BEIRUT: In her stuffy office buried five floors under the Abou Khalil supermarket in Mansourieh, Lara Msaed sat by patiently as the exporter on Avid movie editor inched along, finalizing the latest episode of the Lebanese television drama “Al-Aeda.”
The series, to be broadcast on Al-Jadeed, will air on the first night of Ramadan, less than a week away.
“I’m used to the pressure,” Msaed said. Seconds later, the Avid program crashed, forcing Msaed to repeat the two-hour exporting process.
“If the editor is late, the whole series will fall down because it’s the last step,” she said.
“It’s always like this.”
Local production houses are finalizing edits and last-minute shoots in preparation for Ramadan. This season includes several new series, with narratives ranging from love and injustice to upbeat musicals.
Msaed’s rush to finish before the month of fasting illustrates the usual challenges Lebanese series face with low budgets and an absence of government support. In spite of these perennial difficulties, hope among actors and producers for a relatively competitive season remains high as Ramadan approaches.
Industry leaders cite modest recent increases in production rates as evidence that demand and interest in the national product is increasing. But Syrian, Egyptian and dubbed Turkish dramas continue to dominate the Arabic-language industry.
Two of the five Lebanese series to air this Ramadan – “Ajyal” and “Al-Ghaliboun” – are in their second run, which is a good sign because Lebanese series rarely make it to season two, according to industry leaders.
The public’s interest in watching a second season indicates that a few dramas can draw a sizeable following around the country and its neighbors, they said.
Five Lebanese series will air for Ramadan on local networks: LBCI, Al-Jadeed, Al-Manar and two on MTV.
LBCI still awaits confirmation as to whether two additional Lebanese-produced series will air for Ramadan, said the network’s marketing department.
To be aired on Al-Manar, the second season of “Al-Ghaliboun” picks up its dramatic retelling of the resistance to Israeli occupation from 1986 until 1993.
One reason for the success of “Al-Ghaliboun’s” first season was its unusually high budget, several actors said, although they declined to discuss the specific amounts.
In any case, the budget for the second season is accommodating more than 200 actors. One of the principal actors, Mazen Maadem, said the budget could have been bigger to better market the series.
“Ajyal,” produced by Marwa Group, will air on MTV each night of Ramadan at 9:45 p.m. The series weaves together the storylines of multiple characters as they face financial suffering, family divisions and unrequited love.
The series, written by Claudia Marchalian, addresses a number of social issues, most notably its inclusion of lesbian characters played by actresses Carmen Boutros and Pamela el-Kik.
Arab satellite channel MBC-4 picked up the first season of “Ajyal,” a rarity for a Lebanese series, Kik said.
“We’ve been working so hard for our series to get on satellite,” said Kik. “What we should care about as actors is the result: Is the final product good or bad? Was the series directed well or not?”
“If the Lebanese series is on [a non-Lebanese satellite station], then we’ve made it,” she added.
Kik also noted that the competitiveness of Lebanese dramas regionally increased last year with two well-received shows: Bab Idris, set during the French Mandate, and Al-Shahroura, a Lebanese drama based on the life of singer-actress Sabah.
MTV will also air “Akher Khabar,” at 7 p.m. each night.
The satirical comedy stars Maggie Bou Ghosn and Mustafa Khani and follows the story of a publisher and his quirky newsroom.
Marwa Group produced the series for Ramadan 2011, but its success earned reruns of “Akher Khabar” another prime-time slot.
“Duo al-Gharam,” which will air on LBCI, is an extension of reality program “Duo al-Mashahir,” including a similar lineup of actors and musical performances. Duo Gharam is written by Marchalian and produced by Marwa Group.
The drama follows the love story between a married singer and a poor, aspiring performer.
Samer, played by Carlos Azar, comes into the life of Dalia, played by Bou Ghosn. Dalia acts a mentor for the young singer and the two eventually fall in love.
“There’s no expectation for how the series will do,” Azar said. “We’ll leave it for the public to decide.”
However, the actors agreed that the series’ concept – that of a drama interspersed with songs – breaks from the usual format of Lebanese television.
“Artistically, it’s very nice and the approach of directing is new,” said Kik, an actor in the series, referring to the mixture of drama and music.
Although she is enthusiastic about Al-Jadeed’s series “Al-Aeda,” actress Carman Lebbos explains the plot in somber tones.
The series traces the life of a woman who has been falsely imprisoned for 18 years. Her main goal upon release is to find truth and justice.
The series highlights a major problem in Lebanese society: The wealthy elite controls the poor and makes them scapegoats for their own wrongdoings, Lebbos said.
Series director Caroline Milan attributes her inspiration and attention to detail to a complex and well-written script. Milan has high expectations for the series because of her meticulous focus on cinematography and realism, she said.
“‘Al-Aeda’ shows the audience that everything happens for a reason,” Milan added.
Back in Msaed’s starkly furnished editing suite, hope that this year’s round of Ramadan dramas will make it big outside Lebanon is tinged with a sense of realism.
Actors and staff working on set expressed frustration over the comparatively low budgets for Lebanese series and the country’s virulent politics that impede the industry from flourishing, they said.
Actors such as Lebbos and Majdi Mashmoushi, from “Al-Ghaliboun,” said they believe censorship continues to plague local drama. Lebbos said she believes that a lack of new blood has forced series to inevitably fall into vortex of repetitiveness.
Censorship has also discouraged new writers, said Lebbos.
“Script writers in Lebanon are a minority,” she said. “Restricting freedom limits the chances of newcomers to become more successful.”
She and Mashmoushi argued that Lebanon led the Arabic-language television industry before the Civil War, but that the 15-year conflict created lasting consequences, such as sensitivity over certain topics, mainly religion and politics.
Mashmoushi admits that local drama has failed in some aspects to portray the problems of society.
“We are still trying to let go of the consequences of the war,” he said. “There’s no break. We’re still in the process of shifting from the military war to an economic one.”
Director Milan said most Lebanese dramas work with a quarter or less of the budget of Syrian and Turkish series.
A major dysfunction in the industry is the lack cooperation between production houses.
Pooling resources to build a centralized production location – such as the Hollywood studios that countries like Turkey and Syria mimic – would greatly improve the quality and working conditions for the Lebanese industry, agreed a number of crew members on the set of “Al-Aeda.”
For example, renting essential equipment such as Steadicams costs Lebanese producers $600-800 a day, while Turkish or Syrian production centers have a Steadicam permanently on set, Milan said.
Varying amounts of indirect government subsidies for TV production in Egypt also lay at the heart of its success, the director said.
In comparison, for every eight hours of filming on property owned by Solidere, Lebanese producers expect to pay $800.
“In Turkey, the government will send the army to fill in as extras,” Milan said. “Here, we have to pay for each extra.”
Meanwhile, the violence in Syria has had little impact on the quality of that country’s dramas, which remain competitive regionally compared to minor industries in relatively peaceful states such as Lebanon.
Members of Lebanon’s television drama industry were agreed that it remains unaffected for better or worse by the turmoil next door.
“Of course we don’t want any country to face the same turmoil that we did. But we were expecting for something [to] take place,” Mazen Maadem, an actor in “Al-Ghaliboun,” said, referring to the conflict in Syria affecting its TV industry.
“This Ramadan was supposed to be for us, for the Lebanese industry, but we didn’t make use of the situation,” the actor added.
Maadem reflected the view expressed by others that local channels are not encouraging the drama industry because they offer low prices.
Before heading back to the set of “Al-Aeda,” Milan gave one of her students helping out with the show a pat on the back.
“I don’t want to lose hope,” Milan said. “I try and transfer this hope to my students: The future is going to be a bright one.”
Giving her student a knowing smile, Milan added, “Maybe you will have the golden days.”