Saudi Arabian stand up comedian, actor, writer and producer Hisham Fageeh in 2013 posted a satirical video on YouTube titled “No Woman, No Drive” that became the country’s most popular YouTube video and probably helped the movement to strike down Saudi’s ban on female motorists in late 2017. He also acted and co-produced groundbreaking Saudi rom-com “Barakah Meets Barakah.” Recently Fageeh was appointed director of the Middle East Media Initiative (MEMI) at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the training and mentorship program launched in 2018 to boost the careers of Arabic TV writers and producers that now has ties to both the Cairo Film Festival and Saudi’s nascent Red Sea fest. He spoke to Variety about what he sees as some of the sore spots in Arab TV.

What have you been up to since ‘Barakah’?

I tried my hand at working in regional television, using the momentum of that movie. I did some decent stuff. I was the creator and show runner on three different shows. But, alas, it wasn’t written, as they say.

I found, by being completely honest with myself, that I had some shortcomings as a writer. I had an initial gift, but I was still lacking craft and technical skill, so I got involved with MEMI as a consultant and I participated in it to understand how it worked and the following year I became an instructor. Basically, I’ve been involved with MEMI since its inception. I also started working on my second feature film, as a producer, with writer and director Anas Ba-Tahaf. It’s titled “Fay’s Palette” and next week it will world premiere at Red Sea. 

My impression is that in Arab TV there has been a quantum leap in terms of fresh, innovative narratives. But there is still a ways to go in getting more cutting edge, and also just better quality, Arab TV series on to screen. What’s your take?

Well there is this quantum leap being made, especially in Saudi Arabia, because we are at this intersection where globalization meets with the learning curve of everything opening up now. And the industry is sort of allowing talent to flourish. But, yes, there is still a ways to go.

What are some of the sore spots?

I personally want to see more personalized stories. I want to see point of view; I don’t want to see all this events and plot-driven narrative. I want to know: Who are these characters? This person is based on my mom, or my brother. And they walk like this; talk like that. That’s what USC really prides itself on. This idea of creating compelling characters that is certainly what MEMI is trying to harness for the region. Because there is no shortage of technical abilities; no shortage of talented actors. But I think they [Arab writers] are writing from a cerebral place, and I’m guilty of this as well. They are writing intellectually, as opposed to viscerally and emotionally. But when you write characters that are from your actual life, I think that authenticity and truth always shine through. Tapping into that, and also learning to uncover that with nuance and grace, is key. Generally speaking people in the Arab world, especially in Saudi Arabia, they don’t like airing their dirty laundry, compared with Western/European people and their [TV] industries.

Aside from MEMI projects, are there any Arabic TV shows, either recent or upcoming, that you are particularly excited about, that you think bode well for Arab TV going forward?

There is a lot of stuff that’s slated, that is still being kept under wraps and looks promising. There is no shortage of good stories. Arabs have this tradition of oral history, and they are great storytellers. And I think every society has its storytelling that is intrinsic to its people. But it’s about facing ourselves. And some societies are just better at being more forward, transparent and vulnerable. I think, generally speaking, Arabs tend to be more poetic; you could also use the word romantic. The language is flowery but sometimes the meaning is more subtextual. It’s between the lines and it sort of goes over everyone’s heads. There are ways to remedy that that will reach us, once we practice and learn. 

What are some other impediments that have been holding Arabic TV back?

One is the fact that our main season for television is the Ramadan season, during which shows are almost by default 30 episodes per season. But I think as things get more decentralized we will see a change in this dynamic. I also think the idea of writing [a show] for a star is a little bit dated, as opposed to just writing something that’s authentic. There are plenty of examples of films coming out of Egypt that are critically acclaimed on the festival circuit because they have compelling characters. But then sometimes [Arab] audiences will see something and say: ‘That doesn’t represent us!’ I know that’s certainly the case in Saudi Arabia. So it’s finding that delicate balance. It’s a tightrope walk of basically telling a story that’s authentic and real, and not compromising and not sugarcoated. But also that doesn’t offend people. People that are – again – not generally ready to face themselves.