Political disagreements and production cuts are affecting the creation of television series for Ramadan this year.
The success of Syrian dramas is their ability to convey the social and political concerns of Syrians and Arabs. This year, however, what used to be a strength has turned into a weakness. The outspoken views expressed by some Syrian drama professionals towards the unrest in Syria has caused production companies to deny work to certain artists and has also prompted some activists to boycott dramas made by people with whom they disagree. Further, the economic impact of the unrest that began in March is also impacting the funding available for producing new dramas.
Both factors are causing a decrease in the film industry this year, and this drop will be visible during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting that begins in August. Many Arabs recognise this season as being as much a time for watching drama series as it is a time for religious devotion. Arab and Syrian production companies release their soap operas during Ramadan.
While there are no exact figures on the number of Syrian soaps that will be produced this year, drama professionals say the number will be far fewer than the 30 series that, according to statistics provided by the state news agency SANA, were aired during Ramadan last year.
Although political disagreements are hurting drama production, the economic impact of the unrest is the main hindrance in the production of television series.
Syrian producer and actor Firas Ibrahim said in an interview with Shorouk News website that major Syrian production companies stopped several soaps that were planned for this Ramadan season due to financial worries. While he said he is not planning to stop the production of his drama series Fi Hadret al-Gheyab (In the Presence of Absence) about the life of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, he said he is worried that it will not achieve the financial success he anticipated.
“With demonstrations sweeping over the Arab World, there has become a real marketing crisis because of a fall in advertisements that are the main financers of TV series,” Ibrahim told the website, adding that channels that used to pay about SYP 95m (USD 2m) for a series are now only paying SYP 9.5m (USD 200,000).
According to Ibrahim, some television channels are not signing contracts with studios to buy rights to air series currently in the making because of concerns that, because of the unrest, the production companies would fail to complete the series in time to be broadcast during Ramadan or that they will not attract viewers.
Drama, like political dialogue, is also becoming polarised in the current climate. Increasingly, there are online campaigns by young Syrian activists to boycott both series that feature pro-government artists and those that feature people who support the opposition. This division makes it harder to convince advertisers to invest in Syrian soaps this year, since it reduces audience size.
“No sane advertiser would invest in a series that is boycotted by the audience,” said a young woman from Damascus who is a member of a campaign to boycott pro-government artists and asked to remain anonymous.
Activists published lists of pro-government and opposition artists and named them as “shameful” or “honourable” according to which side the activists support. The founder of a Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists, who asked to stay anonymous, said his page’s “followers” are not only boycotting dramas that feature pro-regime artists but also the channels that broadcast them.
“The boycott has already started. When I asked [people] to boycott (Syrian actor) Abbas al-Nouri’s programme on MBC channel, the followers not only agreed but even asked to boycott all channels that work together with artists from the shame list,” the founder of the page, which had more than 19,661 followers at the time Syria Today went to print, said.
Manea’ al-Jarba, founder of a Facebook page that lists artists who support the ‘Syrian revolution’, said he compiles the lists according to the artists’ statements to the press and their posts on social-networking sites.
Even Egyptian activists, who compiled their own shame lists during the Egyptian revolution, started an online campaign that calls upon the Egyptian production companies to terminate their contracts with pro-government Syrian artists.
There is only one shame list by pro-government activists, but Syria Today could not reach its founder. In addition to listing opposition TV professionals, the list also names politicians and other public figures who support the Syrian revolution. The list had 1,123 followers by the time Syria Today went to print.
Perhaps more interesting than the economic impact of unrest on Syrian television and its effect on viewership is the drama it is causing behind the scenes. Disputes among drama professionals over the unrest in Syria are aggravating the challenges to producing television series this year.
A petition signed by more than 300 Syrian actors, writers and other TV professionals calling for the Syrian government to “lift the food siege imposed on Dera’a” and to provide the city’s children with food and medical supplies sparked tension between drama professionals. The artists released the statement, dubbed the ‘milk petition’ – because of its request that residents be given milk and other necessities – following the Syrian military operation that started on April 25 in the southern city of Dera’a against what the government alleged were “terrorist groups”.
The signatories were criticised in a campaign by other drama professionals and media spokesmen in both official and some private Syrian media. Famous directors such as Hesham Sharbatji went as far as publicly calling those who signed the petition – including his daughter, director Rasha Sharbatji – “traitors” in a programme on the private Syrian TV channel al-Dunia.
In a statement published shortly after the “milk petition”, 22 Syrian film production companies announced in a statement that they would boycott all its signatories. The companies described the petition’s “fabricated claims” as “a political statement masked as a humanitarian call” that aims to “offend both the Syrian nation and its government”.
Some Syrian production companies also called for rescinding the Syrian Order of Merit that President Bashar al-Assad granted Muna Wasif, the famous Syrian actress and mother of prominent opposition figure Ammar Abdulhamid in 2009, because she had signed the petition.
In an interview with the official Syrian TV, director Laith Hajo said that the Syrian artists’ union also discussed firing members because of their political views.
“We demanded lifting the emergency law and now every Syrian citizen is creating his own emergency law and giving himself the right to randomly attack and fire others,” Hajo told the channel.
As a result, TV professionals reported concerns that they will lose their jobs.
“They [Syrian production companies] want to stop me from working because of my humanitarian call,” Mey Skaf, a Syrian actress who signed the petition, said. So far, she added, none of her contracts had been cancelled.
Attempts at reconciliation
Moves by public personalities to address these disputes have so far failed. A meeting organised by a Palestinian figure to bring opposing drama professionals’ views closer ended without resolution – there was an argument and several attendees walked out. All footage of the meeting captured by local media was seized by the authorities and could not be aired. Drama professionals, some of whom attended the meeting, did not reply to Syria Today’s repeated requests for comment.
President Assad also met a number of Syrian drama professionals, including the actress Wasif, who described the meeting as “transparent and civilised”. During the meeting, Assad asked the artists to stop their accusations and stressed that “the word traitor is not included in our dictionary”, Wasif told the Syrian media following the meeting.
Still, Syrian artists continued to argue publicly over their political stances.
The founder of the Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists said he believes that regardless of the artists’ views and the boycott campaigns, few people will watch television series this Ramadan anyway.
“Arab news channels are all that Syrians watch these days,” he said. “People from both sexes and all age categories are breathing politics. I don’t expect things to settle down before Ramadan and therefore this year’s drama season will suffer a huge blow unless it focuses on politics and the current Arab revolutions.”
Facebook page founder Jarba agreed, adding: “The Arab World is busy today reshaping its identity, which is taking place on the ground and not on the screen.”
I published this article in Syria Today magazine.