BEIRUT: Syria’s once-proud television drama and comedy industry is marking its fourth season of the country’s “crisis” with shows continuing to be produced for the high-viewership month of Ramadan, as the war steadily hollows out the content and quality of many of the productions.
Even getting a precise count of the number of Syrian musalsals that will appear during next month is difficult, as last-minute broadcasting arrangements are worked out.
Local production companies might act as executive producers for non-Syrian firms or television stations, usually based in the Gulf – fund the making of shows that many call “Syrian” although the funding is from outside the country.
Estimates of the number of Syrian drama and comedy series produced this year range from anywhere between 15 and 30, according to those the industry. Most are in the form of 30-episode productions, although a number of shorter shows have also been produced.
In terms of quantity, the war has put a small but noticeable dent in the number of shows, while affecting the quality side of the industry in several significant ways.
Big-budget historical epics, shot outside the capital, have dried up due to the inability to film as violence rages. Companies have compensated by resorting to the relative peace next door in Lebanon for shooting scenes, or entire shows.
In Damascus, where the Old City serves as a setting for both period pieces and contemporary shows, the threat of mortar bomb attacks remains steady.
Many big-name stars have left the domestic scene, due to their political views or simple reasons of personal safety. The TV industries of Egypt, Jordan and Gulf have absorbed some of the anti-regime figures, while pro-regime loyalists, for example, or even those in the middle, might fear remaining in Syria because of the threat to themselves or their families in the form of murder or kidnapping.
Najib Nseir, a critic and writer of numerous dramatic series, told The Daily Star that “on the surface, you can say that about the same number of shows are being made, but the sector is being hollowed out – the stars are largely gone, and there’s a general climate of being unable to ‘say anything’ in the shows that are being made.”
“Everything has changed, except for the continued production of shows about ‘Old Damascus.’ Several or more of such series were made this year, although I doubt they’ll be that popular, because the genre is being exhausted,” he said.
Nseir, who has charted the course of Syria’s television drama and comedy boom in books and articles, described a steady decline in quality over the last several years.
“In the mid-1990s, the television sector was a bustling workshop, but there are fewer and fewer professionals involved these days,” he said.
Meanwhile, attempts to catch the viewers’ attention, and even tackle the war raging in Syria, continue to be made.
A historical epic, Bwab al-Rih, will tackle the outbreak of sectarian civil strife that raged in Damascus and Beirut in 1860. Although such “controversial” periods of history are often turned into television drama, censorship pressures usually mean that the content of such shows reinforces traditional or safe themes, such as the need for national unity in the face of strife, an echo of the Syrian regime’s own stance.
The show’s director, Muthanna Sobh, said the sector is suffering from steadily rising pressure to “avoid saying anything.”
“Topics are increasingly difficult to broach, but at the same time, we don’t want to offer viewers something superficial,” he said.
The series will examine the various reasons why the strife spread from Druze-Christian violence in Mount Lebanon to the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma in Damascus, while leaving untouched Syrian Christians in other parts of the capital.
This season will see a number of shows tackling the violence and destruction ravaging Syria today, whether through drama or (dark) comedy.
A show called Pack Your Bags, by leading director Laith Hajjo, will feature people from different walks of life as they confront the war, with the common denominator being their decision to leave the country as a response.
The production itself was recently the victim of a mortar bomb strike in Damascus, thankfully producing no casualties.
And the seminal, multiyear comedy sketch show Spotlight will return with a new edition, although critics and observers have already begun discussing whether comedy, even of the intelligent kind, is the proper response to the country’s current woes.
Nseir said the climate of armed Islamist insurgency raging in the Arab world is producing the irony that even safe, “traditional” shows that promote conservative religious values are caught in a double bind.
The famous Bab al-Hara, a multiyear series set in Old Damascus that is seeing yet another edition this year, has been regularly criticized for presenting stereotypical characters that embrace tradition.
“But for the hard-core Islamists these days, for many of these people in the region, a show like Bab al-Hara is practically un-Islamic, because you might see a woman not wearing the hijab when she’s with her family,” Nseir said.
“There are some exceptions in terms of the shows, but in general, we’re just moving backward.”