BEIRUT: “After we got back from Doha, I figured out what kind of series I want to make,” said Mohamed Berro. “It’s somewhere between ‘MASH’ and ‘VEEP.’
“In a show like this, you don’t want to get stuck in the drama. People don’t tune in to find out what’s going to happen. You know what’s going to happen. You want to see how people are going to react to this absurd situation.”
The absurd situation of “TCA186: The Tarmac Year,” the television series Berro’s been developing, is the hijack of a commercial airliner, carried out by a couple of Lebanese militants in the 1980s. This hijack is fictional, as is the eastern Mediterranean island state where the plane lands.
Berro’s Armando Iannucci-inspired situation comedy centers on the relationships that develop among the occupants of the hijacked TCA186 during a yearlong standoff between the hijackers and their unwilling hosts.
While the younger of the two militants is motivated by idealism and ideology, the older gunman is more jaded.
“His character arc is a story of failed redemption,” Berro says. “He’s hijacked the plane in an attempt to redeem himself, but very early on he realizes the situation’s no longer in his hands. This is what drives his actions in the series. His goal is to preserve his image as ‘the hero,’ which makes him fail yet again and drives his need to redeem himself even further.
“I feel that some of the redemption arcs of the left in this region have been horrific,” he said. “The left has failed and, as I see it, the reaction to that has been even worse.
“At this point, the whole critique of the left, when there is no effective political ‘left,’ it’s like kicking a dead body ... I wanted to critique the aftermath of collapse. The series is set in the ’80s but the themes it explores are contemporary. The characters lose their ideology in a single year, not decades as happens in real life. On that tarmac, there’s no left or right anymore.”
Failed redemption tales aren’t alien to television. Berro points out it’s a principle theme of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s admired animated series “Bojack Horseman.”
“‘Bojack Horseman’ develops this anti-hero, which is a big theme in of ‘TCA186’ too. Both hijackers are anti-heroes, in a place where there’s not a single heroic character to be seen, but you end up relating to most people, including the alcoholic who ratted out his friends and ruins the negotiations on purpose.
“It’s you who’s done really stupid s***t,” he chuckled. “It’s not the left. It’s not the world. Nietzsche has nothing to do with it.”
Berro scored a Doha Film Institute development grant for “TCA186” in 2019 and he participated in the 2021 edition of Qumra, DFI’s project incubator, where he discussed the series with several writers and producers.
“Some of the Qumra meetings were really good on the technical and creative levels,” he said. “Writing mentors helped with the format, helped to understand the tone we want to go for, how the tone works with the genre and the format, what’s the most appropriate episode length and how to structure the season. They were also helpful in suggesting how to elaborate the project feasibly, how to attract funding.
“We had one-on-ones with writers who’d worked on series in the Arab world or in the US. On the production side we had companies like Sony Pictures, independent producers, producers from platforms. Each one would give you tips on how they do things. I was really interested in seeing how all these entities function within the same big system.”
With series like “In the Thick of It” and “VEEP,” Iannucci has mined high-pressure political situations for a unique flavor of dead-pan comedy – something “Bojack Horseman” has done with toxic masculinity and celebrity. Comic treatments of hijacks are rare, though there are elements of “TCA186” that echo some of Berro’s previous work.
He debuted on Beirut’s contemporary art scene in 2015 with “12,” a short film based on a mass killing documented just south of Beirut in 1993. The short centers on a fictional off-camera interview with Ahmad and Ziad (two members of a millenarian death cult who killed 11 believers with poison gas) and a few objects, exhibited like evidence.
In early 2020 Berro had a three-month residency at Beirut Art Center and during the city’s 2020 lockdown BAC hosted Berro’s debut solo “to live and let live.” Comprised of a photo and video series, the exhibition references two locations.
One is the Free Republic of Liberland, a libertarian utopia squatting a 7-km-square marchland between Croatia and Serbia. The Liberland footage includes candid shots from around the territory and an interview with its colorful president, Czech politician Vit Jedlicka.
The other location is a tent, one among several erected during the demonstrations that rocked Lebanon in late 2019 and early 2020. The prevailing narrative around these temporary shelters, most of them sponsored by civil society groups, was that they were forums for open dialogue. At one tent, though, it was discovered that some opinion – opposed to the occupation of Palestine, say, or the privatization of Lebanon’s water sector – was not welcome.
Berro, who studied business and film before exploring contemporary art, takes a sober view of creative labor.
“It’s just different economies,” he remarked later in the conversation. “There’s so much money spent on culture, you need different economies to run all that capital. You end up trying to figure out what part of which economy you can operate in without compromising too much...
“When you start working, you find that the workplace is just like any other workplace, like any other job, any other office. Its downside is being part of this big system.”
When The Daily Star caught up with Berro post-lockdown, he’d been shooting a nonfiction film adaption of “to live and let live.” While acknowledging that the Liberland and “TCA186” projects are concerned with utopias and dystopias, and that they germinated at about the same time, he says there is no organic link between the two.
“‘Live and let live’ started the first time I stumbled upon Liberland in 2015,” he said. “I never thought it would go anywhere. It seemed crazy to me. The TCA project started in 2018, before anything related to Liberland had come together ... I was doing research on hijacks. I wanted to make a doc but I kept stumbling upon these quirky stories around the groups involved.”
He says he became more interested in the surreal moments recounted from hijack stories than in documenting the hijacks themselves, which have already been widely discussed.
“I felt maybe I might add something, in terms of those moments and that aspect of political life at that time,” he said. “It didn’t really matter what party you were with. You were fighting for a cause. Sometimes you’d be fighting with communists. Sometimes you’d be fighting with other parties. The thing is that you were fighting.”