Brazilian filmmakers attempt online capture of Beirut

BEIRUT: Take three young Brazilian film-makers, add the latest in Internet social networking, mix them up in the cultural hot-pot of Beirut and what do you get? Answer: a flying kebab. Allow me to explain … “Flying Kebab,” an Internet-based web series, has nothing to do with flying. Or, for that matter, kebabs. But it has everything to do with Matheus Siqueira, Fernando Borges, and Cléderson Perez, who decided to pause their lives in Sao Paulo for a one-year sojourn in Beirut. 
Here they set about creating their online drama, promoted exclusively via online social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, garnering some 100,000 views plus airtime on Brazilian MTV. 
The series is ostensibly a fictitious account of Fernando, a Brazilian photographer who travels to Lebanon’s capital in search of a mysterious inheritance from an aunt. Ostensibly fictitious, because – without initially being part of the plan – the use of social networking sites to engage their audience has led instead to the audience engaging with the film makers, becoming an intrinsic part of both the program and the lives of the people making it. 
“We started making this to capture Beirut,” says Siqueira, the show’s director. “I expected to capture what I was seeing and show it to people, but what happened was that [making the series] has turned out to be a great way for us to meet people and find new places.” 
Siqueira, a documentary-maker, quit studies in journalism at the Adventist University of San Paulo to lead the trio’s exodus to Lebanon. They landed jobs with a local television company, but still manage to squeeze in the 70 or so hours required to create each circa-eight-minute episode of “Flying Kebab.” 
The fifth episode of the series – “Sex Bomb” – was released Monday. Well aware of the patchy accessibility to broadband Internet in Lebanon, the team met with a modest but enthusiastic group of the show’s followers at Walimat Wardeh, a Hamra restaurant, to distribute DVDs of their latest offering. As midnight beckoned these same fans were pitching plans for the next episode over helpings of ice cream. 
“We know, finally, two months before the end how it will finish,” said Siqueira, who admits that the series has, for the most part, been put together on the hoof. Even the name of the latest offering – a description of Fernando’s aunt by a character in the show – came about through improvisation. 
“We were filming with a loose script and suddenly [the actress] just said it,” said Siqueira. 
The creative process behind every episode begins with a loose collection of plot ideas. These are sent to be fleshed out by San Paulo-based script writer Daniel Prata, who requested to join the team after seeing the pilot episode on line. 
This may have been the first victory of the show’s purely-online strategy, but was far from its last: “Flying Kebab” took second place in an Australian online festival at the start of the summer and is currently entered in the Mashable Media Awards, another online competition, run by the Internet news blog. 
“The award was a nice token to our work but it’s not really a big deal,” said Siqueira, who says he would gratefully receive any votes going for the up-coming Mashable gong, but isn’t holding his breath. “We don’t have boobs, we don’t have cute animals; and we don’t talk about [role-playing game] World of Warcraft: that’s what’s popular online.” 
But “Flying Kebab” was never meant for the web’s role-playing masses. The video-diary approach – which Siqueira admits exists as much by necessity as taste – instantly evokes an art-house feel. Verisimilitude comes by the bucket thanks to a plot that never strays far from real life. 
The pretense of fiction on the part of the plot combines with the pretense of reality on the part of Fernando’s pictures posted online between episodes; “tweets” (posts on the social networking site Twitter) about his day-to-day life; and short “videologs” of his experiences in Beirut. When the real life Fernando woke up one day and decided to cut his long dreadlocks, he filmed it, so fans could see the on-screen Fernando do likewise. The result is a depth rarely seen from a production of such modest means. 
This approach caught the eye of “one of the main new-media figures in Brazil,” Marcelo Tas, who spread the word about “Flying Kebab” to his 423,906 “followers” on Twitter. “I’ve never met him myself but I’m going to give him a big hug when I get home!” said Siqueira. 
The team aims to fit in two more episodes before they depart in December and are looking for sponsorship to allow them to put the whole series together on a free DVD, as a parting gift to Beirut. 
“The idea isn’t to make money but to get as many people included in possible,” says Siqueira. “We’ll leave it in universities, bars, cafes. I hope people will get interested, pick it up and copy it to their friends.” 
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