BEIRUT: The scope of Syria’s vibrant television series industry, whose premiere viewing period takes place every Ramadan, has largely shrunk to the city of Damascus or next-door Lebanon in its fourth season of filming during the country’s armed conflict.
Production has contracted noticeably, but not massively, as the sector continues to serve up a variety of productions, from the subtle and polished to the heavy-handed and crude.
Those who follow Syria’s television drama and comedy production, particularly the widely seen format of the musalsal (series), usually in 30 installments, are aware of the industry’s highly politicized nature.
While there is playfully subversive content to be found in the regime-approved sphere of production, there are raging debates over whether any of the material ultimately represents a non-regime voice, even if sympathetic pro-opposition characters are portrayed.
On the other side of the spectrum, a widely seen and successful “opposition” musalsal has yet to appear, for a variety of reasons.
Some might say that for the political opposition, producing comedy and drama series is not exactly high on the priority list at a time of mass death and destruction, but producers and civilian activists have offered their own, modest offerings this year.
The effort was attempted several months ago, when an anti-regime news website, Zaman al-Wasl, funded the production of “Ra’is wa Nisa’,” which translates awkwardly as “A President and Women.”
The show, filmed in Jordan, starred May Skaf, who became known early in the uprising for her participation in protests and periods of detention by the authorities, before she left the country. Its writer, Fouad Humayra, was responsible for several hit comedy series in past years.
But the show was panned widely by critics and the public, who found it heavy-handed and lacking in anything new in terms of form or content.
The show disappointed those who had hoped that, released from any stifling censorship concerns, the opposition would finally generate something of political or social value in an arena in which the regime has usually had the last word.
This Ramadan, activists inside the country continue to turn out their modest, but “authentic” shows, filmed in war zones or close to them.
A partnership based in Gaziantep, Turkey – Better Tomorrow Productions as executive producer and Lamba Productions as the producer – is offering two short series for Ramadan. They are being broadcast on Syrian opposition satellite stations (Halab Today and Syria al-Ghad) and are available via Youtube.
One is “Banned in Syria,” and the other is “Umm Abdo from Aleppo,” with segments ranging from five to 15 minutes.
The producers acknowledge that they relied on a shoestring budget, and note that they were working in the difficult conditions of war-ravaged Aleppo.
The actors in Umm Abdo are youngsters, playing the parts of adults, in a light comedy that is more about entertainment than delivering grand political messages.
The producers describe the effort as giving voice to the mothers of Aleppo, while also highlighting the fact that Syrian children have “grown up too fast” during the war.
Banned in Syria, meanwhile, is a comedy sketch show in the tradition of the multi-year show “Spotlight,” which is also running this year.
For Banned in Syria, only one of the actors has previous experience, in community theater, and the rest are amateurs.
While technical and other problems detract from the quality, there is some biting humor, and the use of special effects is at times creative.
Adnan Hadad, a co-founder of Lamba Productions, said it was a case of “just getting it made being an achievement,” adding: “We lacked the basic elements for making shows in one sense,” he acknowledged, “but people want to see a real voice from inside the country.”
Hadad cited several reasons for the project, such as generating job opportunities for people in the devastated city, and the need to depict life there.
He is adamant that the only way a proper “opposition” series can be made is by filming inside the country.
Evidence of this is in the episode “The Lantern,” when a down-and-out Aleppine stumbles across a lantern, and its genie. He makes the discovery in the middle of a garbage dump – the notorious Jisr al-Hajj health hazard on the outskirts of the city, meaning that the plumes of smoke rising from the ground are methane gas, and not dry ice.
The episode “Ma fi shi,” which in the context of the sketch means something like “nothing going on,” is in the best tradition of the earlier gems of Spotlight in its early years.
Even the graphics of the show mimic “Spotlight,” and at times the humor of “Banned in Syria” mirrors the kind of sharp but general cynicism of the production in the regime-supervised sphere.
However, several episodes manage to up the ante.
In “Mathematics,” a math wiz quickly provides, for an audience of two stoned listeners, a series of illustrations of President Bashar Assad’s personal wealth, as if the currency notes were stacked or laid end to end in a variety of ways.
In “Wedding,” the presidential election of June is lampooned, in a way that couldn’t be done and aired under the supervision of the authorities.
A scene in “Vox Pop,” thanks to the creative use of bleeping out obscenities, is also fun to watch.
Another pro-opposition series appearing during Ramadan, “Homsi Diaries,” was shot in the central city area by local anti-regime activists.
The series is being broadcast on two satellite stations and focuses on criticizing aspects of the popular uprising, and specifically the opposition groups that have dominated the scene.
The show’s director, activist Sami al-Agha, has defended the effort as a simple case of “not criticizing the revolution, but rather those who have exploited it.”
While the sketch’s heart is in the right place, it suffers from, not surprisingly, not enough funding and the kind of quality that would make it into a magnet for viewers.
Some might criticize the opposition at large for failing to put enough effort into high-quality, hard-hitting production.
But there is the example of Abdel-Wahab al-Malla, a prominent Aleppine activist who, during last Ramadan, achieved local stardom thanks to a series he appeared in.
The show, “Three-Star Revolution,” was produced locally by the Halab News media outlet for Ramadan – it combined monologue and person-in-the-street format, avoiding standard drama or comedy.
Malla was a diamond in the rough, tackling the topics of the day – the humanitarian assistance sector, the Islamic state versus civil state argument, the condition of children, and of education – with a spellbinding mix of plain speaking, playful hilarity and spontaneity.
The humor wasn’t vicious but it was certainly cutting. Most importantly, it was fresh, and delivered with an outrageously strong Aleppine accent.
Several months after the show appeared, Malla was believed to have been kidnapped by militants from ISIS, and his whereabouts remain unknown.
ISIS has since been ejected from Aleppo, but involvement in public affairs through musalsals and Ramadan programs remains a cause for concern among those who take part in them.
Producer Hadad said that in the end, despite the threats from the regime, hard-line Islamists and the various, chaotic rebel groups who control small patches of territory, there was no alternative to remaining in the country.
“Anything filmed outside the country is a waste of time,” he said.