Beirut: Syrian soap operas are among the many hidden victims of the Syria War.
Since the Syrian conflict started in 2011 the production industry has been in sharp decline, sinking from one low to another.
Television dramas were first produced by the state-run Syrian Television in 1960.
Due to a shortage in modern equipment, Syrian producers started seeking technical assistance from Arab countries in 1970.
Two of Syrian comedian Duraid Lahham’s early black & white comedies for example were shot and edited in Jordan, and two were made in Abu Dhabi in 1980-1981.
By the early 1990s, however, Arab investors started to fully bankroll big budget productions in Syria, taking the industry to new heights, says Adel Abu Zuhri, a Syrian-Palestinian producer.
Speaking to Gulf News, Abu Zuhri notes: “Due to Syria’s participation in the second Gulf War, a political decision was made to invest Arab Gulf money in Syrian drama, as a reward for Syria’s role in the liberation of Kuwait.”
This came at the expense of Jordanian drama, of course, which had previously been a prime beneficiary of Gulf investment, but it paid a high price for King Hussain’s support of Saddam Hussain in 1991.
However, Gulf money pouring into Syrian television productions started to dry up ten years ago due to Syria’s support for Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War, he adds.
“This prompted the Syrian Government to instruct state-run television to purchase “all works” made in Syria to help Syrian producers minimise loss from the Arab boycott.”
This was a symbolic move that put the industry on life support, but didn’t solve any of its problems, notes Abu Zuhri.
“They would pay $100,000 to $200,000 per work, which only partially covered production costs and expenses, whereas leading Arab satellite networks like MBC would pay anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 per episode, or $300,000 to $450,000 per work.” Briefly in 2007-2009, Turkish drama works dubbed into Arabic invaded the scene, shoving Syrian productions completely aside.
Then came the Arab Spring of 2011, driving a new wedge between Arab producers and Syrian drama.
Due to their public support for the Syrian regime, some prominent Syrian actors were blacklisted on channels like MBC, and due to the political sensitivity of the Syrian conflict, no Arab producer wanted to buy works about Syria anymore. Most shows made after 2011 dealt with Syrian domestics in times of war, and were almost always portrayed from the government perspective, since they were shot in Damascus, making them even more un-attractive to Arabic satellite channels.
Prominent director Saif Al Sibae, who made ground-breaking serious classics and historical epics before the present war, signed off on a popular 116-episode soap opera called Al Ikhwa in 2014.
With a pan-Arab cast of Algerians, Egyptians and Lebanese staring alongside Syrian celebrities, the work was shot in the UAE, featuring beautiful women and flashy cars — completely un-related to the present-day horror on the streets of Syria. “These are the kinds of works in high demand nowadays,” he said to Gulf News.
Producers and Arab audiences want either light soap operas or comedies like Bab Al Hara — “they simply don’t want to watch the Syrian crisis all over again on television during Ramadan.”
This was very problematic for Syrian scriptwriters and directors, who were making works that reflected their day-to-day lives — something that Arab audiences no longer wanted to watch.
For these works to sell to a pan-Arab street, they started relying heavily on non-Syrian actors, billing them in leading roles of Syrian productions that otherwise would have gone to Syria actors, who now found themselves virtually unemployed.
The only place where they could find jobs and where shows with local storylines still sold were within Syria itself, made by Syrian production houses.
Due to the political upheaval and sharp deterioration of the Syrian pound, which has lost more than 100 per cent of its original value, Syrian producers no longer had the financial ability to make works like they used to.
Before the war, Syria used to produce anywhere between 30-50 dramas per year, at an average cost of $1.2 million per series (30-episodes).
High budget works could reach up to $2 million and nobody complained because they were immediately sold to channels like MBC, LBC and Qatar TV.
For the upcoming Ramadan 2017, however, only 12 shows are being made in Syria, with a budget of no more than $500,000 per show. Some stars who used to make $15,000-$20,000 per work now had to settle for local wages that did not exceed $5,000.
“The industry is in decline throughout the Arab World and not only in Syria” says Jalal Chammout, a prominent Syrian actor based in Damascus.
Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “Investment capital is not brave; it only comes in times of stability and prosperity. In times of war, investors hold back their money and so do advertisers, who are the crux of any television production. If there are no ads, works simply don’t sell to Arabic satellite networks, and much of the annual advertising budget has been slashed because of the turmoil in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.”
As if shortage of funds is not enough, producers are plagued with having to crank out costly 30-episode productions because they only sell during the month of Ramadan.
Shorter works — 5, 7, or episodes each — simply don’t sell anymore because they don’t fill airtime in Ramadan, says pioneer Syrian actor Duraid Lahham.
Speaking to Gulf News, he notes: “The industry is facing numerous challenges. One is an Arab boycott. Another is lack of money for Syrian works. Additionally we don’t have good scripts anymore and some works are airing with 30-episodes although they merit much shorter airtime. Producers are obliged to literarily ‘stretch’ their works, injecting them with unnecessary scenes, often at the expense of quality, adding screen hours simply to meet market needs.”