Oscar-nominated producer and ‘Baghdad Central’ star Waleed Zuaiter has today launched FlipNarrative, a new company to disrupt content creation industries and push representation in Hollywood and beyond.
“The mission of our company is to amplify the voice of underrepresented and historically misrepresented voices around the world, with a start with a focus on the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia,” the Palestinian-American actor reveals to Gulf News on a Wednesday Zoom call, shortly after 9am in Los Angeles, where the company is headquartered. They also have a presence in New York, London and Beirut.
Zuaiter says the company has been in the works for several years and is born out of an urgent need. “We’ve always thought this was urgent years ago,” says Zuaiter. “So, why now? Really our question was — why not five, 10 years ago? It’s never too late. But it’s become more urgent. We want to make inclusivity, diversity and representation the norm.
“As an American, I’m sometimes discouraged about how the country works, because when they do any correction, it winds up being an overcorrection, and usually to me, it comes across as not really genuine. It’s a response.”
That’s where FlipNarrative comes in. “We are active agents of change. We’re not activists, we are not politicians. We are storytellers,” says Zuaiter. “And we’re here to tell untold stories that will engage you emotionally and intellectually. For us, that’s what disruptive content is.”
Targeting the mainstream
Zuaiter, 49, produced the Academy Award-winning film ‘Omar’ (2013) and currently stars in the StarzPlay Original drama series ‘Baghdad Central’, set in post-invasion Iraq. He also appears on Hulu’s ‘Ramy’ (streaming on OSN in the region) and on ‘The OA’ and ‘The Spy’ on Netflix.
“We believe there’s an appetite that’s ready now [and it’s] only going to grow. If you look at the numbers, and people like StarzPlay Arabia, Netflix, Shahid, OSN, and all the streamers in the Middle East, they know that the market is going to grow in the next five years. It’s going to triple. And that’s just the Middle East and North Africa. We’re making international shows for international audiences,” he says.
From business perspective, Zuaiter adds, the MENA region represents “a small chunk of the world market”. But the plan is to start locally, then sell to the rest of the world.
Zaiter says ‘Baghdad Central’ on StarzPlay “was probably their most successful English language original ... even though 25 per cent of it was in Arabic.” The show became a case study for him.
“When we premiered it in Dubai, a producer came up to me and said, ‘You know, this show would still work beautifully if it was all in Arabic, and English spoken when it’s spoken with the American and the British [characters].’ So, with one of our shows that is Lebanon based, we’re looking to do a bit of a reversal, with 65 per cent of the dialogue in Arabic and the remaining 35 per cent mostly in English, with a little French, to be reflective of Lebanon.”
Slate of projects
FlipNarrative currently has between 10 and 12 projects on their slate, with three projects that are furthest along. “[‘The Valley’] is a Lebanon based TV show, a crime thriller and family story that deals with illicit drug trade in the Beqaa Valley,” says Zuaiter. After receiving the pitch for the show in late 2019, Zuaiter discovered that there was a competing project out there.
“Through a phone call, I found out that the guy who wrote the competing project is also a dear friend. We then put both writers together to see if they wanted to collaborate, they fell in love with each other. So, now we have an even stronger team. Again, no competition, just the right partners.”
He continues: “There is [also] a Palestine/Israel-based romantic comedy, and there is a documentary that came to us in near final form. It’s about a world-renowned graffiti artist. His name is El Seed. He did this incredible installation in Egypt in an impoverished town that is responsible for collecting all the country’s garbage; they have their own recycling. The name of the documentary is ‘Perception’. It’s about how people sometimes make judgments based on what they see instead of really seeing what’s underneath.”
Dual point of view
Zuaiter considers himself an insider-outsider, giving him “a 30,000 foot view of the story instead of being too entrenched in it, but without losing any authenticity.”
He might have dealt with a limitation of roles in his early days, but he’s also been able to create jobs.
“The thing that inspired me most as a producer when doing ‘Omar’ was not only creating a job for myself, but creating many other jobs for very well-deserved talent, and unheard voices. We had at least 100 people in our Palestinian crew. Everybody who was a part of the key crew, it was their first time as the head of the department. That elevated them to a new status,” recalls Zuaiter.
He also reflects on his role in shaping his own career in Hollywood, despite obstacles.
“It’s an ongoing discussion, roles. You look at examples like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon — these were two actors who felt limited in what they were doing in their career, so they got together wrote a great script [for ‘Goodwill Hunting’] that was very authentic. And things happened. From that, you have success. Your spectrum broadens.
“I’m an optimist. I don’t see the glass half empty, I see it always have full. And I think that we have to be the agent of that change, we cannot rely on on on people to do that for us. We have to do it ourselves.”
Zuaiter now sometimes has to choose between roles. He recounts what happened after he shot the pilot episode of ‘Ramy’ as the titular protagonist’s father, only to be replaced with Egyptian actor Amr Waked because of his conflicting schedule. Zuaiter makes a cameo in season two.
“We shot the pilot; I was in the first episode playing his father at the dinner table, and it was a lot of fun. And then I got ‘Baghdad Central’. My luck, they were shooting in the same exact block. So, I couldn’t do both. We tried to get me out of the schedule to do both, and it just didn’t work,” says Zuaiter.
“But I’m really happy with my replacement, to even call it that. I’m a huge fan of Amr Waked’s work. He’s a friend, and he broke my heart in season two. I was literally bawling. I named the character Farouk after my late father, who just passed away a couple years ago, and Amr wanted to keep the name. I really appreciate that, too.”
With FlipNarrative, Zuaiter wants to keep from being sidelined. “We’re not just talking about authentic representation, we’re talking about, in some cases, undoing the fiction that has informed so much of popular culture. And that’s a very powerful messaging statement that we put a lot of thought into,” he says.
“I’ll just tell you, on a personal note, one director told me on a project, ‘The victor writes the history,’” recalls Zuaiter. “It caught me off guard, because I was just like, this is not a part of directing. But that needs to be undone. Just because you’re the victor does not mean that you set the narrative. The narrative is constantly being challenged."
“We don’t want to be sidelined. The mainstream needs to be looked at differently. And I’m quoting [Pakistani-British actor] Riz Ahmed here, who said diversity to him was like the fries on the side. It wasn’t the main [dish]. Representation to him is more important. We’re taking it even a step further and saying, there is a lot of representation on your screens.”
“A huge win”
FlipNarrative will work together with The Artist Partnership, The Development Partnership and Echo Lake Entertainment. The company will launch a Development Fund for optioning and and holding Intellectual Property, in hopes of securing investors the best deals while also maintaining authenticity and artistic integrity. For Zuaiter, it was about seeing faces on screen, but also hearing their voices through the writing.
“Who’s creating the content? Who’s creating the narrative? We’re storytellers. Historically, Arabs and people from our part of the world, that’s what we’re known for. And it says this in ‘Baghdad Central’: we are where civilisation began. We need to come back to that narrative. And that’s why I’m so proud of a show like ‘Baghdad Central’, where it calls out the evils of colonialism. When have you ever seen a Western produced show call out the evils of colonialism?
“That’s a huge win for us in our book. And thanks to [executive producer] Kate Harwood and [writer] Stephen Buchard and Fremantle, and everybody who had the courage to do that. We have that courage. We want to continue building on their courage, and then finding a voice for ourselves.”