Politics and production… Two obstacles facing the Syrian drama
Enab Baladi’s Investigations Team
Every year, the lists of dramatic works watching becomes filled with details about the names of TV series and stations, telecasting, replay times … etc; ever since Ramadan has become the most important marketing season for the works, which present different content and types and share the same telecasting time. This 30-day broadcasting period represents the bidding competition, which will determine the fate of each work and whether it is doomed to failure or designed for success.
As usual, Arab satellite channels are witnessing a “jam” at the level of telecasting newly produced TV series. Each TV channel is striving to “take over the season” by broadcasting the best dramas or monopolizing others, and taking marketing decisions to achieve the highest viewing rates.
About 25 years ago, the Syrian drama has firmly established itself in the dramatic scene. As a result, Arab satellite channels began to allocate telecasting time for Syrian series that was equal to, and in some cases surpassed, that of Egyptian drama.
This was not surprising, after the introduction of private drama production companies since the mid-nineties of the last century, which provided technical tools that contributed to this drama.
These companies did not suffer from marketing problems due to the demand for Syrian TV series, not only in Ramadan but throughout the year, to the extent that it was repeated more than once.
After 2005, the Syrian drama witnessed a significant decline in the value of the content presented, which was the first warning signs of the crisis of the production market, as well as the difficulties of marketing and competition. It has also paved the way for a significant decline at the level of text, script, directing and acting in dozens of series, over the following years.
Because of war, this Syrian drama, whose base was fragile enough, could not resist the wave of political coding, which was blatantly imposed on drama. It could not escape too the economic crisis, and the writers, directors and first class actors shift toward Arab production companies. As a result, Syrian Drama lost much of its old splendour and value as reputable exclusive Syrian works.
During the current drama season, many of the newly produced Syrian series were absent from satellite channels, and their protagonists were denied participation in the Arab drama race. This was caused by the marketing problems of the Syrian production companies, amid the fierce competition in the Arab arena.
The contents of works that are currently broadcasted mainly took different directions. The first is a political one based upon supporting the theories of the Syrian regime. The second one is marketing and based on “daring and breaking stereotypes and social values” as a means of hooking and drawing attention. The problem of the rest of Syrian works range between poor text to the absence of first class or poor directing and shooting problems.
The Syrian tragedy from the regime’s perspective
National and private Syrian channels are broadcasting several dramas, often referred to as “social” and sometimes “comedy,” but they perpetuate the regime’s theory of what is going on in Syria.
For instance, Rozana series, currently premiered in Ramadan 2018, tackles the story of a family displaced from Aleppo to Damascus to escape the war. The director of the work, Arif al-Tawil, who is a member of the People’s Council and known for his support of the regime, does not miss an opportunity to show that the reason behind what is happening in Aleppo is “a conspiracy and terrorism.”
Many other series have adopted the same style before, such as “Inaya Mouchadada,” “Tahta Saqf al-Watan,” “el-Hob Kolou” and other works.
“Syrian Drama TV” channel also features a short series called “Yawmiyat al-Mukhtar” by Zuhair Ramadan who plays the role of “Mukhtar al-Bissa,”a famous character in the series of “Dayaa Dayaa.” The series seizes the month of Ramadan to put blame and shame on Syrians and hold them responsible for the destruction that happened in Syria.
However, even though these works were several, they have been scarcely seen on foreign TV channels (outside Syria), because Arab audience wants only to see Syria through series such as “Bab al-Hara”, which revolves around parties, feasts, female intrigue and the heroic acts of the young men.
Evolution of competing drama
Syrian art critic Jalal Serees believes that one of the reasons behind the poor marketing of the Syrian series, especially in the Gulf TV stations, is that the drama of these countries has developed recently in terms of quantity and quality. Serees told Enab Baladi that “Gulf drama attracted most prominent Syrian photographers and directors who contributed to its development, and therefore increased domestic production.”
Serees denies the idea that the Syrian drama is facing a war, but thinks that TV stations are adopting a policy to direct the viewer to watch the Gulf drama.
The remarkable emergence of Gulf drama coincided with the revival of the Egyptian drama, which has suffered from deterioration at the level of content, making its top artists sound the alarm and ask drama makers to emulate the Syrian actors and directors. Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhi, for instance, has declared that they acknowledge the superiority of the Syrian artist.
Therefore, senior Egyptian directors resorted to assigning starring roles to Syrian actors, such as Jamal Soleiman, who marked the beginning of the journey of his career in Egypt through Hadayaq al-Shaitan, directed by Egyptian director Ismail Abdel Hafiz in 2006.
Egyptian drama makers have become aware of one of the Syrian drama’s key to success, which is the collective starring. Before, the Egyptian series used to have only one starring actor, which led to its stereotyping and deterioration at a certain time. Egyptian series overcame these flaws and tried their best to introduce active or co-starring characters, even if they are not the main protagonists.
The director Mamoun al-Bunni criticizes the production companies, which have recently got into the business, for calling writers and directors to produce works having only one starring role, which is a task he believes to be impossible. “While the democratic mind is trying to produce co-starring works, production companies are calling for one-actor-starring works. This contradicts with what we used to produce. Therefore, I made sure that Jarima Fi Thekira, the police movie I was directing, to be a co-starring work,” said al-Bunni.
The Syrian actor appears in Egyptian series adding more glamour to it, but now he is playing leading roles in Egyptian and Lebanese Arab series as well to ensure his presence in the telecasting list of TV channels. In addition, the Syrian series lack the artistic quality of these series. This aspect manifested itself during the current drama season through actors Bassel Khayyat in “al-Rihla,”and Abed Fahd in “Tareeq.”
Drama starring second-class actors
Over the last few years, the phenomenon of relying on second class actors to star in drama has spread. This may be due to two things; first, the artistic vacuum left by the emigration of some Syrian actors abroad. The second reason is that some production companies resort to hiring second-class actors in order to save expenses, for they risk paying a large sum of money if they decided to hire a first-class actor, and the work did not pay off.
Critic Jalal Serees believes that this would bring a positive impact instead of a negative one, especially for new graduates of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, who would have the opportunity to demonstrate their talents and present themselves as future stars.
“Zahr al-Kabad,” which was directed by Hakim Mazher and starred Layth al-Mufti, was among the series which adopted second-class actors, in addition to “Jarh al-Warad” that co-starred Layth al-Mufti, Dana Jabr and Yazan el-Said.
On the other hand, Serees believes that some of the Syrian drama stars who left Syria for political reasons have admirably performed in Egyptian drama and others. This migration also revealed the talents of other actors who were not given the opportunity, such as Abdelkader al-Manla, who performed a distinguishable role with the Egyptian star Adel Emam.
“Drama w Noss” … To revive the Syrian drama
The Syrian media website etsyria, which is specialized in Syrian Art news, has launched a media campaign entitled “Drama w Noss” seeking to support the Syrian drama in the Arab market, raise the artistic taste of the audience and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the Syrian drama.
The campaigners stated that given the faltering situation blocking Syrian drama way to telecasting and the inability of production companies to ensure the sale of their works for the second season in a row, “the website has launched its campaign entitled “Drama w Noss”.
On 5 April, the campaign was launched through five major hashtags, which included five axes.
The five axes tackle a variety of hashtags. The first axe touches upon the articles that fall under “Echohra A’ana” hashtag and speak about the most prominent senior stars as the origin of the Syrian drama and their absence from drama this season or in previous seasons.
Meanwhile, the second axis has a marketing aspect that seeks to motivate the Arab TV stations to buy Syrian dramas. The campaign seeks to highlight “the audience’s desire to watch the Syrian drama on TV instead of leaked episodes or YouTube broadcast,” through making use of “Ala’ achacha Ahla” hashtag.
The third axis of the campaign focuses on the names of technicians and behind-the-scenes workers, who have admirably contributed to dramatic art works, through “Harrif Essana’a” hashtag.
The campaigners addressed the producers by calling them to work on a drama that conveys the habits, values and needs of the Syrian society. They focused on works that influenced the Syrian community given the common features between both through “Hilwa law Tichbihna” hashtag.
The fifth axis of the campaign entitled “B’omr el-Ward” supports young Syrian talents.
The campaign was popular among the social media websites and in the Syrian art scene, especially among some of the drama stars, including Samer al-Masri, Maher Salibiy and singer Lena Chamamyan, in addition to Wassim Sallakh, Rahaf Shuker and Sandra Alloush.
Political and religious controversy fuelled by Syrian drama
While following the news of the Syrian drama series that will be broadcasted in Ramadan 2018, a new phenomenon has surfaced, which censors did not pay attention to or care about, and perhaps censors are now taking personal considerations into account.
“Haroon al-Rasheed,” whose promotional campaign started since the beginning of the shooting, was the first TV series to spark controversy. The protagonists continued publishing their photos on social media while performing, thus, triggering a state of suspense transmitted to the viewer who usually interacts with these campaigns. The producer of the series selected a group of Syrian and Arab drama stars including Kosay Khawli, Caresse Bashar, Kinda Hanna, Samar Samy and Abed Fahd.
However, the audience was surprised by preventing “Harun al-Rashid” from being broadcasted through official Syrian channels, before setting up the drama telecasting list in Ramadan. The Censorship Department at the General Organization of Radio and TV refused “Harun al-Rashid” because it contains an abuse against the “Iranian ally,” referring to the fall of the Barmakids, which Harun al-Rashid’s era was well-known for. Barmadiks are originally Persians, and they used to be the closest to al-Rashid, as the wife of Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmaki was his wet nurse. However, when he sensed the risk they pose and their power abuse in an attempt to take over his throne, he killed them.
In response to the ban, the script writer, Othman Goha accused one of the members of the censorship department, the writer Kamar El-Zaman Aloush, and held him responsible for the ban because he has not been selected as a writer for the series. Aloush offered to contribute in writing the script and to be mentioned as an author. He also intervened with the company’s policies according to Goha, and the production company rejected such behaviour. Therefore, he sought to blackmail the company and prevent the series from being broadcasted.
However, “Harun al-Rashid” series will be broadcasted on other Arabic channels such as Rotana Khalejia, Egyptian TV al-Nahar, Sharjah TV, ART TV, Palestine TV, Hawas TV, Fujairah TV and Echourouk TV.
After some channels have broadcasted the promotional video for “Tarjuman al-Ashwaq” series, in which pro-regime actors including Abbas al-Noury, Ghassan Massoud and Fayez Kazak were performing leading roles, the cast was surprised by the censorship department’s ban.
This decision has triggered mixed reactions, while other pro-regime loyalists welcomed the decision, under the pretext that the text presented to the censorship department was different from the text that was performed.
The cast of the series and other activists protested against the ban, arguing that the censorship department had agreed to the series from the beginning, so why ban it now!
The justification of the censorship department explaining the reason behind the ban was based on political considerations, as the appearance of the character of the “corrupt official” was not approved by censorship authorities.
This is not the first dramatic work to tackle the corruption of officials, for many other series have touched upon this topic before, but were never banned, such as “Ghezlan fi Ghabat al Zia’ab” and “Welada men el-Khasera.” Therefore, artists called upon officials of national television to reconsider the ban. Abbas al-Noury’s wife, Anoud al-Khalid has also sent a letter to the head of the regime Bashar al-Assad concerning the ban of “Tarjuman al-Ashwaq” and called him to interfere in order to save the drama file.
As a result of the media pressure due to the decision to ban the offer, the Ministry of Information announced that it will present the series, but by allowing it to be marketed to external stations, after undergoing technical and objective observations.
As for the role of censorship in halting dramatic works, critic Jalal Serees explains the mechanism of censorship, as it imposes its role on official television since the start of the drama in Syria. “There are many works that haven’t seen the light, including drama and cinema, such as “A Flood in Baath Country,” which was prevented from being displayed, as the censor has the power to prevent the show inside Syria and even prevent filming.
So, Serees sees that some production companies and even writers sometimes resort to selling their businesses to non-Syrian companies and stations to ensure their display and surviving censorship.
Syrian series outside Ramadan race
While the Syrian regime media celebrates the continued production of drama series despite the war, several crises hit a number of Syrian productions this season, driving them out of the 2018 Ramadan race.
With the beginning of Ramadan season, after a long wait, the “Psycho” series show was postponed for the second time in a row, after the two companies, “Zawa” and “Al-Amal,” announced the lack of a suitable show condition and confirmed that it will be broadcasted after Ramadan, after it received “an exclusive offer worthy of the level of the art series, especially after the great efforts made,” according to the statements of the two companies.
The show was already postponed in 2017 for the same reason, as it did not get the chance to be marketed to Arab stations, according to the co-writer and co-producer, Amal Arafa.
“Hawa Asfar” series is a work that the audience has been waiting for, as it offered a new experience for important names who have presented outstanding works. However, the producer company CAT attributed the reason for being banned in Ramadan to the current market data and the lack of adequate show conditions to suit the great efforts exerted in the work.
The company pointed out that it will appear on the screens after the end of Ramadan, with the participation of a group of stars, mainly, Sulaf Fawakherji, Fady Ibrahim, Wael Sharaf and others.
Kaband Art Production Company announced the postponement of al-Forsa al-Akhera show, written by Osama Koksh and directed by Fahad Miri, to be displayed correctly, according to the company.
Ramadan 2018 also marks the first absence of Bab al-Hara series, which for nine years has been the companion of Arab viewers during the month of Ramadan, due to the lack of time required to perform it and to come out to the public in the appropriate manner, according to the statements of director Bassam al-Mulla, to be presented in 2019, after the completion of filming seasons 10 and 11.
“Awlad El-Shar” series had misfortune too; after it emerged from the competition as a result of slow progress and the outbreak of several problems because of the limited resources of those who are in charge of it, including its director Tariq Sawah.
Although the production of “Ghadban” series was completed in 2018, it was excluded from the Ramadan race for reasons related to the marketing crisis and the nature of the actors participating in it, who are described as “second-class” actors. It is written by Fayez al-Bashir and directed by Mohammed Nasrallah, starring Fahad al-Najar, Ghada Bashoor and others.
From the public to the private
How was the monopoly of dramatic production broken up?
The first TV channels that were launched in Syria and Syrians followed are Channel 1 and Channel 2, which are affiliated with the official television. The satellite was not spread then. In the mid-1990s, satellite broadcasts began to enter houses in the Arab world and Syria, to announce a new stage that requires a dramatic production to cover the demand by many Arab channels.
Drama production was in the hands of the public sector until the end of the 1980s, with few attempts of some private companies, including Daoud Shaikhani Company in 1977, which produced “Basamat ‘Ala Jidar Alzaman” series in 1980, directed by Haitham Hakki. Then, the company repeated the experience with him in “Harb Alsanawat Alarba’” series and it was a great success, followed by Hakki’s first production experience in 1988, when he produced “Daeret el Nar” series.
These experiences encouraged capital owners to establish companies specialized in dramatic production. In the early 1990s, companies that brought about a qualitative shift in drama emerged, such as Sham International, which was owned by Basem Khaddam, the son of former Syrian official Abdul Halim Khaddam, and directed by the actor Ayman Zeidan in 1993. But, Khaddam’s departure from Syria had an impact on the company, which Zidane tried to restart in 2004 alone, but could not.
The Sham International is credited with producing distinctive dramas that it began in 1991 with “al-Doughri” series directed by Haitham Hakki, then “Nihayat Rajol Shojaa” in 1994, followed by “Yawmiyat Moudir Aam,” directed by Hisham Sharbatji, and “Ikhwat al-Turab” series in 1996.
Then, “Syria International” company appeared “, working along similar lines, in terms of the quality of work that was produced, and dealt with the most important Syrian directors, such as Hatem Ali, Muthanna Sobh and Leith Hajo.
Its founder is businessman Mohamed Hamsho, who launched it in 1999. Among its most famous works were “Spot Light,” “al-Taghreba al-Falastenya,, “Assiyo Dame” serie,s directed by Hatem Ali, and in 2011 the company changed its name to “Sama Al Fan.”
As for “Al Rahbi Art Production” company, it was founded by Haitham Hakki in 1987, and its most prominent production was “Daeret el Nar” series.
In order to revive the Syrian drama, which witnessed a stagnation at the level of marketing, new Syrian companies emerged, including “Kaband Art Production” company,” owned by People’s Council of Syria member, Mohamed Kaband. His company’s first series was “Bab al-Maqam” in 2008, and it produced several dramas including “Tawq al-Banat,” “Zaman al-Barghouth” and “Maraya.”
In addition to the stagnation of marketing, that period witnessed art deterioration that many Syrian artists referred to. It also marked the launch of Emar al-Sham Art Production, which was founded in 2016 and run by Bassem Zaitoun. The company launched its first dramatic work, the “Shawq” series, written by Hazem Suleiman and directed by Rasha Sharbaji, followed by “al-Waq Waq” series, which is due to be broadcasted this year, and a high budget was allocated for the series which was filmed in Tunisia.
Attempts to mitigate the consequences of boycott
2005 saw an Arab boycott of Syria following a speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Arab summit, when he insulted the Arab leaders. Among the aspects of the boycott refusing to buy or broadcast any Syrian dramatic work on Arab satellite channels.
In an attempt to ease the consequences of that boycott, the Syrian Drama TV, which belongs to the official Syrian television, was launched in 2009, and was run by several people, including Tamim al-Duwaihi and Mansour Deeb.
The uniqueness of “Syrian Drama” in the arena of Syrian drama channels continued for nine years, until the launch of the private channel “Lana” in Ramadan 2018 It announced by “Emar Al-Sham Art Production” company last April and the actor Bassem Yakhour, through his Facebook page in a post including his picture with Syrian businessman Samer Fawz, which aroused suspicion that Fawz is the owner of the channel.
“Lana” began broadcasting old Syrian series, in addition to its new series “Al-Waq Waq,” Starring Bassem Yakhour, Shokran Murtaja and others. But, its series list will not include “Shawq series” by actress Suzan Najmuddin, which was shown last Ramadan and won “Murex D’or” award for best actress in the joint dramas.
In the east and west, Syrian artists are forbidden from returning
Yara Sabri – UAE
Syrian actress Yara Sabri supported the revolution since its beginnings, expressed her public opposition to the regime and participated in peaceful protests.
Since the beginning of the revolution, she has adopted the case of the detainees, and is still active in reminding people of them. She raises the slogan “Badna al-Kul” and her husband, Maher Salibi, shares her revolutionary work.
Yara Sabri, a Syrian actress born in Damascus in 1967, was born in a family of artists. Her father is the artist Salim Sabri and her mother is the artist Thanaa Debsi, and she currently resides in the United Arab Emirates.
Jihad Abdo – America
Jihad Abdo raised the anger of the Syrian security forces for refusing to participate in the pro-regime rallies at the beginning of the revolution. He also refused to defend al-Assad in television programs. He did not fear talking about the corruption of security services in Syria and the torture of opponents.
Abdo was subjected to several threats and pressures in Damascus. So he left at the end of 2011 heading to the United States, and left behind him his money and property.
Abdo paid the price for his positions. He worked as a pizza seller and then as a florist in the United States, before returning to art again, but through the Hollywood gate.
Jihad Abdo was born in 1962, and he holds a Diploma in Civil Engineering from Cluj-Napoca University in Romania and a Diploma in theatrical performance from Damascus Institute of Arts.
Maxim Khalil – France
Maxim Khalil is one of the first Syrian actors to join the Syrian revolution, and he participated in peaceful demonstrations before facing severe tightening security and death threats.
After leaving Syria, Khalil continued supporting the revolution through his activities, statements and revolutionary actions, and repeatedly expressed his rejection of the repressive regime and his support for the Free Army.
Maxim won the Adounia Award as the best Arab actor for a second role in “Zaman el-Aar” series in 2009, and was awarded the best Arab actor award at the 2012 “Murex D’or” Festival, which he dedicated to the martyrs of Syria.
Khalil was born in Homs, Syria, in 1978. He is married to Syrian actress Sawsan Arsheed, and is currently residing in France.
Reem Ali – France
Reem Ali was detained several times after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, against the backdrop of her participation in peaceful revolutionary acts and expressing her opposition to the regime, which compelled her to leave Syria.
She has stayed away from drama and disappeared from television screen. Through her few interviews, she expresses her desire to return to drama, but working with opposition artists.
In the meantime, she is more interested in documentary films that talk about the brutality of the regime and its suppression, and the social problems resulted from the security situation in Syria.
Reem Ali, born in 1977, graduated from the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in 2001 and currently lives in France.
Kinda Alloush – Egypt
The Syrian artist residing in Egypt Kinda Alloush faced threats from the Syrian regime and was prevented from working in Syria after she expressed her full support for the Syrian revolution.
Alloush told Arab media several times about her bias towards the revolution and Syrian opposition, and criticized the Syrian regime’s policy of oppressing citizens. She appeared in several activities wrapping her wrist with the revolution flag.
Kinda Alloush, born in Hama in 1982, graduated from the Department of Theatre Studies at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus, and studied French literature.
Fares al-Helou – France
Fares al-Helou had taken a clear position against the Syrian regime at the beginning of the revolution. He participated in demonstrations calling for freedom and overthrowing the regime. After threat and harassment, he left to France accompanied by his wife, the artist Sulafah Aouisheq, and settled there.
Al-Helou was born in 1961 in Mashta al-Helu. He studied acting at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus and graduated from it in 1984, to become a member of the Artists Syndicate.
He won the Best Actor award at Valencia International Film Festival in Spain for his role in the film “Aalakat Aamma” by Syrian director Sameer Zekra in 2007.
Abdul Hakim Quotaifan – Germany
Abdul Hakim Quotaifan supported the Syrian revolution. The artist is known for his position against the Syrian regime since his youth as he spent nine years in Syrian prisons.
He left Syria in mid-2012, travelling between Egypt and the Gulf states, until he settled in Germany at the end of 2017, and sought asylum there.
Quotaifan was born in 1958 in Daraa, graduated from the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in 1981, and was arrested in 1983 to be released in 1991.
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