The worldwide reach of Middle Eastern TV

Think that the US, Canada, Great Britain and Scandinavia are the only true hubs of TV production in the world with any significant cultural and economic impact? Think again. TV shows in the Middle East are also leaving their mark – for quite interesting reasons – even if they don’t get as much notice.

Here’s an interesting question (or three): how come so few TV shows produced in the Middle East end up on our small screen, while many other cultural products from that part of the world can be obtained with one simple click or with the touch of a button on a smartphone? Could it be that those series are deemed too “exotic” to be exported in the Western hemisphere? Or is the recent revolution in Arab countries to blame? These are some of the questions that were addressed to a panel of four experts during the recent Séries Mania Festival in Paris.

The four panellists included Mohammed El Oifi (political analyst and professor at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po Paris), Adnan Hadad (producer of the Syrian web series Umm Abdo), Béatrice Garapon (Doctor in history at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales) and Osama Rezg (producer and director of the Libyan TV series Dragunov, who joined in via Skype). Photo: Nathalie Prébende

Exporting Middle Eastern shows… in the Middle East

As the panellists pointed out, Middle Eastern TV series have been exported to various countries in the region since the 1960s. The main countries with significant TV production output include Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and, more recently, Syria. Such a context, in terms of exporting TV products, has been dictated by several key factors, including the censorship of Syrian shows by the Egyptians (a means to limit the competition), as well as the United Arab Emirates’ hold on TV stations and the content they broadcast in this area.

Indeed, in order to be considered “popular”, any series in the Middle East must be broadcast on a TV station in the United Arab Emirates (such as Dubai TV). Therefore, said series must appeal to the rulers of the Emirates – “in order to perpetuate the notion of a monarchic society”, according to political analyst Mohammed El Oifi – and demonstrate its willingness to endorse good moral values. Case in point: an Egyptian show titled The Yacoubian Building (2007) deliberately removed all traces of a homosexual character that had been featured in the movie from which the series is based.

While financing is certainly an important issue (these shows are produced and funded with oil money), there is also a cultural aspect to be considered – such as getting families to gather in front of the small screen after a day of fasting during Ramadan. This is what Egyptian drama Wajh al-Qamar managed to accomplish. The show’s 35 episodes were broadcast daily on 23 Arab TV stations back in 2001.

And yet, the Middle East is certainly not monolithic in terms of what is enjoyed on TV. One need only to notice the popularity of dramas produced in Brazil and Mexico to realize this. Or the success of Turkish TV series The Forbidden Love (2011), which is quite provocative in the way it depicts taboo situations in the Arab world such as infidelity, handicap or incest.

Beyond the Arab revolution

While TV production in Egypt has slowed down considerably in the aftermath of the recent Arab revolution, there are currently two shows in the Middle East that seem to thrive despite major obstacles. Could we be witnessing some enduring form of freedom of speech?

Produced in Libya, Dragunov is shot in highly precarious and risky conditions in Tripoli. Its Romeo-and-Juliette-inspired premise tells of a young man from a family that was once close to the Gaddafi regime, who falls for the daughter in a family that was strongly against the dictator. Osama Rezg, who produces and directs the series, insists that both sides are portrayed as each having committed wrongs in the past. This was an essential condition for the show not to fall victim to censorship.

However, the production still faced an important hurdle: the Libyan actors found it too difficult to handle the more “liberal” behaviour of their characters such as smoking or kissing. The solution: three actors from Tunisia were hired to play the more “difficult” parts. As a result, Dragunov ended up being broadcast on at least one Tunisian station (in addition to six Libyan stations).

Another show, a webseries titled Umm Abdo, this one made in Syria, is even bolder, especially when considering the conditions in which it is being produced. In a series of skits set in this war-torn country, a ten-year-old girl named Racha imitates the behaviour of a Syrian mother. Images of the ravaged city of Alep act as a background to Racha’s inner monologue as, in a tone that alternates between drama and lighter touches, she shares her hopes and dreams with the viewers.

During the series’ first episode, titled What’s your dream?, Racha gets a phone call from an imaginary TV show and is asked what wish she’d like to fulfill. Her answer: “I want a safe country, to erase the word “Refugee” from the dictionary, to defeat the tyrant, to water the plants on my balcony, to eat seeds and popcorn, to awaken the conscience of international leaders…”

Yes, tyrant. As in Syrian President Bachar el-Assad, who isn’t portrayed as a saint in this show shot guerrilla-style in a country where TV production has all but been eradicated by war. “It used to be that TV production companies were owned by rich people that were friends with the regime”, said Umm Abdo producer Adnan Hadad.

Today, barely half of this industry remains active, while at the turn of the millennium, over 50 shows were being produced in the country. As a result, Syria has been witnessing the emergence of independent shows. Indeed, Umm Abdo has been created so that “people can have the opportunity to speak out and express themselves, even if I don’t necessarily agree with what they’re saying,” Hadad says. “Besides, my opinion doesn’t really matter.”

One of the positive impacts of the production’s call for liberty has been that the show was first broadcast around the world on YouTube, before being picked up by Syrian broadcasters. The social impact of the initiative was undeniable. However, being bold and independent doesn’t necessarily mean being completely free. Indeed, Hadad’s production company is based in… neighbouring Turkey.

Umm Abdo ep01 - Web-séries internationales par forumdesimages

When East meets West: the Turkish advantage

Located at the meeting point between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has become an ideal platform in terms of redefining the way series produced in the region are exported elsewhere in the world. As shows produced in the Middle East rarely get the chance to be discovered by viewers in Western countries (Umm Abdo being a rare exception), there is little reason to export them.

However, one example of how the situation could change is a Turkish psychological thriller titled Son (2012). The show has thus far been broadcast in Sweden and adapted in the US as Runner(which will air on ABC during the 2015-2016 season). Germany and France are about to join in as well.

Interestingly, the fact that the show is such a hit in other countries can be explained in part by the fact that it flopped in Turkey (it was cancelled after just one season). Also, Son is completely different from anything the Turks have been used to so far. Indeed, dramas, thrillers such as Valley of the Wolves and historical sagas like The Magnificent Century (which depicts the life of sultan Süleyman the Magnificent) are usually background noise for viewers too busy cleaning, cooking or enjoying family reunions to bother watching TV. According to Béatrice Garapon, Doctor in history at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, between the hours of 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., it doesn’t make any difference whether or not you miss a key plot point.

And yet, these shows still manage to find their way on TV screens in the Balkans, Central Asia, South America and, of course, various Arab countries. Indeed, the success of a show like The Magnificent Century in Chile transcends a simple Islamic connection. What we are witnessing instead is the fascinating emergence of Middle Eastern TV products whose appeal extends beyond borders or cultural factors, and who are being discovered and appreciated by people the world over.

Léo Soesanto
Léo Soesanto is a journalist and festival programmer. He is the editorial director of Soap, a new magazine on TV series. He is also the programming director of the International Independent Film Festival of Bordeaux and programmer of the TV series section of the Rotterdam International Film Festival. He heads the feature film selection committee of the Semaine de la Critique du Festival de Cannes.
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