UAE residents gather here for free cinema under the stars
UAE residents gather here for free cinema under the stars Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

Dubai: It’s a chilly Saturday night. Groups of people, dressed in warm clothes, holding picnic mats and baskets, scurry to find a good spot near on the grass, in a public park in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers (JLT). Some are with their families, others with friends.

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Located between Cluster P and Cluster Q of JLT, a giant screen in the park will play a family friendly movie, right as the clock strikes 7:30pm. Close to the screen, two small kiosks sell hot popcorn and ice-cream to eager visitors.

“We are here to watch the movie The Emperor’s New Groove, tonight,” Annie Reyes, a 42-year-old Filipina mum of two, told Gulf News. “Last Saturday, we wanted to watch the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but we could not get here on time.”

Every winter, the community organises an open-air movie event called Cinema under the Stars, This year, the open-air cinema will show a different pre-selected movie every Saturday night, till March 2.

While the event is free for all to attend, the space in the park is limited and on a first-come-first-serve basis.

“A lot of people come together here, they play kid-friendly movies. This has become like a community in itself. Sometimes, you get to know new people. And, especially with the nice weather right now, it’s a lovely experience,” Lyes Issaadi, an Algerian expatriate living in Dubai, said.

For older millennials who grew up in the UAE, this is reminiscent of the open-air Rex Cinemas on Al Khawaneej Road, where families would arrive with picnic baskets and let the little ones run around, while they enjoyed the film on mats or in cars.

“I live close by and have been coming here almost every Saturday night, with my friends, for the last two years. I grew up in old Dubai. My parents have gone back to India, but I am working here now and staying alone. I come here because it takes me back in time to my childhood. Our parents would take us – my younger brother and me to Rex Cinemas, where we would park the car and enjoy a movie. My brother would run around and play, and I would sit with my parents to watch the movies. It’s a perfect way to spend an evening outdoors if you are a movie-lover like me,” said Akshata Sharma, a 39-year-old marketing executive in Dubai, ready with her tub of popcorn.

For families with children, it is a perfect spot. Right next to the screen is a small play area.

“I bring my children here for playdates with their friends. My eight-year-old goes off to play with other children, while my 13-year-old sits with us and watches the movie,” said UK expatriate Linda Bert-Smith, who has been coming to the park since she moved to JLT in 2023.

But, it’s not just residents of JLT who come to the park for the movies.

Thanks to social media, people from across Dubai have heard of it and have been driving to the spot, parking their cars nearby, and finding a place to spread their picnic mats, almost half an hour before the movie starts.

Alexandra Will, a German expatriate living in Dubai, said: “I moved to the UAE around four or five months ago from the UK, my husband is British. The idea of an open-air cinema is really nice. Especially since it is offered for free. They show a wide range of children’s movies. I’ve already visited it four times with my husband and five-year-old daughter.”

List of remaining movie screenings:

  • January 27: Ratatouille
  • February 3: Star Wars: A New Hope
  • February 10: The Lion King
  • February 17: Meet the Robinsons
  • February 24: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  • March 2: How to Train Your Dragon

A trip down UAE’s open-air cinema lane

UAE’s love for open-air cinemas is not new. Reminiscing about visiting the open-air Rex Cinemas as a child, Gulf News’ Games Editor, Sanya Nayeem said: “As a kid, there was nothing more unique and exciting for me than a trip to Rex Cinema.

“On balmy evenings, we would drive up to the open-air cinema and park next to a fuel pump-like gadget, which had piped-in air conditioning - something that often entertained us more than the film we were watching. Families brought their own snacks - I remember seeing elaborate backseat buffets in cars around us and smelling distracting aromas. Watching the movie (usually a Bollywood flick) was the reason we went, of course, but the whole experience around it was so special, I still remember it years later.”

According to a previous, 2011 Gulf News story, Ahmad Golchin of Gulf Film, the first distributor of films in the UAE explained: “When I came here in 1963, there was only the National cinema in Nasr Square …and there were no bridges or tunnels that connected Deira and Dubai. The only transportation was the abra or water taxi, but this did not stop people from attending the movies for it was the sole entertainment for people. Apart from this, there was a cinema at a … camp in Sharjah, which they kindly opened to the public, and a gold merchant opened a cinema on the Dubai side in Jumeirah, where now stands a petrol pump and shopping centre.

"A bell announced the start of the show, and five minutes before the film ended, the bell would ring again so that taxis could arrive to take home those living far away."

The trend of open-air cinemas seems to be returning, with some commercial establishments offering open-air cinema experiences to movie lovers.

Another free open-air cinema to try in Dubai is located in Al Quoz. Cinema Akil, an independent cinema platform in Alserkal Avenue, screens movies in The Yard during winter months. The platform’s official website allows you to check the list of films and book tickets.