LONDON — Even as its political leadership comes under pressure from the West, Syria’s TV biz is booming.
This past Ramadan, traditionally the key season for Arab satcasters and akin to the U.S. sweeps, Syrian skein “Bab Al-Hara” was the most talked-about musalsal, the name given to Ramadan serials.
The show, about a Syrian village in the early 20th century thrown into turmoil by greed and social strife, aired on Saudi-owned satcaster MBC to boffo ratings. It beat a number of bigger-budgeted serials from Egypt, traditionally the center of Arab TV and film production.
The pic’s helmer, Bassam Al-Mulla, is just one of a number of directors who have propelled Syrian TV to the top of the wishlists of many Arab TV execs.
Najdat Anzour, Ghassan Jabri, Bassel Khatib, Haitham Haqqi, Laith Hajjo, Rasha Sharbatji and Hatem Ali have all earned reputations for making thought-provoking dramas that attract auds and positive reviews.
” ‘Bab Al-Hara’ has opened up the Syrian market,” says Dubai Media managing editor Ali Jaber. “It has become the tentpole for Syrian drama in the way that ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ opened up the market for formats.”
Part of the reason for Syrian TV’s current success is auds’ increasing boredom with Egyptian TV productions.
Firmly based around a star system, where A-listers including thesps Yousra and Nour Al-Sharif can receive seven figure salaries to star in a musalsal, many feel Egyptian TV dramas lack fresh ideas and are becoming repetitious.
“There are no fresh faces or stars in Egypt,” Jaber says. “The regression of good storytelling in the Egyptian productions has allowed Syrian TV to break through.”
Another big factor is the perceived authenticity of Syrian productions.
The lavish soundstages at Egypt’s Media Production City host most local skeins — but the obvious fakery of the sets at times earns guffaws rather than applause.
Syria’s relative lack of infrastructure, on the other hand, has been to its advantage, with helmers forced to shoot on location.
“We’re truthful with our productions,” says Bassam Al-Mulla. “We deal honestly with Arab stories in a natural setting. It has appeal from Tunisia to Lebanon, and we talk about society and politics more than others do.”
It is ironic that a country most commonly known for its lack of political freedoms — the Syrian Baath party has ruled since 1973 — should produce the most daring Arab TV.
Anzour, for example, has made a name for himself with a series of hot-potato musalsalat such as “Top of the World,” “Renegades” and “The Beautiful Maidens,” tackling everything from Al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism to the controversy over the Danish cartoons seemingly mocking the prophet Muhammad.
“It’s part of being an artist that we must explore our society’s problems,” Anzour says. “Hopefully this way we can ask questions and find some answers.”
Egyptian TV execs have found their own answers to tackling the competition — poaching the talent.
MBC historical biopic “King Farouk,” about the last monarch of Egypt who was overthrown by general and future prexy Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, was directed by Syrian Hatem Ali and featured Syrian thesp Tayem Ali as Nasser.
Casting a Syrian as Nasser led to an outcry in some quarters of the Egyptian press, but also resulted in Egypt’s biggest Ramadan success of the year.
For some measure of how hot Syrian helmers are right now, just witness the way Arab TV execs are battling each other for their next big hit.
MBC has already commissioned another season of “Bab Al-Hara” without seeing a single new script, while Dubai Media’s senior management flew to Syria to meet a number of prominent figures in the Syrian government and TV biz.
Not that the picture’s all rosy.
A lack of government support — most of the coin for Syrian productions comes from broadcasters or private investors in the Gulf — as well as concerns over censorship and occasional interference means the Syrian TV biz can’t match Egypt in terms of quantity, even if it already has passed the quality test.
“Syrians must wake up and give these directors what they need in terms of money and support,” Jabri says. “We must stop people from leaving and working in other countries. When you work in another country, you say what they want you to. It’s only in your own country that you speak with your own voice.”