‘No Man’s Land’, OSN’s first ever scripted original, premieres on November 2 with an eight episode run.
Set in Syria, it follows a foreign man who loses his sister to a suicide bombing. But after he glimpses her in a news report, he believes her to be alive and decides to join forces with a major enemy of Daesh — a unit of all-female Kurdish fighters.
The show stars Dean Ridge as Paul, a white British Muslim man, and James Krishna Floyd as Nasir, a British Egyptian man from West London, two friends who team up and join Daesh.
Meanwhile, James Purefoy (‘Rome’, ‘Altered Carbon’) plays a master manipulator who gets others to do his dirty bidding. For Purefoy, it’s baffling that no one tried to tell this story before ‘No Man’s Land’.
“I knew vaguely about the YPJ [the all-female section of the Kurdish-dominated armed group Syrian Democratic Forces] and the Yazidi women, but why had nobody written a film about these people?” he says in an interview with Gulf News over Zoom.
“They are the most extraordinarily cinematic women that you could possibly come across. They are just an astonishing group of people who are fierce as [expletive]. One of the things we’re realising with Black Lives Matter, with #MeToo, is that there are voices out there that are not being heard. And this is a show where you throw focus from the handsome dude in the front to the guy at the back, and you go, ‘Oh, hang on. What about that story?’”
When it comes to viewer fatigue over excessive films and TV series set in the Middle East that deal with war and terrorism, the cast says the show takes on a more personal approach.
“What it does excellently, is it avoids any sort of politicised storytelling,” says Krishna Floyd. “There’s a character called Sarya who is a YPJ fighter, a female Kurdish fighter, and you go quite deep into her point of view, but she’s never politicised … You try to understand what her emotional intentions are at any given moment, and you realise that she has the same desires and needs as anyone else — as someone living in London or wherever else,” he adds.
Cast mate Ridge says the creators kept the idea of personal versus political in mind the entire time.
“The creative team was thinking about that from the word go,” says Ridge. “Even down to the shooting style of how they frame everyone — it’s very close … It’s just about the people and their interactions.
“There’s no jet-setting. We filmed it in Morocco, but this could be anywhere. All of the actual scenes are in small areas — they’re not these large pitched battles and mad scenes, it’s tiny villages, it’s people’s bedrooms. It’s where people live. They’re not trying to tell the large scale story. They’re trying to tell the individual story.”
In terms of the plot, Ridge adds, the show dares to delve into some gritty topics.
“It looks at some quite uncomfortable perspectives as well, in the sense of our characters coming from Britain and fighting for [Daesh], but it’s looking at them purely as friends in a very dark context. The writing was just fantastic, really,” he says.
Purefoy says showrunners “deeply respect the audience to make up their own minds … You decide at the end of the story whether you think people behaved in the right way, according to your own beliefs.”
The show demands its cast to do its research. But for Ridge, playing a white British Muslim came with its own set of challenges. He focused on his friendship with Krishna Floyd’s character, Nasir.
“Obviously, I’m not a Muslim in any way, shape, or form,” he says. “For us, I know we just focused on building a friendship … There was no way that I was going to understand in a few months the breadth and complexity of someone’s religious upbringing. But I can understand friendship, shared bonds, and the need to belong.”
The actors filmed on set in Morocco, which was dressed up as Syria. For the cast, it helped them feel grounded in their characters. But was it physically challenging terrain?
”I don’t know if I can say there’s anything challenging, because they were the most tactile, genuine sets I’ve ever been on. Everything was real. There were no fake rooms, no soundstages. Apart from being tired and dirty, it was fantastic — they were so believable and tactile and real. You felt you were in a genuine situation,” says Ridge.
Krishna Floyd agrees.
“It really isn’t rocket science, what they did, in terms of just plunking us in the middle of an environment that was very effectively doubling up for Syria. [But] it really makes a massive difference. If you’re filming some of that stuff on soundstages and you’re not feeling real — in this case, North African, but similar enough — sand and dirt, then you’re not going to be able to react and live in that character in a true and realistic way,” he says.
While American productions and British productions have had different approaches to such narratives in the past, Purefoy doesn’t look at ‘No Man’s Land’ as a British production at all. (Protagonist Antoine [Felix Moati] is a Frenchman.)
“It was a highly international crew, with actors from all over — from France, from Belgium, from the UK, from Syria, from the Kurdish regions … To have these international, disparate elements coming together with one aim, which was just to tell the story — to us, it doesn’t seem like a British production at all.”
‘Bold, brave and extraordinary’
One of the more seasoned actors on the cast, Purefoy has been known to act in successful TV series, whether it’s ‘Altered Carbon’, ‘Sex Education’ or ‘Rome’. But, ask him how he chooses his roles and he’ll candidly admit — sometimes all it takes is a trip to the ATM.
“It always comes down to the script. Who are the people in it? Who are the people making it? Do I believe them? … Sometimes you go to the ATM, and you’ve got no money left. It’s as simple as that,” quips the actor.
“Sometimes if you’ve got money in the bank, and you’re okay, then maybe you can go and do a play. The very famous actor Tom Wilkinson was once asked if he ever did theatre anymore. And he went, ‘Oh, no, I don’t do theatre anymore. It’s a rich man’s game.’”
But when it came down to ‘No Man’s Land’, the nuance of the script made all the difference.
“[Director Oded Ruskin] was just a mad genius. He’s brilliant. He directed every single episode. And that’s tough. I mean, that’s exhausting. They’re long days, and you’re out in the desert … The script was nuanced and personal. I finished reading the series and I felt like I knew something that I didn’t know when I started,” says Purefoy.
“OSN, this being their first scripted drama, I mean, wow — they are bold, and brave and extraordinary to throw themselves behind a script like this. This will set them apart and will make people sit up and take notice of everything they do from now,” says the actor.
As for Krishna Floyd, he’s eagerly awaiting audience reactions in the region.
“I can’t wait to see the responses in the whole region there,” he says. “As soon as they finish episode eight, I really want to see it. Because honestly, I’m 100 per cent certain there’s never been a TV series like this. You’ll see.”
Don't miss it!
'No Man's Land' releases on November 2 on OSN Series First at 21:15 and the OSN streaming app.