Turkish soap operas are having an effect on women across the Muslim world, says the director of a documentary filmed partly in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.
Nina-Maria Paschalidou’s film Kismet, which is showing at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam ahead of a planned broadcast on Al Jazeera TV, examines the reasons behind the explosion in popularity of the soaps in countries from the UAE to Bulgaria and Greece.
“Soap operas talk in a very simple and direct way to women. They enter homes in a way no one else can enter,” said Paschalidou, who directed Kismet.
With Turkish soap operas, viewers in the Middle East see women with whom they can easily identify, she said.
“What they see is a woman like themselves, who is Muslim, who is religious, who is traditional, but on the other hand is modern and I think this is who they want to be, who they aspire to be,” Paschalidou said.
Work on her project started in 2010 when the Greek director was told by a Turkish friend about the popularity of the series Noor, the story of a woman of humble means who rises professionally and discovers true love.
Noor was the first Turkish series to cross borders and win the hearts of viewers in the Middle East and the Balkans.
Spurred on by its success, Paschalidou began researching the country’s burgeoning soap operas and soon found the subjects were increasingly about women’s rights.
Noor and other soap operas, which often tackle sensitive subjects such as rape, forced marriage, divorce and extramarital affairs, are inspiring female audiences to assert themselves, she said.
For her documentary, Paschalidou interviewed Samar, a 54-year-old from Lebanon who has lived in the UAE for more than 30 years and has Emirati citizenship.
Twice divorced, she struggled to end her second marriage of 11 years and had to go through two court cases to achieve it.
She credits soap operas – especially Fatmagul, the story of a woman who is raped but finds the courage to take her case to court – with encouraging her to speak up and fight for her rights.
Paschalidou collaborated with the UAE’s Veritas Films, which helped with production and filming in Abu Dhabi and RAK. Two other women and a man from the UAE are featured in the movie.
The challenging task of getting Samar, who the film crew did not want to identify, and other women to open up was made easier because famous Turkish actors, directors and screenwriters were also featured in the documentary, said Eva Sayre, the business director at Veritas.
“All we had to do,” Ms Sayre said, tongue in cheek, “was tell them they were going to be in the same film as X, Y and Z star of whatever show, and that opened a lot of doors.
“But I also think that the women that we talked to, who have been through difficult times in their lives and had an empowering experience where they went to court, or they got a divorce, or took some sort of proactive step to do something in their life, they are proud of it in a way and they want to share that experience with other people.”
The soap operas have repeatedly been criticised for undermining traditional values.
In July 2008, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti urged viewers to avoid Noor and issued a religious ruling against it.
Paschalidou’s documentary features a marriage councillor in RAK who blames Turkish soap operas for rising rates of divorce.
But the director said the programmes presented the female point of view in gender relations and tapped into a “universal language among women where women just want to be equal with men”.
“It is not the ideal, romantic man they are dreaming of,” she said. “What they are dreaming of is a life of their own choice in every way that one can see.
“They want to marry the man they want, they want to be able to work, to do what they want, to have children or not to have children, to make their choices.
“There is one common theme – having a respectful life and to be able to pursue what you want.”