Riyadh-born Hisham Fageeh was working as a standup comedian, with shows in the U.S. and the U.K., when he decided to venture into filmmaking.
“We have to wear so many hats,” says Fageeh of the showbiz climate in his Saudi Arabia. “I started as a standup comedian and then I needed more gigs, so I started acting. Then I needed more scripts, so I started writing. Then I needed someone to produce my projects, so I started producing. At the end of my projects it feels like I’ve gone through war. We’re expected to produce at such a high rate. We’re always trying to run ourselves into the ground.”
The work has paid off. With his satirical take on Arabic culture, Fageeh’s 2013 web video “No Woman, No Drive” went viral and he was co-producer on Saudi Arabia’s 2016 Oscar submission for foreign-language film, “Barakah Meets Barakah.”
But the heavy demands of creating a steady stream of media content in a culture in which TV series run upward of 90 episodes (mostly melodramas and slapstick fare) in a very short amount of time proved frustrating and, from an artistic standpoint, inauthentic.
“We are a very consumer-heavy society,” says Fageeh, who was also head of content at Telfaz 11, a multi-channel network with around 12 million subscribers in Saudi Arabia. “The people that run the equivalent of the Nielson ratings, they say Ramadan is the only viable option of the year. They say the 11 other months are dead. But no artist can make 30 episodes of anything and have it remain interesting. Even if Scorsese were to make 30 episodes of something, it would be boring starting at episode 20.”
Aching for a change from this uber competitive and emotionally draining environment, Fageeh began developing a string of independent TV projects, including one called “Brown Republican,” a subversive and wickedly funny sitcom script about America’s first Arab Muslim president that Fageeh is hoping to get made.
“I wanted to distance myself from the Saudi field because it was a bit overwhelming and in its transformative phase — I call it puberty,” he says. “For better or worse, it’s running a lot of people in and out of the business.”
Enter the Middle East Media Initiative, or MEMI, a Hollywood training and mentorship program launched in 2018 at USC School of Cinematic Arts to boost the careers of Arabic TV writers and producers from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Made possible through a grant from the U.S. State Dept. and backed by the USC Norman Lear Center and American embassies in Egypt, Lebabnon, UAE and Saudi Arabia, the program hosted 17 Arabic media creators —10 writers and seven producers — at the USC campus last summer. The writers spent the bulk of their time workshopping their stories in writers’ rooms to learn collaboration and build networks. MEMI will do the same with a new batch of content creators this summer.
This spring, participants in the program also got the chance to spend time at a writers’ retreat in Dahshur, Egypt, about 35 miles outside Cairo, where they honed their craft with top USC SCA instructors such as David Isaacs, visiting professor of screenwriting and writer and producer of such series as “MASH” and “Cheers,” and Paul Foley, a lecturer and screenwriter who has penned projects for such studios as Disney, Fox and Warner Bros.
For Fageeh, a 2018 MEMI participant, the experience provided a sorely needed opportunity “to breathe.”
“It was the first time I’ve spent time with other Arab writers in a room where I wasn’t paranoid,” he says. “We just really supported each other in a really unadulterated way. In the Middle East, it’s so cutthroat and dog-eat-dog because we all feel like we only have one opportunity. MEMI was a place where I could be with other Arab writers. And I say this with a real amount of sadness, but we had to fly all the way to California to feel comfortable with each other and ourselves as Arab creators and have the element of trust. It took us leaving our microcosm and coming all the way to the west coast of California to change the way we look at each other.”
Deana Nassar, the two-year program’s director, says “one of the most rewarding” aspects of MEMI has been “the community that has been built” among the participants.
“One myth that we heard was that the [Arabic] writers are very precious about their material and nobody is going to sit in a writers’ room and have their work scrutinized; that that’s just not the culture,” Nassar says. “But what we found out is, that that is not the case. Rather, it’s just that they are not given the opportunity to work that way. We found that they’ve been very hungry for this type of communal workshop experience because they don’t get to work together back home. It really took us removing them from that environment to get them to see the growth their projects can experience from working with one another.”
Establishing levels of trust is integral to the workshop process, says Foley, who ran a MEMI seminar on how to craft the perfect pitch in Hollywood. With their true inner selves laid bare, “the sheer level of talent” in the writers revealed itself tenfold.
“These are writers that are would be amazing in any room and are the equal of any of the writers anywhere, but they’ve had to do it in kind of a vacuum with a lack of community,” says Foley. “It was impressive that they were able to take notes and then turn those notes so quickly into actionable changes in their material. The fact that they can pitch and do it as well as they have in a second language is astonishing.”
What these creators are searching for, Isaacs says, is not to make a permanent move to Hollywood, but to return to their home countries with fresh inspiration and a renewed sense of how to craft rich, compelling stories that reflect Arabic life in an authentic, multi-textural way.
“They have lives back in their home countries. They are not looking to come here,” says Isaacs. “What these writers are interested in is getting involved with American-based companies like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and developing character-based, real-life narratives on the region they come from. It’s really about, ‘How can we use the medium of TV to spread a deeper message about humanity in that area?’”
“David had this art of mentoring us, but also not dictating us,” adds Fageeh, who participated in Isaacs’ workshop last summer. “He let us grow and mature. Writing and filmmaking is a collective effort. David had this finesse of running the room where he didn’t interfere, but he moderated in a way where we didn’t go off the rails because we’re all very passionate creators.”
With the American TV landscape starved of an accurate representation of Arabic characters and writers in the western hemisphere generally pigeonholing Muslims characters as terrorists in the projects brought to screen, Nassar says the writers in MEMI sought to “take that narrative back.”
“Their stories are going to be far more nuanced and complex,” she says. “And it’s simple things that people don’t talk about. Something that drives me crazy about Hollywood is that they’ll cast Arabs and they won’t focus on things like dialect. For example, they’ll cast a Lebanese actor to play an Egyptian. Or they’ll cast a Jordanian to play an Egyptian and he’s speaking with a heavy Jordanian accent. Arabs are watching this and they are totally taken out of the story. We’re adding back that tonality.”
Isaacs, heading to Lebanon in June to teach a week-long MEMI workshop, hopes that when the two-year grant for the program is up, the State Dept. will renew it for a second go-around.
“If we achieve even three or four things, then we have been a success. My minimum expectation is to plant the seeds of really good storytelling and good television narrative and production in that whole region,” he says.
Per Foley, media such as television and film can, should and has historically been used as an effective tool to enact positive societal change. And MEMI has succeeded in helping to do just that.
“Good stories change lives,” says Foley. “That’s a fact.”