Following on a line of titles that venture into social drama, Globo’s new telenovela “Orphans of a Nation,” presented at Mip Cancun, has just won a Rose D’Or for Best Soap Opera.
That marks the first time that a Brazilian production wins in the category and validates once more – after prizes for “Jailers” and “Under Pressure” – the Brazilian TV giant’s bet on content that tackles head on current issues with clear, progressive, social commentary.
The show, fruit of the long collaboration between Thelma Guedes and Duca Rachid-who have already won an Intl. Emmy for “Precious Pearl,” centers around Laila (Julia Dalavia), a Syrian refugee trying to get to Brazil with her family, and Jamil (Renato Góes)the right hand man of a brutish, dastardly Sheik who fall in love as Laila is forced to marry the Sheik to save her little brother.
Kicking off in Syria, and a dramatic bomb attack at the happy, successful family’s birthday party, the story unfolds with the refugee drama as background ,entangling the stories of a choral cast as their lives are caught in the midst of a national conflict.
Variety interviewed Guedes and Rachid a day after their Rose d’Or triumph:
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It’s clear that beyond the intricacies and complexities of the Syrian War, the show is concerned with the humanitarian aspect that runs through the multi.layered conflict, shedding light, creating empathy and human interest in a conflict that seems quite distant for a Latin American audience. Why did you choose these themes and how was the research process while developing and shooting the series?
In every story we write for television, we try to offer something other than a just good entertainment product. We have a personal commitment to propose to our audience that it reflects and experiences relevant human issues. A common premise in our work is “empathy.” The idea to approach the theme of refugees via a telenovela came very naturally. Refugees are, without doubt, the great question of our times. In September 2014,, the photo of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, who died on a Turkish beach, touched the world. He was with his family in an inflatable boat that sank, fleeing the armed conflict in his country.
One year later, we watched a report about Syrian girls who were “sold” to wealthy men from other countries in order to save their families from the misery caused by the war. From these real stories, we created our fictional plot. But of course, we had to do a lot of research to develop it. We had Dr. Mamede Jarouche as consultant, who is a specialist in Arabic language, literature and culture, at the University of São Paulo and we were helped by Leandro Esteves, an experienced journalist, as a researcher. We also had great support from Globo’s Social Responsibility area, which brought us closer to UNHCR (the UN Special Agency for Refugees). It was important to get to know institutions that welcome refugees in Brazil. We essentially sought to understand the refugee issue through emotion and affection. And there is no narrative genre more effective than telenovela for this approach.
Arab Culture, although present in Latin American society, is a theme that has rarely been spoken about in mainstream media. The series establishes from the beginning that all characters speak in Portuguese but how was the research when dealing with Arab idiosyncrasy? And how did that affect the script?
There are many Brazilian of Arab origins, thanks to significant immigration inflow especially in the early 20th century. Brazilian culture has strong elements of Arab culture. In fact, the Arab community of Brazil is one of the largest in the world. Yes, the peculiarities of such a rich and strong culture greatly influenced the telenovela’s text. From the way the characters speak, which included Arabic expressions, to the way they act and think. Despite a globalized world, there are major differences between Arabs and Brazilians, especially behavioral ones. Such differences were highlighted. They contributed to the intensification of the dilemmas and dramas experienced by the characters, who had to change to adapt to the new country that would be their new home.
Throughout the last decade there has been a wide shift of representation in media that goes hand in hand with new audiences’ set of values. In what before was a narrative trope of the father that sells his daughter, your series uses the same event to show a very tender relationship between father and daughter. How do you think this change in representation of women and men has affected the classic characters of telenovelas and in effect their structure?
This change in the values of the new audience requires us to use the features of the old literary narrative in a different way. Laila, our heroine, belongs to a Christian elite and, despite living in a country with a more conservative and sexist culture towards women, is a modern girl, has studied, has access to information, lives in a globalized world. Just like her father, Elias, who is a liberal professional with a college degree, is married to a working woman who contributes to the family budget. It is a modern family, like any other, in any country in the world. It has to be this way so that the audience can relate to them and also to meet the needs of a contemporary story.
With this profile, Elias would never sell his daughter, for no reason whatsoever. But there is no telenovela either if it doesn’t happen, right? So, it is Laila herself who takes the action of offering herself in sacrifice to the Sheik, to save the sick brother’s life. Laila is a heroine with attitude. She’s not passive like the heroines of the old narratives. She encourages her father and mother to find refuge in Brazil. The difficulties of this diaspora strengthen family bonds. But Laila breaks these bonds by giving herself to Jamil, her great love, before marriage. Likewise, Elias falls in love with another woman when he arrives in Brazil. They are more complex characters, full of contradictions, as are men and women today.
How was the series shot when dealing with such a variety of locations?
Amazingly, the telenovela was entirely shot in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. No single take was made in Syria or Lebanon. Laila’s house, bombed in the first chapter, was on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Some buildings on Avenida Nova Faria Lima, in São Paulo, represented modern London, where our villain Dalila lived. The refugee camp was built on land near Globo Studios in Rio. The art team turned a street in Rio’s historic center into a typical Beirut street. Quitandinha Palace, in Petrópolis, served as a location for the Sheik’s mansion. All with the proper digital treatment, of course. Working with these various locations was possible thanks to the mastery of our directors, Gustavo Férnandez and André Câmara, as well as the planning, preparations and structure of Globo Studios.