TV drama Black Crows looks at ISIL threat from a female perspective
The reality of life under ISIL cannot possibly make for easy viewing on the small screen. Yet the sort of stories that have emerged from within the terrorist organisation to make headlines around the world – of suicide bombings, female enslavement, sexual slavery, rape, kidnap and more – will become the plot lines of a 30-episode television show set to debut on the pan-Arab MBC channel this Ramadan.
Al Gharabeeb Al Soud (Black Crows) is described by MBC as the first Arabic drama series to delve into the rise of extremism in the region from a female perspective.
“Never before on TV has there been a show that is fully dedicated to highlighting the inner workings of a terrorist network – in this instance, Daesh in particular – and also highlighting the women within the organisation,” says Mazen Hayek, official spokesman for the MBC network.
“Of course it’s going to be hard to watch – terrorism is full of atrocities, and the show isn’t going to lessen the ugliness of the reality because the reality is exactly that: it’s very, very ugly.”
Trailers for the show and short glimpses of scenes from some of the episodes have been subtitled in English, to show an international audience – as well as the global media – what the show will involve.
When it airs on MBC1 and MBC Masr, however, there will be no subtitles, although a subtitled international version is a possibility in the future
“We are trying to make a version of the series that will be available to a non-Arab audience, in either English or French, depending on the network that will carry it,” says Hayek.
Black Crows was created and produced by MBC. It took 18 months to develop and required a large team of writers and researchers, who spent months interviewing real-life ISIL survivors and gathering first-hand accounts from women living within the organisation.
The result is not a docu-drama – it is described as a dramatic, fictional series based on true events.
“This is a home-grown MBC idea, based on our commitment to really tackle the infection that is this terrorist group,” says Hayek. “We were as truthful as we could be, speaking to women who lost a child to ISIL, who left their homes to join ISIL.”
This is not the first time MBC has addressed the rise of extremism in the region from a sociopolitical, dramatised perspective. The popular Saudi satirical show, Selfie, which has been a popular part of the Ramadan TV line-up for several years, has used dark humour to mock the militant group in skits featuring a host of characters played by Saudi comedian Nasser Al Qasabi. Both he and MBC have received death threats from ISIL over the skits.
Black Crows is also expected to elicit a strong, visceral reaction from audiences, and that’s perfectly OK, says Hayek.
“Sometimes you have to continue doing what you believe is right and should be done, irrespective of reaction,” he says. “Obviously we want a positive reaction from the audience; we want them to watch it and comment on it and like it and give opinions.”
The role of TV, he adds, is to bring to light real issues and to highlight social problems.
“The role of TV is to highlight what hurts society and what is a threat to society, and this is one of the biggest threats of our lifetime,” says Hayek. “It is content that is compelling, and it is highlighting an issue right in front of us, something that is currently our reality.”
When an Arab TV show hopes to make an impact, to make people to sit up and take notice and to reach the highest number of viewers as possible, the holy month is the best time to schedule it.
“Ramadan is the peak in TV viewing for us,” says Hayek. “It is the month of TV par excellence, when all the family gathers around the TV more than any other time.
“It’s in a league of its own ratings wise, and studies have shown that people spend, on average, six to seven hours a day watching TV during the holy month.
“If you want to affect the way people think, if you want to reach them and raise awareness and make a positive change, then you need to be where people are – and during Ramadan, people are in front of their TVs.”
Most of the filming for the series took place on location in Lebanon, which stood in for Iraq and Syria. Passers-by from nearby villages who happened across the set would react in horror when they spotted an actors clad in ISIL garb.
“No one knew what we were doing, and we always had so much security with us, so people in nearby villages would panic and be terrified, thinking ISIL had come to their towns,” says Hayek. “We had to reassure them repeatedly and show them we were just filming. People are so scared of ISIL – it’s what they are thinking and worried about.”
Black Crows portrays ISIL’s leaders as radical extremists who are corrupt and hypocritical, ISIL’s recruits – men, women and children – as victims, and the women who challenge the terrorist group as the heroes.
The cast hails from across the Arab world, including actors from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Tunisia.
MBC says that if Black Crows can help to educate, raise awareness and prevent the further spread of ISIL, then it will have done what it set out to do: affect change.
“We want the neutral ones to tune in,” says Hayek. “We want them to use their brains and realise how ugly and devastating terrorism and terror networks are. But more importantly, we want the sympathisers, the ones inclined to believe in ISIL and to adopt their doctrine, to tune in. They are the ones who need to see the truth.”
And the truth, he promises, however difficult it might be to face, is exactly what Black Crows will bring to TV screens.
Updated: May 21, 2017 04:00 AM