Syrian soap operas sidelined by protests and censorship
DAMASCUS // Torn by deep political divisions, crippled by economic recession and made irrelevant by a citizens' uprising, Syria's television drama industry is being choked by the nation's ongoing crisis.
An illustrious stable of production companies, whose popular, cutting-edge annual Ramadan serials were once renowned throughout the Arabic-speaking world, are now struggling in the face of large financial losses, industry experts say.
Of the 29 multipart series filmed for Ramadan this year, only five have been sold to television stations, according to producers, leaving many firms saddled with costs they will not be able to recoup.
"We made a series that cost us US$1.5 million [Dh5.5m] and I don't know how we are going to get that back or how we can hope to break even," said Najdat Anzour, a leading Syrian producer and head of a private drama production company. "For smaller firms like mine it means we may have to close down this year."
Syrian Ramadan dramas are typically sold domestically to government-backed channels, and, more lucratively, to television networks in Lebanon and the Gulf. Last year was considered a vintage year for the industry, with 30 serials aired, some to critical acclaim for the way in which they tackled social taboos and sensitive subjects, including women's rights, corruption and Islamist extremism.
This year, however, markets have dried up, a result of squeezed government funding and advertising cuts, greater competition from high-quality productions abroad and the events of the Arab Spring making the current crop of shows obsolete before they had a chance to be shown.
Ramadan is widely expected to herald a further escalation of protests across Syria, which have already drawn more than a million demonstrators onto the streets during regular Friday marches.
"Ramadan will be like a month of Fridays. Every night people will leave the mosques and protest. No one will be sitting at home watching soap operas on television as they would in a normal year," said one independent political analyst.
"If anything, Syrians will be watching the news," he continued. "They will be getting their drama from real life, not by watching actors."
A combination of self-censorship and tight official restrictions mean screenwriters and production firms have not created shows addressing the uprising, according to a leading dramatist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"No one is writing about the crisis here. There will be no dramas about it," he said. "We are in the middle of the storm and the censorship is very hard.
"There is no way to write the truth about what is going on. If you wrote something balanced between the pro-regime and the protesters, it would be killed by the government censor, the only acceptable work would be pro-regime propaganda."
His remark hints at a broader schism that has split Syria's artistic community, as it has become embroiled in the political crisis gripping the nation.
A month after the revolt began in March, and with the authorities deploying tank-backed military units in an assault on Deraa, hundreds of well-known actors and writers, including Yara Sabri and Rima Fleihan, issued a petition condemning the crackdown and asking for humanitarian access to deliver food, water and milk to suffering children in the city.
Signatories won immediate praise from demonstrators for their courage in taking a public stand on the issue. They also drew savage criticism from regime loyalists, who accused them of treachery.
Najdat Anzour, the drama producer - long considered critical of Syria's autocratic regime - was among those outraged by what he derisively called the "milk statement".
In response, he and 21 production companies issued a notice of their own, announcing they would never again work with anyone who had signed the petition, saying they had "offended both the Syrian nation and its government".
"The milk statement lied about the situation in Deraa," Mr Anzour, now viewed as firmly pro-regime, said in an interview. "There was never any shortage of food or milk. It was a political statement. The authorities were dealing with armed terrorist groups in Deraa."
Polarisation within celebrity circles has only increased since, as both pro-regime and anti-regime groups demand public figures pick a side. Often brimming with animosity and verbal spite, the divisions have at times erupted in violence.
In June, the Syrian actor Saloom Hadad was assaulted in a popular Damascus cafe by supporters of the President Bashar Al Assad.
Although far from anti-regime in his views, Hadad had been mildly critical of government handling of the crisis, following a meeting with the Syrian leader.
"Saloom was attacked for not being pro-regime enough, for not publicly supporting everything the regime is doing, " said one Syrian drama critic. "Now personalities are not allowed to be neutral. There is no middle ground here anymore. They have become political punch bags, political footballs."
Half a dozen celebrities were drafted by the authorities to take part in officially sanctioned national dialogue talks this month, intended to chart a way out of the crisis.
"It's a sign of how empty and illusionary our politics are that actors now play politicians in real life," said one prominent dramatist.
"Only in Syria would we need actors at a political summit because we have no real political experts. It is humiliating and frightening."
Opposition figures and demonstrators boycotted the national dialogue talks and, soon afterwards, 200 intellectuals, actors and writers staged an anti-regime march in Damascus - the first public demonstration involving celebrities.
Security forces arrested 30 of them, including the film directors Nabil Maleh and Moahmmed Malas, actress Mai Skaf and writer Rima Fleihan - who had helped orchestrate the Deraa petition. They were subsequently released.
"Our drama industry is like our politics - out of step," said Najib Nasir, a leading writer and critic. "For too long neither sphere has been innovating, there has been no strategy or forward progress. For those reasons we have finally arrived in this crisis."
Updated: July 23, 2011 04:00 AM