Yamen Moghrabi | Hussam al-Mahmoud
Movies and soap operas are an important weapon used by countries and governments to spread their culture and language, and they represent soft power to direct social and political messages to their society and other societies and governments.
The United States of America has used this policy in films Hollywood has produced for decades (the American hero, the savior, and the indomitable army).
Turkey has also encouraged the production of historical series and even social dramas, which have been dubbed into Arabic in recent years, benefiting from them in promoting the country’s image, culture, and even its historical and tourist attractions.
In Syria, which has witnessed a surge of production of drama series since the 1990s, the Syrian regime allowed the use of drama and soap operas as a weapon to put pressure on society and direct it as it wants.
The matter became more evident in the post-revolutionary years, when the regime supported the production of dozens of series that narrate, consolidate, and confirm its narrative about “the war on terror, resisting the conspiracy, and liberating lands that were controlled by gunmen and terrorist groups.”
The regime’s production of political series was not linked to the outbreak of the revolution in 2011 but rather existed before that, and through it, it sent messages to countries that disagreed with it politically, and the messages changed according to the form of political relations with these countries.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses the political role in the Syrian drama and how the regime exploited it, including the series that supposedly included harsh criticism of its security services.
Enab Baladi is also examining the reasons for the absence of dramas that narrate the point of view of the revolution and the opposition about what happened in Syria during the past years, despite the presence of dozens of experienced artists and technicians who are able to produce works that simulate the pain and ideas of Syrians, inside and outside Syria.
Political and historical works are gaining great momentum due to the development of artistic techniques and the change in sources of knowledge, which makes them a reference for some viewers.
It is also considered a document of the events that took place, without taking into account the difference between telling history based on reliable historical sources and the main dramatic factor in any artwork.
Political soap operas in the lead
This year’s Ramadan drama featured many works that are based on a vision, angle, or historical event, dividing the audience into teams and parties that advocate one series against another, according to the narrative presented by the work.
As for the Syrian works, “Al-Zind” and “Smile, General” dominated the public’s attention, and points of view differed according to political orientation.
The series “Smile, General” came loaded with political messages, despite the makers’ talk about its reliance on “imagination” and that any resemblance to a real-life event is “pure coincidence.”
“Smile, General,” without using real names, deals with the struggle of two brothers over the rule of a country after the death of their father, the president, before matters were settled in favor of one of them, who left the door open for his brother to leave for France with whatever money and men he wanted. The work also provided stories and details that intersected with the Syrian reality in the rule of the two Assads, the father and the son.
In addition, the series “Al-Zind” was based on the period of the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, during the period of decline of Ottoman rule in Syria and the region.
The work presented the hero speaking in a dialect different from the supposed environment and close to the dialect of regions on the Syrian coast, the birthplace of Bashar al-Assad himself, what viewers and critics considered an intended touch to design the character of the hero who rejects silence and injustice.
The work was filmed entirely in Syria, in contrast to “Smile, General,” which took the city of Istanbul as an environment for filming its events while obscuring the features of the place to serve the vision of the work makers.
Among the historical works that at the same time carry a political dimension is the series “Safar Barlek,” which was produced by the Saudi company “mbc,” which produces “Al-Zind,” and the two works share a focus on the same historical era, despite Riyadh’s tendency to consolidate its relations with Ankara after a rupture for years.
This connection between politics and art was evident through the delay in announcing the show “Safar Barlek” on the one hand and the failure to show the series “Muawiya” at a time when Riyadh is heading to resume its relations with Iran, as the main character of the work is witnessing a controversial situation in which the Iranian vision is not consistent with Saudi Arabia, regardless of the content that did not reach the audience.
Regime wins in regard of capabilities
Since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Syrian regime has produced dozens of series that confirm and document its version of what happened in Syria, and government channels, or those close to the government, and Arab channels in allied countries such as Iraq aired these television series repeatedly to consolidate and confirm these ideas, whether for Syrians or Arab viewers interested in Syrian affairs or for the Syrian drama audience itself.
In addition to the political, social, and economic conditions in the Arab countries, which have long sympathized with the Syrian revolution, soap operas have played a major role in changing the viewpoint of a proportion, albeit a limited number, of the population of the Arab world towards what happened in Syria.
On the other hand, the opposition, or the opposition artists during the 12 years of the Syrian revolution, did not produce dramas that tell their story or their point of view about what happened in the country, despite the production of dozens of documentaries in which some of them appeared, and the participation of many of them in demonstrations in the streets, and their appearance through the various media to talk about the Syrian revolution.
Only two works were produced within 12 years, the first is the series “Faces and Places” in 2015 and “Smile, General” in 2023, noting that both works were produced by the “Metafora” company affiliated with Fadaat company in Qatar.
Syrian director and actor Bassam Ktaifan spoke to Enab Baladi about the reasons for the absence of these dramas, especially with dozens of Syrian documentaries and short narrative films winning prizes in international festivals, this is on the one hand, and on the other hand, given that drama and art are a field of competition with the regime, as well as other political, social, and other fields.
There are three factors that stand in the way of producing Syrian dramas that tell a story different from what the regime promotes, which are funding, broadcast channels, and the geographical distance of Syrian artists, according to Ktaifan.
“Unfortunately, none of the Syrian opposition parties has taken up the production of artwork that supports our stories as Syrians,” Ktaifan said, adding, “We must not forget that we are in competition with a party that possesses state capabilities, weapons, and geography as well, and full support for creating complete battles. Let’s look at the credit list of any work produced by the regime. Let’s see the list of thanks given to almost all ministries.”
Ktaifan believes that while the opposition artists do not possess all these capabilities, the result will be nothing but lame and useless soap operas.
For his part, the Syrian actor Nawar Bulbul blamed the absence of dramas primarily on the Syrian opposition, which “has never been interested in making dramas that compete with those presented by the regime about what happened and is happening in Syria.”
Bulbul does not suffice with blaming the opposition but rather goes on to talk about display platforms, whether satellite or electronic channels, since most of them are directly linked to or funded by Arab governments, and therefore there is always a political calculation when talking about soap operas.
According to Bulbul, both parties (TV platforms and the opposition) are responsible for this matter.
Where is the producer
A soap opera needs different technical elements, starting with a tight script and ending with a creative director who knows how to tell the story, and between them there are dozens of artistic elements, including actors, technicians, décor, accessories, and more.
Therefore, the production of works of art requires, in the first place, financial institutions, channels, and platforms for display.
Ktaifan said that many Syrian artists, and he, too, have already addressed several parties, including opposition institutions, to allocate part of their funds to establish an institution specialized in producing dramas.
He continued, “For the price of a few pieces of weaponry, and we are talking here about millions of dollars, there could have been an influential production that tells the story from the point of view of the revolution and the people so that their voice would be heard, in contrast to the voice of the regime that distorted the revolution and the blood of the people.”
Soap operas are a weapon in the face of the dictator, just as chanting, a banner, a song, a painting, a novel, or a weapon are.
Despite the great political and financial support provided by two Gulf countries that have huge media tools (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), this support never went towards works of art, although it amounted to paying monthly salaries to members of the “Syrian Coalition” (the largest Syrian opposition formation).
Given that the financier is an essential part of any artistic work, it is not possible to talk about the absence of an opposition narrative in political drama without discussing it.
The matter is not related to the Arab countries’ desire not to engage in politics per se, as the UAE has previously produced at least two political works, “The Platform” (three seasons 2020-2021) and “Kingdoms of Fire” (2019).
Saudi Arabia has also produced political works such as “Al-Asouf” and others, so it is directly related to the unwillingness to engage in productions with regard to the Syrian file, as long as it may not serve the policy of these countries, externally or internally.
For his part, the writer and art critic, Salam Nasser, believes that talking about the absence of a “financial supporter” for the production of Syrian opposition art is not enough, given that returning to the origin of the problem is necessary to explain it in this case, as these production attempts also need means and time space to bring it to the audience, in the sense that Arab drama has not been accustomed throughout its history to produce what is “out of the ordinary that viewers are accustomed to,” according to Nasser.
He explained that Arab drama in general, including Syrian, relied on the production of what Nasser called a “consensual drama,” that is, satisfactory to the political parties supervising it, and includes a specific discourse that follows the literature of the ruling authority.
On the other hand, this method of production resulted in what could be called “comprehensiveness of drama,” a term that came as a special result of creating a certain public awareness, and if the Syrian opposition or artists want to produce something that contradicts this matter, they need tools that are not easy to penetrate.
For this reason, Nasser believes that talking about the absence of a supporter or a platform is not enough as long as it is a matter of complete inclusiveness that governs the drama, whether in Syria or elsewhere.
In practice, the direct interference of politics in producing, showing, and stopping drama series is not exclusive to the Syrian regime alone. Qatar TV, in cooperation with the Arab Center for Media Production, previously produced the series “The Road to Kabul” (2004) before it stopped showing after only eight episodes.
There were conflicting reports at the time about stopping the work for technical or political reasons, and the latter was referred to by the hero of the work, Abed Fahed, in a media interview with the Saudi broadcaster Dawood al-Sharyan in 2016.
The most prominent political series
– “Hammam Al-Qishani” (1994-2003), written by Diab Eid and directed by Hani al-Romani, starring Abed Fahed, Talhat Hamdi, Salma al-Masry, and Amal Arafa.
Its events revolve around political life and its reflection on Syrian society and the role of political parties in it between 1946 and 1963.
– “The Brothers of the Soil” (1996), written by Hassan M. Youssef and directed by Najdat Ismail Anzour, starring Ayman Zaidan, Suzan Najm El Din, and Jihad Abdo.
The events of the work revolve around the “Great Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman presence in Syria in 1918.
– “Letters of Love and War” (2007), written by Reem Hanna and directed by Basil al-Khatib, starring Salloum Haddad, Qusai Khouli, Sulaf Fawakherji, and Reem Hanna.
The soap opera revolves around the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon against the Israeli invasion and the Syrian presence there.
– “The Swirl” Al-Dawwama (2009), written by Fawaz Haddad, screenplay and dialogue by Mamdouh Adwan, directed by Al-Muthanna Sobh, starring Ayman Zaidan, Salloum Haddad, and Basil Khayyat.
Its events revolve around the attempts of Western countries to control the wealth of Syria between 1949 and 1951.
“Qalam Humra” (2014) was written by Yam Mashhadi, directed by Hatem Ali, starring Sulaf Mimar, Abed Fahed, Karess Bashar, and Rami Hanna.
It revolves around different personalities and their fate during the five years of the Syrian revolution.
– “Because it is my country” (2021), written by Mahmoud Abdel Karim, directed by Najdat Anzour, starring Saad Mina and Fayez Kazak.
It talks about the revenge operation of a soldier of the Syrian regime forces against the “Islamic State” organization.
– “Kasr Adhm” (2022), written by Ali al-Saleh and directed by Rasha Shurbatji, starring Samer Ismail, Karess Bashar, and Khaled Alkeesh.
It revolves around corruption in the police and the Syrian regime forces.
– “Smile, General” (2023) was written by Samer Radwan, directed by Orwa Muhammad, starring Maxim Khalil, Abdul Hakim Quotaifan, Reem Ali, Sawsan Arsheed, and Ghatfan Ghanoum.
It revolves around a dictatorial family facing existential crises threatening its rule amidst internal and external conflicts.
Political documentation through drama
The viewer demands historical works, or those that deal with a historical period, to provide an objective treatment of the event without paying attention to the technical and dramatic criteria, the circumstances that govern the work, and the image through which the producers wish to present their work.
The foregoing put “Smile, General” under criticism that was widespread during the show, stating that the series did not call things by their proper names, and used fictitious names to refer to real reality.
Scriptwriter Abdel Majeed Haydar pointed out that many of the originally imagined dramatic characters were transformed into the consciousness of a segment of the audience, to be treated as real personalities from history, such as the “Hamlet” character invented by Shakespeare, and transformed with time into a real character in the consciousness of millions of people.
On the level of Arab and Syrian drama in particular, the viewer may believe that “Ibn Al-Wahaj” is a historical figure, although it is entirely imagined, in the “Al-Jawareh” series.
Drama, according to Haydar, contributes to shaping and influencing collective awareness, and this prompts production companies to present many of their works under the phrase “based on a true story,” which means greater appeal to the viewer.
Haydar told Enab Baladi that the three historical Syrian works during the last Ramadan season are entirely composed, that is, they are from the writer’s imagination, without denying their participation in relying on specific historical facts, and they do not explicitly claim the existence of these personalities historically.
With a critical vision of the three works that Haydar saw during Ramadan, “Safar Barlek” presents coherence in its hypothetical story, with the appearance of real historical figures in the work, such as Jamal Pasha, Fakhri Pasha, Sherif Ali, and the martyrs of Arab enlightenment.
Despite relying on general historical facts, the drama was imagined and consistent at the same time with the historical period of the work and respected the viewer’s mind with its level of realism.
With regard to the “Al-Zind,” the makers of the work did not claim that it was a historical document, but they studied the historical stage, and they were largely trustworthy with it, except for some slips that the star of the work may have made, but it clearly appeared to breach the harmony of the historical work.
The series “Smile, General” is considered a fictional work, according to those responsible for it, but the Syrian audience quickly began to compare the events with historical facts that took place in Syria, and what actually happened was that the writer mixed more than one historical figure into one character, and collected historical events that took place in different times, and presented them in a dramatic context that served the plot.
According to the scriptwriter’s opinion, the soap opera is not required to convey reality as it is, or to retell, correct, or direct history.
Art’s mission is to provide a lesson and an aesthetic image, and in general, art inevitably documents history, but it also documents its history and its present. We know the life of the Arabs during the Jahiliyyah, for example, through al-muallaqat and poems.
Abdel Majeed Haydar, Scriptwriter
Haydar believes that when there is a need for documentary work, it must be produced according to the conditions of the documentation, such as submitting documents, pictures, and films about the stage that is being highlighted.
However, the function of drama is to provide an entertaining story that respects the mind of the viewer and provides him with a meal of knowledge and artistic pleasure, which contributes to making his life more beautiful.
For his part, scriptwriter Hafez Qarqout considered that people’s tendency to obtain information through watching opens the door for drama to form a documentary case, but any documentary work needs real documents and references that bring it closer to reality.
Qarqout pointed out that the historical work does not have to be fully documented, but at the same time, it is based on specific references, such as the series “Al-Zeer Salem” by the late Mamdouh Adwan, in which Adwan relied on poetic verses and information found in Arab documents and archives, according to a previous conversation between Qarqout and Adwan.
Current soap operas that seek to reflect history are often political, and this makes them bear two faces, namely agreement or disagreement with a particular point of view. Funding and production are in service of a specific idea, which may twist the neck of the truth and harm history itself, according to the scriptwriter.
When soap operas become a primary source of documentation, money and production become in control of this documentation, and when freedoms are absent in certain areas, documentation becomes a danger through drama because it is in line with the desire of funding to direct the truth.
Hafez Qarqout, Scriptwriter
Regarding the conditions of documentation through soap operas, the writer believes that the series needs a reference and researchers who check the text to confirm it and not lead it towards emotions that serve the writer or financier so that it is a historical trust for future generations, and is not directed according to the scriptwriter’s desire.
Message or entertainment?
One of the most prominent debates prevailing in artistic circles around the world revolves around the role of art in the lives of people and society. Is art a purely entertaining act whose primary goal is to provide entertainment? Or can it bear to include social, philosophical, and political messages as well?
This controversy is mainly related to cinematic art, especially since World War II, when the United States began asking Hollywood film companies to produce works that talk about the American army and its heroics in the war.
This preceded the introduction of montage as one of the elements of the artwork, which directly contributed to the development of the storytelling of the film, and thus it appeared that the film could carry certain philosophical messages, as it appeared in the first experiments with montage, which were carried out by the Russian director Lev Kuleshov in 1910.
Writer and critic Salam Nasser believes that good movies or soap operas seek an idea that affects the audience’s awareness, and if it does not, then it falls under the name of empty drama.
Supporters of the “art for entertainment” theory rely on the fact that cinematic works originated primarily as a scientific invention used in entertainment, and therefore the graphic artwork, whether a movie or a drama series, must return to its basic roots.
While the supporters of the other theory believe that the artistic work, and with the great developments it has witnessed in terms of technologies and access to the public, has become obligatory for it to talk about people and their problems and to contribute to raising their daily concerns, as well as raising awareness.
Internal and external messages
Since the 1990s, Syrian drama has had internal and external political messages for Syrian society or regional countries.
Specifically, those works that are directly classified as political dramas, such as “Hammam al-Qishani” and “Brothers of the Soil” and others, in addition to critical comedies such as “Spotlight/Bokaat Daw.”
The messages in these works ranged between clarity, as in “Brothers of the Soil” in its first part (1996), which spoke of the “Great Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman presence in the early 20th century and came in light of the tense political relations between the Syrian regime and the Turkish government, which reached its climax, with the latter massing its tanks on the border with Syria.
While the messages in other works were veiled, as in the series “Spotlight,” which came at a period when the Syrian regime talked about opening up and raising the ceiling of freedoms in the country, it was preceded by the series “Hammam al-Qishani,” which talked about the internal political conditions before the arrival of the Baath party to power in 1963.
The matter did not stop at the series produced by the Syrian regime or the Syrian production companies close to it (Syria International Company, for example, which was owned by Mohamad Hamsho, a businessman close to Bashar al-Assad), but rather included hosting the filming of Arab works and providing them with facilities.
The Syrian director, Bassam Ktaifan, told Enab Baladi that the process of producing the series “The Invasion” directed by the late Tunisian director Shawki Al-Majri in 2007 faltered due to Jordan’s refusal to film the work on its land, and at that time Ktaifan worked as an executive director.
The soap opera tells the story of Palestinian factions united in resisting the Israeli occupation forces’ invasion of the Jenin camp in 2002. It is produced by the Jordanian “Arab Center for Media Production.”
Ktaifan said that the work team decided to move to film in Syria, and the Syrian regime at that time provided very large facilities, including reduced wages for the use of weapons and tanks in battles, and it did not object to any sentence that was said in the written text as long as it did not come close to any Syrian issue.
He added, “We can say that the regime appeared supportive of the Palestinian cause and stood by it and that no problem appeared on its part during filming.”
A large number of Syrian actors participated in the work at the time, such as Abbas al-Nouri, Dima Kandalaft, and Maxim Khalil.
Pre-revolutionary letters consecrate the intelligence dominance
The political messages contained in pre-revolutionary artworks were not necessarily made public.
The “Spotlight,” one of the most famous series that included criticism of the security and intelligence services of the regime, carried completely different messages than what was intended and appeared on the screen.
Nawar Bulbul, one of the Syrian actors who participated in many of the stories that showed in the series, believes that this work was an important factor in conveying the messages of the regime to the people, which indicates that the ceiling of freedom has risen.
But at the same time, it perpetuates the image of intelligence, its power, and strength, which instills fear in the hearts of citizens, he adds.
One of the stories included in the series shows a group of people burying a person, then one of them gives a speech enumerating the merits of the deceased, and with the mention of the word “was a dissident,” the dead person rises from his coffin to shout at the people, this story was one of the stories that dedicate the capabilities of the Syrian intelligence to pursue people in their graves.
Nawar Bulbul, Syrian actor
Concerning the internal and external messages, Bulbul, who participated in a large number of Syrian series (47 soap operas), believes that the external messages also appeared by perpetuating the idea that Syria has a strong, open, and critical drama.
These are messages to countries near and far, and this is what makes the Arab people think for a moment that the Syrians had a wide democratic space because of what appears in the soap operas, even though the opposition artists were working within what was available.
Meanwhile, writer and critic Salam Nasser told Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime, and totalitarian regimes in general, employed artistic texts to serve their tendencies and commodify society.
Therefore, the messages, internal or external, walk within this framework, and we can see the relationship of some Syrian dramatic works and their connection to political tensions, such as the talk, for example, about the Ottoman presence.
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