Saleh Malas| Husam al-Mahmoud| Amal Rantisi
It has been over 20 years since Syrian spectators turned watching TV during Ramadan into a tradition. Transfixed before screens, they would wait for all sorts of specials produced and premiered exclusively throughout the month.
It is chiefly the medium that made Ramadan drama a special dimension of popular culture. Through television—found in every Syrian house—, everyone had access to the visual experience, unlike theater or cinema that had a limited audience.
Some of these drama products affected the audience’s mentality and emotional states, a few have even become rewatchable classics. Each series would capture a dimension of daily social interactions within a family, a miniature of the society, and life cycles. The series would show in moving pictures diverse human relations and conflicts of interests and ideas.
Over the first decade of the third millennium, the Syrian television drama rose to fame on the Arab television markets, particularly in the Gulf region. The period registered political and economic changes that increased the volume of television production, turning it into an industry that broke the perimeters of the local market. And like all other Syrian industries, drama had its own economic cycle and challenges, overcoming some, while still battling with others.
Since 2011, however, Syrian drama has been caught up in a state of free fall, declining in quantity and quality, neither the volume of production nor the richness of content could survive the increasing challenges in a country where all industrial sectors suffered.
Watching trailers on social networking sites, a large segment of the Syrian audience was hoping that this year they will see some of the old familiar glitter back on screens, especially since the visual snippets promised something different. However, hopes crashed at the edges of the screen this season too, for many previous problems were left gapping at the viewers.
Turn of the century
Drama conquering screens
Progress within an artistic field or the rise of legends is linked to specific societal, political and economic circumstances, which are governed by a state of development or critical shifts that engender creativity.
In 1976, the Arab League established the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat) to be the first communications satellite operator in the Arab World. Syria TV— also known as Syrian Satellite Channel—began its trial broadcasting in 1995 under a contract with Arabsat. Satellite television attracted a wide audience, compared to the shorter range and limited coverage of the 1960s television.
The period also introduced various new expertise to the cultural milieu and drama circles in Syria through people who traveled to study abroad and returned to invest their earned knowledge in producing works for the screen sufficient to fill satellite television hours across the Arab world.
In a 2018 research paper, titled “The Evolution of the Mechanisms of Syrian TV Drama Production”, Wael Salem concluded that the key event that contributed to breathing life into the Syrian drama market is the establishment of the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in 1977. The institute initially started with a single department, the Department of Drama, where various Syrian actors got their education. In 1984, the institution added the department of Theater and Literary Criticism, which changed in the mid-nineties to the Department of Theater Studies.
The institute helped academically qualify theater personnel, including actors, writers and researchers, some of whom will have a major role in television drama.
Researcher Salem adds that in the late 1970s, the Syrian film production decreased, reaching the average mark of two films a year by the late 1980s. The diminishing film industry left many technicians, writers, directors and actors looking for job opportunities in other fields. Their first resort was Syrian television drama.
Between the late 1970s and late 1980s, the researcher says “the government sector, represented by Syria TV, was almost the only local producer of television drama. And although some of the works were produced through Arab partnerships, or streamed on various Arab channels, the state-run television could not be prevented from being the chief controller of the essence of these works, their scripts, and their techniques.”
In 1991, the Investment Law No. 10 was a breakthrough for private companies, which emerged more significantly. The law mitigated some of the conditions and difficulties that the private sector encountered earlier. Therefore, the 1990s witnessed a quantum leap in the amount of production, as a direct result of the contribution of several private production companies.
Screenwriter Rafi Wahbe told Enab Baladi that changes brought by the 1990s helped develop the Syrian drama and contributed to laying the foundations for this field, because during that period the field was “ready on the technical levels, as well as pertaining to expertise and capabilities of personnel.”
He added that this expertise created a unique pattern for the Syrian drama. “Social realism, which attracted the audience as it attempted to penetrate social concerns and address them in a profound dramatic fashion.”
Wahbe added that the increase in production that marked the onset of the third millennium was a result of opening the door for businessmen to finance drama.
The Syrian director and actor Bassam Qataifan told Enab Baladi that these same factors helped the early Syrian drama to “stand out”, for the topics covered were “close to people’s interests, and relatively touched on their daily struggles, whether the viewers were inside Syria or in the Middle East.”
These factors presented the Syrian cultural-dramatic storage with an opportunity to appear in a suitable manner, different from prevailing and competing productions, and this coincided with the rapid cinematic technical developments.
In 2005, as the drama industry developed, competition also developed. This prompted the United Group for Publishing, Advertising and Marketing to launch the Syrian award Adonia, granted to Syrian productions.
In 2006, Syrian television production companies produced the largest number of television dramas, nearly 50 series. Other 37 were produced in 2007, and 30 in 2009.
Wahbe said that a large segment of these products were period dramas, which distinguished Syrian productions. The history-themed series was the most successful. Charged with a high intellectual value, these productions spread in the Arb world, reaching a wide base of audiences, regardless of their cultural discrepancies.
Over the first ten years of the 21st century, Syrian drama had to overcome several challenges, which made it difficult for production companies to market and sell series, particularly after the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, in 2005. At the time, the Syrian regime was among the key suspects.
Some countries thus wanted to punish the regime by boycotting Syrian drama productions. According to researcher Salem, when marketing within the Arb world failed, the regime purchased all products available, as a “political position in the face of the political boycott.”
In 2005, the regime also acquired the Sham International production company after the former Syrian Vice President, Abdul Halim Khaddam, defected. The company was owned by Kaddam’s son, located in Damascus Countryside, annexed to it a vast set block. Researcher Salem says that many series were filmed in this largest production set in Syria, and the “company remained closed for years and was reopened by the People’s Assembly under direct government supervision.”
The Syrian drama also had its share of the woes of the 2008 global economic crisis. After extensive work to break the 2005 boycott, a financial crisis hit the Gulf countries as a result of the real estate loan crisis in the US. The Gulf market, Salem says, had to “search for a cheaper alternative than the Syrian or Arabic drama to fill broadcasting hours.” The alternative was Turkish soap operas that were achieving mass turnout in late 2007.
Crises brought drama to greater challenges
Previous marketing difficulties were further complicated after 2011, when Arab governments adopted several policies to punish the Syrian regime, including boycotting some production companies.
Syrian actress Nanda Muhammad told Enab Baladi that Arab production companies do not want to fund a work that deals with the Syrian situation in a real and deep way, while any current production cannot simply ignore the post-2011 situation. Therefore, companies “refuse to finance or market any drama work that is not in line with a specific agenda that fits with the interests of a particular channel.”
Muhammad believes that this is the main reason for what she described as “the general decline in [Syrian] drama after 2011.”
The majority of Arab production companies prefer joint productions (Pan-Arab). Such works are produced by many parties, often hiring actors from several nationalities, with narratives designed as taking place across several Arab cities.
Pan-Arb productions have lost touch with the realism that characterized the Syrian drama. Screenwriter Wahbe said that such works “cannot be grounded in reality,” and are detaching Syrian productions from the conflicts lying at their heart.
In return, he added, “we can no longer refer to an Arab viewer in the general sense of the word, due to the peculiarity of the crises experienced by each country in the Arab world. Therefore, each viewer is driven by his own mood of viewership amid these divisions.”
Wahbe said that ideas worth tackling are ideas denied access to the screen, adding that even when someone decides to produce such ideas, the product is not guaranteed an easy journey to the market.
Director Qatifan said that there are elements that create grounds for a proper drama industry, including the provision of relatively neutral funding, to ensure that ideas and scripts are more open to reality. He added that such human conditions are necessary for every drama material and it is that condition that the Syrian drama has been missing lately.
“The elements of drama industry did not maintain their high quality and standards, because high-quality texts have become a prerequisite when starting any drama work. Many of the works produced now are an expression of the chief sponsor’s desires, who is mostly a foreigner. Accordingly, the conditions to fulfill were foreign, and this has cost us to lose the traits that made us stand out,” he added.
Wahbe told Enab Baladi that the crisis that the Syrian drama is currently suffering from is the crisis that Syria is going through in general, and in fact, drama will not be able to survive this crisis as a commodity.
Pertaining to producers, he added that many have changed the destination to other Arab markets, not to forget the state of fragmentation that keeps a hold of writers, actors, directors and producers, which has been adversely affecting the quality of work, since they all lack unifying local guidelines.
A drama script is often an extended reading and a long visual narration of the idea it adopts. However, scripts have been devaluating, inspiring skepticism within Syrian viewership circles, who grew doubtful of the spectatorial experience’s aims.
In the past 10 years, screenwriters pumped against an intellectual challenge when trying to write a script that reflects what is happening on the ground without having to clash with censorship or ban on screening. Screenwriters also had to keep in mind potential harassment from security services should they propose a vision that does not serve authorities or boost their profile before the audience.
While some screenwriters chose to turn into a “mouthpiece for authorities,” using their pen to advocate for their narrative as to what is happening, sometimes in the form of messages embedded within their texts, others chose to leave the stage. This contributed to creating a vacuum, which to fill production companies had to use scripts written by two authors or by a group, with several individuals co-authoring a piece.
Director Qatifan believes that the Syrian drama will not be able to overcome the “defect” by patching up the vacant places, once filled by creators of real dramatic projects, through seeking alternatives that lack talents much needed for this industry.
Results below expectations
Drama uses new methods of promotion
The Syrian drama witnessed an evolution in the marketing and promotion methods. This transpired clearly in incorporating promotional tools sued by other industries, such as songs and sketches.
Of the promotional elements that received increasing attention from producers are the opening credits and the accompanying song. Opening credits are streamed even before the trailers, which consist of an edited sequence of the key scenes of a work.
Production companies invested in title credits and sought to present high-quality song-image montages, taking into account their role in the overall production process. Companies hire stars to perform songs and sometimes a director different from the one working on the series.
Production companies also utilized social media and harnessed them for promotional purposes, not only through the official accounts of the work itself but also through the private accounts of the actors, who share pictures and some of their distinctive individual scenes. These processes made actors partners in the promotion and advertisement dynamics.
Despite the great promotion of some works and their selling to many stations for the Ramadan special, these works have achieved low viewership rates, clearing the way for works streamed without media advertisement.
Web-streamed alternative drama
In the past few years, online platforms hailed the emergence of a new series genre affected by its medium of streaming. Such series are produced to be presented online instead of on television.
The innovative aspect of this method of presentation is that it parts ways with the traditional frames, offering the industry a solution to several crises, many of which started even before 2011, and most prominently the 30-episode-deadlock.
When writing for television, namely the traditional drama market, screenwriters must adhere to a set of conditions, particularly the 3-episode form. Those who break the rule risk the chances of not selling their product. According to Wahbe, this “limits the writer’s ability to seek creativity smoothly” and might even distort the work’s story itself.
The experimental online-streamed Syrian works managed to meet several production needs. In the past 10 years, Arab channels have taken an undeclared position on bringing the Syrian issue into drama. Online productions, thus, create a space for such controversial and restricted political expression. At the same time, products designed to optimize the opportunities of social networking sites offered a solution to producers seeking to make profits out of lesser costs.
Wahbe added that social networking sites also offered writers of the new genre a space free from the grip of censorship into the open space of the internet. In that openness, subjects can be discussed, probing into the depths of the Syrian current living reality. He emphasized that “digital platforms are looking for such works.”
Wahbe presented the series Undocumented in 2017, also translated into unrestricted, which as the title demonstrates, breaks the restrictions that drama makers used to face, with it is interactive modality.
In 2018, as a result of the success of Wahbe’s experiment, Syrian directors turned to interactive drama, although famed for their classic directorial trends, including director Marwan Barakat. In the series Doubt—starring Bassam Kousa, Dima Qandalaft, and others— each episode spanned 10 minutes only.
Anonymous Entry, an 8-episode-series, offered a new perspective of web drama. The series was positively received by a large audience on social networking sites, proving that drama is not a captive of traditional television boundaries.
In recent years, many Arab paid streaming platforms have emerged that caught up with their international precedents. These platforms have initiated their way into the space of drama production and claimed hegemony over the first runs of many series. However, these platforms still have a limited impact on Syrian drama production.
Screenwriter Wehbe told Enab Baladi that he is working to apply the same principle that governed undocumented to a new series, with which he seeks to address a larger Arab segment.
Syrian director Hisham Zaouki told Enab Baladi that the production style of Arab drama is different from production worldwide, considering several material conditions, opinion of the viewer, censorship and topics tackled.
He added that these conditions follow the logic of the production market and the Arab viewer, and here lies the main challenge that Arab production companies must overcome.
Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on Facebook, regarding the success of the new streaming platforms and the web drama, compared to television drama. Out of 175 respondents, 87 said that these products could excel as their international counterparts, while 88 said that such experiments are doomed to fail.
Drama as a function: discussing problems or entertaining audience
In his book, The Life of the Drama, theater critic and journalist Eric Bentley says that drama is considered one of the means of conveying human experiences, presenting ideas, and contributing to enhancing awareness in society. Thus, it provides a vision of life.
Screenwriter Wahbe believes that “the relationship between the Syrian drama and the viewer was built on seriousness. All the important works were entertaining, titled towards professionalism, however,” because “to be entertaining, works do not necessarily have to be superficial in their artistry and quality, but rather they must have a proper form and content.”
According to On the Syrian Cultural Work in the Years of Fire, published by Mamdouh Adwan Publishing House in 2016, arts have the ability to engage diverse individuals and discover new forms of expression, in addition to being a tool that can transform the way people think and behave.
Arts also represent a platform through which people can listen to unheard stories and maintain hope under cultural and political repression.
The book notes that the role of the arts is not limited to entertainment, but artistic and cultural production can enhance the distinctiveness of local communities, while at the same time building bridges of understanding and respect, and thus promoting social integration.
According to the book, culture is a fundamental factor in the development of the Syrian conflict, the results it has reached, and its resolution, of course. There is a real need to develop a clearer understanding of what “Syrian culture” is, its “creative resources” and “violent potentials.” This understanding must be incorporated into any interventions aiming at achieving civil peace, considering it a cultural peace primarily.
Can drama effect change
Director Bassam Qtaifan believes that “ideas saying that art is just about inanity and entertainment are short-sighted, even though art is partially entertaining.”
Arts, since they first appeared in ancient societies until they reached the cinema, are one of the main engines in changing the audience’s perception and patterns of thinking by enhancing awareness of the problems in society, through displaying them on the screen and shedding further light on them.
Art, in all its forms, is relied upon for these goals, according to Qutaifan, who added that “the historical models are countless that monitor the impact of art on wars, people’s battles, revolutions, crises and struggles, as it is an ethical, intellectual and humanitarian message.”
However, despite the strong potential of the arts to bring about change, it must be recognized that this strength, if it is politicized (used as a power or to enhance the legitimacy of an authority) can have a destructive effect, according to the book On The Syrian Culture.
Cultural expressions can have a liberating effect on the one hand, and equally, they can serve to glorify violence.
Cultural products can be used in advocacy for tolerance, pluralism, and the building of a democratic society. But at the same time they can promote intolerance by strengthening the unilateral ethnic and religious identities of certain groups, supporting models of closed societies, or even by providing aesthetic structures for dictatorial regimes or offering mobilization and artistic packaging for violent ideas.
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