When the train arrived at the station and humankind had their first cinematic experience, they were said to have run in panic mistaking the vehicle on screen for an actual train. This panic, while watching The Arrival of a Train by the Lumiere Brothers in 1896, quickly turned into awe — and thus, cinema was born as an industry and art form.

As I was watching Ruben Ostlund’s The Square at the 14th Dubai International Film Festival (Diff), a particular line caught my attention — “If we take an ordinary something and put it in a museum, does it become art?”. This got me thinking about the very definition of art, and whether cinema today qualifies as one.

It is a question of special relevance as the number of cinemagoers reportedly sees its highest drop in years. For some, it is due to the comfort of streaming services, and for others, it is perhaps because they do not find films captivating anymore that they prefer other mediums, such as TV shows. It is therefore interesting how the generation often labelled as having the lowest attention span, actually prefers a medium that warrants more of their time. The question therefore is what has created such a fatigue within the current landscape of films? I searched for the answers to this question through film enthusiasts attending Diff.

Glamour, entertainment and fandom is what I was told attracts most viewers to the cinemas. Some said they watched mainstream commercial films that promise nothing more. However, in recent years, many films have become generic, formulaic, and predictable. The awe factor has become practically non-existent, which leads to this fatigue.

The issue lies in the choice of movies rather than the simple lack of good movies, it seems. Only when we watch movies for reasons beyond glamour and entertainment do we truly experience cinema. Independent films therefore qualify as art because, often, an individual carefully observes and understands the ordinary, passes it through his creative and interpretive filter, and awes us with his unique presentation.

“[Indie films are] where you can see an intimate portrait of someone’s reality, or get to experience imaginative and experimental ways of storytelling that big studios would not risk doing. It’s where risks are taken and true cinematic gems are found,” says Faisal Hashmi, a Dubai-based filmmaker.

When I watched The Square, I gave Ostlund my time, attention, and commitment. In return, he respected my intellect as a viewer, and directed me just as he did his cast and crew, rather than just spoon-feed me from a jar of conventions.

A big festival like Diff clearly offers a layer of glamour — yet, beyond the surface, true cinematic gems are waiting to be unearthed. As demand for such gems grow, the industry will follow, and the landscape will thrive again. Or so we hope.

— The Young Journalist Award (YJA) at Diff is a training programme for high school and university students who are aspiring writers and reporters. Seven students are competing at the festival this year. One winner will secure a monthlong internship with Gulf News.