Features, Main Story

Luz Villamil: Connecting communities through the art of film

As the only independent arthouse cinema in the GCC, Cinema Akil has broken commercial barriers to give film lovers a home where they can get lost in the thrall of a good film. 

One catalyst of this success, Luz Villamil, deputy director of Cinema Akil and in-house sweetheart is a Palestinian-Colombian who moved to the UAE as a teenager with her family. 

Over the years, the now 32-year-old worked in marketing across various industries and was running a charity with the proceeds going to the Red Crescent when she met her colleague and dear friend Butheina Kazim, the brain behind Cinema Akil.

“I trusted her vision and…I was fascinated by the concept and knew it had a lot of potential to grow the community,” says Luz. “Film is the most democratic form of art, and also the most accessible,” she adds.

Arthouse cinemas bring a fresh opportunity to the region, and there is a regional appreciation for independent cinema. “People are looking for something other than the multiplex experience where you come out of the movie in the mall and it’s like ‘Sale! 75 percent off!’,” she jokes.

“We are creating a space for sitting and lingering with the film. This kind of reflection and sharing of this intimacy…being in tears in the same room, and coming out and saying ‘Wow, that was rough right?’ We make space for that conversation. You surrender yourself to darkness, the film, and the story.”

Cinema Akil’s films are assessed and categorized under one-time specials, new releases, or thematic weeks where they support and highlight filmmakers from a specific country. Their best performing films are documentaries, which has made them into a home for a lot of films centered around revolutions that end up attracting the diaspora of those countries.

“We saw people come together against the occupation during Reel Palestine. We showed the Sudanese film ‘You Will Die at 20’ and it was a full house of the Sudanese diaspora,” she says. “It’s a way to connect to a homeland that for a lot of people is an idea because they have never been.”

Luz herself is a storyteller, and in university explored script writing and acting. One of the stories she tells best is her life-changing journey with breast cancer, which she was diagnosed with in the summer of 2018. 

“I was healthy, I was 31, with no family history of cancer. It was what they call sporadic cancer,” says Luz. “I was very pragmatic about my disease which is not very common. I wasn’t too emotional at the beginning.”

In the beginning, she was adamant about no one knowing, but the difficult nature of the treatment dawned on her when she became immunocompromised during chemotherapy, putting her at a high risk of contracting something life-threatening. 

“No one knew until I released my first blog post on Lopsided Life. I didn’t stop working and I wasn’t going to wait for my hair to fall off during chemo. I shaved my head and got a wig that was super similar to my real hair,” says Luz. “But when my eyebrows and eyelashes started to fall, that was tough.”

Going through chemotherapy, she made sure not to ponder on the why of the diagnosis, but to focus instead on the privilege she had.  “The way I took it was okay, this happened for whatever reason, what am I gonna do with it? I wasn’t gonna be Luz who had cancer, it was only an experience and I wasn’t going to let it define me.”

Even though she was away from family, she was surrounded by friends and even strangers who deeply cared for her.  Through the many ups and downs she experienced, including surgery where she underwent a mastectomy of the affected breast, she insisted on carrying on with normal life as best she could. 

“I was going through a divorce when I was diagnosed. I lost my father in the same year so it was a lot of emotions to handle and I didn’t absorb my trauma when it was happening,” says Luz. For a while, she also experienced the weight of being put on a pedestal when being outspoken about the experience of surviving an illness.

Despite many people choosing to speak of their trauma, the psychological impact is felt in isolation post-experience rather than the present when the mind is in survival mode.

“I didn’t find myself amazing for having cancer, and it’s different from someone saying ‘It’s amazing the way you went through what you did.’ Like, what have I done than just talk about it? Am I really amazing? Cause I feel like shit. Either way, there is a lot of courage in deciding to share and deciding not to.”

Now in full recovery, Luz has re-centered with her life. She works full time with Cinema Akil while also running a craft beer brewery and building an entirely sustainable eco-lodge in Columbia with her brother. 

Luz looks at her journey as a gift because people are now more comfortable sharing their stories with her. “Vulnerability attracts vulnerability. When you go to an AA meeting, for example, the first person breaks the ice then everybody shares, it’s the same thing in life.” 

She has attained a new level of self-confidence which she believes came from being forced to see herself stripped of any corporeal confidence. 

“My self-confidence went through so many shifts, and it went so low that now it’s so high. I’m a lot more secure in myself as a woman. I’m a lot more daring and living a lot more fearlessly.”

Follow Luz on Instagram at @luzieloo