says. ‘Just as the government builds roads, so too it can build small-scale cinemas as a public service.’
Al Khaja doubts that multiplexes here would give any percentage of their schedules to arthouse cinema. ‘They’re all about money,’ she says. ‘It’s all about candy and sugar and selling popcorn. At the end of the day, it’s really showbusiness and not showart.’ But maybe, just maybe, if we all descend on the next Scene Club, forming queues that snake out of the auditorium and around the block, then someone will recognise that it’s time for Dubai’s first arthouse cinema to be built? Al Khaja smiles. ‘That would be really fantastic.’
The Scene Club is showing German thriller Distanz at 7.45pm on August 27. Register for your complimentary ticket online at www.thesceneclub.com. Knowledge Village, Conference Centre 1.