There's a new kid on the block among Dubai's burgeoning indie cinema scene. Or rather, an old one is upping its game to bring even more underground films to the city's cinephiles as restrictions around Covid-19 are slowly lifted.
Oud Metha stalwart Alliance Francaise Dubai has long brought the best of French and Francophone cinema to our shores, and from October it will stake its claim as a full-time art-house cinema with a programme of films every week.
Thursday's matinee screenings will focus on younger viewers with the Cine Gouter programme, a selection of the best in children's cinema and animation that features a free snack and an optional post-film discussion for those who speak, or are learning, French.
Saturday's Cine Club will offer some of the best recent films to come out of France and the wider French-speaking world. Finally, the Sunday Classics programme will offer a month-long retrospective of a seminal director or actor from the rich pantheon of French cinema. On the last Sunday of each month, Alliance Francaise Dubai will team up with Lebanese distributor Empire to show a hand-picked new release from the French-speaking Arab world. All films will be shown with English subtitles and, when available, with Arabic subtitles, too.
Alliance Francaise director Melanie Martini Mareel, who took up her post last year, is programming the screenings, and she admits that the move is about more than just sharing a love of French cinema. The decision to expand the centre's output was also about getting the most out of a historically underused resource – the organisation's top-quality cinema space.
"It was an easy decision," she tells The National. "We have this great asset at Alliance, and we were using it just for occasional screenings. The theatre was totally renovated in 2018, fully equipped to proper cinema standards. It's comfortable, the sound and the picture are great, we have this wonderful space, and we have this wonderful catalogue of movies. It just made sense to get more out of it."
The decision may have made sense on that level, but the timing is unusual to say the least, with cinemas struggling to woo audiences back in the wake of Covid-enforced closures. Would it have made more sense to wait until a little more normality was restored before trying to bring new audiences into the space?
“In a way, this is a response to the pandemic,” Mareel says. “After this crisis first came, we suddenly weren't allowed to do anything any more. The art gallery, the cinema, none of it was possible. That got us thinking about what we are, and what we have. We're working in a cultural centre, and this seemed like a really good way to reconnect with our audience.”
Mareel says that the cinema's usual 108-seat capacity will be limited to only 37 by social-distancing rules, with only one in three seats occupied. Audiences will be required to wear masks, and the cinema will be fully disinfected after every screening.
Unlike commercial cinema operators, Alliance Francaise is not governed by the financial bottom line, so audience limitations are not an issue. In fact, Mareel says she hopes the smaller number of viewers may make for an even better experience.
“It feels really intimate, and it's a wonderful way to have conversations again. As soon as you are in your seats, you know you're back to your life, and sharing something, even if you can't see the people around you,” she says. “There is this magical thing that you don't find when you're watching a movie on Netflix on your couch. This magic of feeling the feelings of your other co-watchers. This sense of 'yeah, we're all here together.'”
As for the programme, Mareel says the idea is to show films that don't usually make it to the local multiplexes. “There are so many,” she says. “Not just French films, but English films, Italian films that are so wonderfully interesting, and really have something to say. I think there is something that can be carried to the audience about diversity and the complexity of the world, and humans, that I find not so obvious, and that you don't see in mainstream cinemas.”
The centre began screening films again in July, and Mareel says she used these as a testing ground for what would go into an expanded programme. Perhaps surprisingly in a fast-moving world that seems to constantly crave new content, it is this experiment that led to the inclusion of the Sunday Classics section.
“I had two main expectations when we restarted our screenings,” she explains. “Firstly, that people would mostly come for the comedies, and secondly that most people that came would be French people.”
In fact, neither of these theories proved correct. While plenty of French viewers did pass through the doors, Mareel was surprised to find even greater numbers of students attending, often as a way to support their language learning. Most surprising of all, however, was the appetite for golden oldies.
“People had seen our programme on social media and just were really curious about classic French cinema. I discovered that there is a huge demand for classics, and they had a really big turnout compared to the other movies."
The classics kick off this Sunday, October 4, with the legend of French New wave, Francois Truffaut's, final film, 1983's Vivement Dimanche! The opening weekend of the newly expanded line-up also features a collection of silent animations for children on Thursdays, and Guillaume Nicloux's historical drama The Nun, starring Isabelle Huppert, on Saturday.
Tickets cost Dh35, or Dh15 for members, from afdubai.org/cineclub
Cine Gouter: Thursdays, 2.30pm
October 1 – Jeux et Petites Betises – seven animated short films with no speech, suitable for ages 3 to 7.
October 8: Fahim, The Little Chess Prince – suitable for ages 6 and above.
October 15: Leaving School – a collection of 13 poems by Claude Roy, illustrated by 13 young directors from French animation schools.
October 22: My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo – an animated film for children aged 3 and above.
Cine Club: Saturdays, 5pm
October 3: La Religieuse (The Nun) by Guillaume Nicloux, 2013
October 10: Un Amour impossible (An Impossible Love) by Catherine Corsini, 2018
October 17: Gloria Mundi by Robert Guediguian, 2019
October 24: Lulu Femme Nue (Lulu in the Nude) by Solveig Anspach, 2014
Sunday Classics – Francois Truffaut: Sundays, 7pm
October 4: Vivement Dimanche! (Finally Sunday!), 1983
October 11: Les 400 Coups (The 400 Blows), 1959
October 18: Le Dernier Metro (The Last Metro), 1980
October 25: Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim), 1962