Syria’s renegade helmer

Aznour minis probe terrorism

LONDON — While the holy month of Ramadan signifies 30 days of fasting for Muslims around the world, for Syrian helmer and producer Najdat Aznour it means big ratings and death threats.

With rival Arab satcasters going head-to-head for the 30 days with ever-more lavish skeins to attract Mideast families gathering around the TV each evening as they break their fast, Aznour has become the go-to-guy for TV execs who want to make a splash.

Last year, his “The Beautiful Maidens” caused a sensation with its depiction of Al Qaeda terrorists in Saudi Arabia, regularly bringing in audiences of 50 million.

The 52-year-old found himself the target of Islamic extremists who accused him of heresy.

This year, Aznour is back with “Renegades,” a globe-trotting treatise on terrorism and fundamentalism that’s generating controversy — and more death threats — following its preem Sept. 24 on Lebanese satcaster channel LBCi.

“It’s part of being an artist that we must explore our society’s problems. Hopefully, this way we can ask questions and find some answers,” says Aznour. “As for all the threats, I tend not to take them too seriously. Anyway, those people aren’t my target audience. If anything, they should see other points of view. Maybe we can enlighten them.”

Ramadan skeins, known locally as “musalsals,” tend to run over 30 episodes. Aznour has structured “Renegades” into 10, three-part stories dealing with terror attacks in the Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and the U.K.

“I wanted to try something new. It’s too demanding to ask audiences to stay with a show for 30 straight evenings. This way, it lets us bring in different stories and characters,” adds Aznour.

He’s in negotiations with the U.K.’s Channel 4 to air the trilogy of episodes that look at last year’s terror attacks in London.

“It would be great if we could reach Arabs and Muslims living in Europe as well. Drama is a good tool because we can offer ideas and break some of these taboos,” says Aznour. “We’re being affected by these problems and we need to confront them.” 

Aznour became determined to challenge Arab auds about the problems of Islamic fundamentalism following the Al Qaeda bombing of a civilian compound in Saudi Arabia in November 2003.

Since then, the helmer has been on a mission to provoke debate about what needs to be done to confront terrorism.

Though he studied to be an engineer at university in the Syrian city of Aleppo, filmmaking runs in Aznour’s blood.

His father, Ismael, helmed Syria’s first silent feature, “Under the sky of Damascus,” in 1931.

Enamored by tales of the film biz from an early age, Aznour taught himself the basics of lensing before working his way up through commercials and video clips until he had established himself as Syria’s premier TV helmer.

Now he’s busy prepping his debut feature, “The Years of Torment,” a historical drama set in Libya in the early 20th century, with cameras due to roll by the end of the year.

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