Cinemas in the UAE are testaments to the different nationalities that co-exist here: a reflection in architecture and marquee letters of the many languages and cultures that make the country their home. The very first movie theatre in the UAE was the Royal Air Force Cinema in Al Mahatta, Sharjah, in 1948, which catered to the British services then based in the emirate. Throughout the 1970s, standalone cinemas were constructed to show Bollywood, Tollywood, Lebanese, and Malaysian films, and a weekly trip to the movies became a ritual for many families.
The history of UAE cinemas – and the stories they tell – is the subject of a (sadly brief) new exhibition, Cinemas in the UAE, by Ajman photographer Ammar Al Attar. For the past five years, Al Attar has been collecting materials from cinemas as they close down: Bollywood film posters that he salvaged from the Golden Cinema in Dubai, notices that were placed in front of projectors, and even the battered, worn seats people used to sit on.
“All the spaces that were the cinemas are now gone,” says Al Attar about the project. “I decided that I wanted to do something about cinemas when they demolished the Golden Cinema,” the once enormously popular stand-alone movie theatre in Deira, Dubai, that also went by the name Plaza Cinema. “I remember my father telling me he was going, so it has a connection to my family.”
The first photograph that Al Attar took was of the Plaza Cinema in Fujairah in 2013. Even within the timespan of the project, that theatre has ceased to exist: it’s now a supermarket. Since then Al Attar has travelled across the country researching and documenting the buildings, from the Kalba Cinema in western Sharjah to the beloved El Dorado in downtown Abu Dhabi.
“In some places, you’d only find walls,” he says. “I would ask why the wall was there, and it would be because people used to come here to watch movies,” in ad hoc outdoor screenings.
At New York University Abu Dhabi’s Project Space, the community-run exhibition area near its Arts Centre, Al Attar shows some of the fruits of this process. The exhibition accompanies a conference at NYUAD about film and video in the Gulf.
Al Attar studied business in Dubai, but quickly shifted to photography to depict life in the UAE, from rituals such as movie-going and time spent in cafes and art studios, to devotions in prayer rooms, and even the labour in slaughter houses. His Salah series of photographs are composites of men performing prayer and his Art Index shows art world figures, such as Hassan Sharif and Abdelmonem Alserkal, in sites of production and display. There's a certain self-reflexivity to his work as well; the Salah series brings to mind the early photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, who used the new technology to study positions of movement, while Al Attar's ongoing series Reverse Moments investigates the history of photography in the UAE.
“It’s like reverse engineering – when you look for something to find out how it’s been built,” he explains. “I go to old studios, to find out who brought photographs in the ’60s and ’70s, and who did the first film processing.”
Al Attar is also working with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi on the latter's history of Sharjah's modernist architecture, Building Sharjah, which will be published in 2020. "I do the photos, he digs out the information," says Al Attar. Al Qassemi, from Sharjah and a modern architecture enthusiast, is researching 1970s and 1980s buildings, when a number of architects from the region and non-Aligned countries alighted in the Gulf to help construct its cities.
Other cultural figures in the Emirates are also fighting to save things they grew up with amid the UAE’s pursuit of the new. As part of her work as head of the Sharjah Art Foundation, Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi is conserving buildings that have been important to Sharjah communities, such as the Kalba Cinema that Al Attar also shows an image of in his show.
Butheina Kazim, who recently installed the UAE’s first permanent art-house cinema at Alserkal Avenue, similarly emphasises how the communal experience of cinema is part of the magic of movie-going. She too has preserved – she took the seat from the Golden Cinema’s balcony, and reupholstered them for the Cinema Akil site.
“The ones I took were downstairs,” Al Attar says about the chipped wooden seats he displays at NYUAD – salvaged from the front few rows as the demolition process was under way.
Ammar Al Attar’s Cinemas in the UAE is at the NYUAD Project Space until November 5.