Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

Prank shows chasing laughs leave victims traumatised

In a race for ratings during Ramadan, programmes try to terrify their targets with scenarios involving possible injury or death.
An episode of the Lebanese prank show Hadde Albak featuring the kidnapping of actor Wajih Sakr is seen on televisions in a Beirut cafe in June 2016. Josh Wood for The National
An episode of the Lebanese prank show Hadde Albak featuring the kidnapping of actor Wajih Sakr is seen on televisions in a Beirut cafe in June 2016. Josh Wood for The National

BEIRUT// Actor Wajih Sakr was driving with a friend near the Lebanese city of Byblos one morning when two cars full of masked gunmen intercepted them, ripping Sakr from the driver’s seat and forcing him into one of their vehicles.

Were they Hizbollah? Or ISIL? Or maybe they were plain old kidnappers after money. Robbers? What followed gave him no clues.

Sakr, 47, was shoved down in the back seat so he could not see where he was going. he pistol pressed against his head discouraged any ideas about escaping.

On reaching their destination, a warehouse, his captors blindfolded him and bound him to a chair with handcuffs, chains and tape.

“Who are you? What do you want?” he asked the gunmen circling him. His questions were met only with silence. As the futility of his situation set in, he broke down in tears, while his captors looked on.

But Sakr’s ordeal was no typical Lebanese kidnapping: it was just the most intense episode on last year’s Ramadan line-up of the Lebanese prank show Hadde Albak, which translates as “Hold Your Heart.”

Prank shows aim to provoke anger, surprise or fear in their victims. But Hadde Albak and similar shows in Lebanon and the Arab world go further, adding the threat of violence and death – often in situations that are, or have been, a reality in those countries.

Ramadan, which is set to begin this weekend, is peak TV viewing time in the Arab world, a month when stations seek to air their best programming for captive, binge-watching audiences. For prank shows – and Hadde Albak is not the only one – this often means it is the time to broadcast their most extreme stunts.

Another Lebanese prank show confronted an elderly man with a fake suicide bomber last year. And the show Urgent Landing was dedicated to getting celebrities on chartered planes, only to have the aircraft face apparent catastrophe and impending doom once they took off from Beirut airport.

A prank show in Egypt had fake ISIL fighters kidnap an actress in a Ramadan episode last year, forcing a suicide vest on her as she cried and begged for her life.

And in Dubai two years ago, another Egyptian prank show pulled the airplane crashing joke on Paris Hilton, though it was rumoured that she was in on the gag.

These pranks not only trick their victims into thinking that they are about to die, they also frequently tap into real anxieties felt by their targets and by audiences. Lebanon and Egypt have suffered devastating suicide bombings by ISIL and other extremist groups and the fear of another is always in the back of people’s minds. In Lebanon, kidnappings motivated by politics, feuds or lucrative ransoms occur frequently.

One Hadde Albak prank saw a young Syrian worker stopped, stripped and humiliated by armed men running a fake security checkpoint — a cruel joke in a country where many of the unwanted 1.5 million Syrian refugees live in constant fear of mistreatment at checkpoints.

“These shows express the daily anxieties of the people who live there,” said Marwan Kraidy, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a book about reality television in the Arab world. “It expresses them sometimes in a very crude way … sometimes maybe an unprofessional or unethical way, but they nonetheless express the anxieties of the population, of the audience of the shows.”

For Sakr, his kidnapping on Hadde Albak had a lasting effect. He was so disturbed by what happened – and unwilling to have loved ones see him in such a state – that he did not give the show permission to air the episode for two years.

“I was really afraid. I was really, really afraid,” he said of the episode, which showed him sitting restrained, blindfolded and without food, water or toilet breaks for seven hours and fearing death at any moment. “The target of these programmes is to make people laugh. People didn’t laugh. They were really afraid for me and some were crying through this episode.”

Sakr warned that such pranks could give somebody a heart attack, but also said that Hadde Albak had secretly done extensive research on him to establish he was not at medical risk.

Despite a backlash against prank programmes in recent years, Mr Kraidy said he expects them to continue.

“Commercial TV is a race to the bottom and this is the kind of stuff that gets eyeballs, so there’s a pretty high likelihood it will continue in the absence of any enforced legal constraints,” he said. “You have an environment where as long as you don’t talk too openly about religion, or politics or sex, anything goes. And this is that kind of strong, emotional TV without touching any of those topics.”

But there is still a chance that such shows will damp down their more extreme content. After the prank they played on the young Syrian man last year, Hadde Albak faced fierce criticism within Lebanon. Now OTV, the station that produces the show, has scrubbed evidence of that episode and others from its website and YouTube, although it is not clear if that was in response to the disapproval. The show’s host and apparent mastermind, Marcel Khadra, now hosts a nearly identical show on OTV called Tak Tik, though its pranks have not yet reached Hadde Albak’s levels of cruelty.

Mr Khadra promised interviews to The National on several occasions in recent months but ultimately remained unavailable.

Despite what he went through, Sakr says his ordeal was not entirely bad. In a Ramadan TV series this year, he is portraying a Canadian national who is kidnapped while in Lebanon. And because he has been kidnapped himself, he says, he knows how to truly play the role.

jwood@thenational.aes

Updated: July 21, 2017 06:54 PM

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