That Avatar should have topped the UAE box-office is a surprise to no one in the country. Nor is the fact that screenings for The Hurt Locker, which is likely to pip Avatar to a Best Picture Oscar next weekend, are faring poorly at mainstream cinemas next to James Cameron's blue behemoth.
Residents have long bemoaned the lack of anything beyond big-budget blockbusters, but we are now finally beginning to see quality cinema make its way into the country, beyond such cultural establishments as the Alliance Française and the Goethe-Institut. And except for one screen at Dubai Mall, most of this action, the city's culture vultures will tell you, is to be found in small informal spaces such as Dubai's art galleries.
These venues, normally home to bored socialites dropping terms such as postmodern and movement into the conversation at suitable intervals, have stepped into the breach and are suddenly spawning both dialogue and cross-cultural interaction.
Last week, for instance, the Jam Jar played host to the finalists of the Western Union Camp Ka Champ singing competition, an annual X-Factor style contest held in Dubai's labour camps. A collection of winners from the past three years performed to a live orchestra in their first-ever public concert at the gallery's biannual Mahmovies! event.
Curator Mahmoud Kaabour says such a musical performance offers a rare point of interaction between the city's worker community and the Mahmovies! audience, bringing to the fore a demographic that is often overlooked, and allowing these talented performers an opportunity to shine.
Mahmovies! is a series of free weekly film screenings at the gallery that draws hundreds of people, many standing through the entire film because all the beanbags are taken. The construction workers on stage are only the added value – the event's real appeal is in the quality of films it serves up, from contemporary black and white cliché-busters to off-the-beaten-track fare.
"That we can cram 200-plus people into a warehouse at one time only testifies to a huge dearth and thirst among the cultural community and a lack of supply to fill that need," Kaabour says.
"There is always a fantastic atmosphere at Mahmovies!, which our dedicated audience loves. People come back week upon week, some since the first series, and often comment that they always look forward to each new series and what it will offer. There is a sense of community and that something special is happening here in Dubai," says gallery Director Hetal Pawani.
She believes Dubai is now hungry for alternative fare.
"There are limited cultural events in the UAE while the audience for it is slowly growing. While the Dubai, Middle East and Gulf film festivals do give us cinema lovers a good dose every year, there is a need to fill the gaps at other times of the year for new and existing arthouse cinema lovers," she adds. "It is evident that there exists a real hunger for less mainstream, more challenging work from around the globe."
Other art venues are also marketing themselves as places to find an unconventional choice of movies.
The XVA Gallery has just concluded another series of film screenings, while the Third Line Gallery's Pecha Kucha nights offer a forum for local creative talent to strut its stuff.
Katrina Weber, who is responsible for artist liaison and institution management, says the gallery is planning a series this year, following on from several previous efforts.
But none of them make any money from such programmes, and certainly, the events, which are usually free of charge, yield little more than publicity and marketing benefits.
"It is very difficult to run a film series without outside support, as we always work to deal with directors,
providing proper fees for film screenings, as well as all the logistics that go into holding a film screening," says Weber.
And she says such events will continue to remain free at her gallery. "This is a very important factor for us, as we see it as part of our mission to support the development of a strong contemporary art community and a space for discussion around the broader arts," she says.
And despite spending anywhere between $150 (Dh551) to $1,000 and more on each screening, Kabbour, too, believes it isn't about making money.
"So far we can absorb the costs, thanks in a large part to sponsors," he says, pointing out that his mission is to educate, to tell stories beyond the Hollywood paradigm. "Season after season, as our audience's tastes have broadened, our own selection process becomes more challenging and we need to spend more time choosing the right movies. That is a big reward."
Kabbour puts the relative dearth of venues down to the city's business-minded approach to everything.
"Entrepreneurs in the city approach culture with business models and profit as an incentive. But arthouse theatres and concert halls traditionally only bring a return on investment after 75 or a 100 years. And with rents so high, everyone wants to make even more money back," Kabbour says. "Equally, such establishments get tax cuts and subsidies in the West, but not here, where the market is seen as fairly mainstream."
Aiming to show there is money to be made from screening quality fare is Gordon Kirk, General Manager of Reel Cinemas, whose arthouse screen, The Picturehouse, opened late last year – an indication, perhaps, that critical mass has now been reached in terms of arthouse moviegoers.
"The Picturehouse represents a new wave in cinema in the UAE. Movies are a prime source of entertainment in Dubai, and the city has discerning movie-going audiences, who appreciate and value the opportunity to watch arthouse movies. So far, the response to The Picturehouse has been strong," he told Emirates Business.
Reel Cinemas, a joint venture by Emaar Retail and Singapore-based Cathay Organisation Holdings, believes there is now enough demand to support a cinema of this nature. Six years after the Dubai International Film Festival first spurred active cinematic debate in the country, Kirk believes there is a huge appetite for quality movies, as the huge turnout at film festivals indicates.
"These movies are largely unavailable for the public, and The Picturehouse – for the first time in the region – offers them a platform to view movies that have won critical acclaim across the world but do not enter mainstream distribution," he says.
The next step for the venue is to organise discussion forums and themed sessions that promote healthy debates on the movies being screened. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kirk says he
expects the cinema will show a profit. "The Picturehouse is a niche segment and we are confident of its appeal to moviegoers."
And if it works in Dubai, the concept will be exported to the chain's other growth markets. "We have ambitious expansion plans for the Middle East and North Africa region and the Indian Subcontinent, and we hope to take The Picturehouse concept to Reel Cinemas venues that we develop in these locations," he says.
Tonight is the last screening in the fourth series of Mahmovies!
The communal warehouse space of the Jam Jar Gallery will be transformed once again into both an art house cinema and concert hall for the Middle East premiere of the film Miroir Noir, which follows the multi-instrumental band Arcade Fire (pictured).
Few indie acts have reached the level of Montreal's Arcade Fire. Formed in 2003, Win Butler's gang of frail, pale, multi-instrumentalists have stampeded manically on stages all over the world; some small, some big, and some enormous. In the past few years, many of the stages that Arcade Fire have taken have been on the enormous side. Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl and Manchester's Manchester Evening News Arena are certainly not where one would expect to find a band that is so vehemently classified as indie.
Miroir Noir follows the band before, during, and after the release of their critically acclaimed 2007 album Neon Bible. The camera follows the group on the road, in the studio, and in some interesting places in between, including hotels, random street corners, elevators, the beach, and vocal recording sessions in unique locations.
The film was directed by Vincent Morisset, a friend and collaborator of the band, and filmed by acclaimed music cinematographer, Vincent Moon.
Film starts at 7.30pm and is free to attend.
Call: 04 341 7303
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