Lubnan

Saved by Syria: Lebanese actors, series on the map again

Nadine Njeim and Youssef al-Khal in "Laou."

BEIRUT: There has always been a missing element when it comes to Lebanese drama, be it acting skills, cinematic technique or plotlines that actually reflect the country’s social realities, according to actors and producers in the profession.

These gaps have precluded local dramas from attracting Lebanese audiences. This year, however, the Lebanese entertainment industry has taken a quantum leap. Actors from Lebanon and Lebanese-produced television serials are in high demand all over the Arab world. And the thanks is owed primarily to the crisis in Syria, which forced Damascus’ finest to move to Lebanon, work with what the local market had to offer and improve production value.

“In the last three years, the war in Syria resulted in the migration of many artists and professionals working in Syrian drama – actors, producers, directors and cameramen – to Lebanon,” Sadeq Sabbah, a prominent Lebanese producer and head of Sabbah Productions, told The Daily Star. “Evidently, this has contributed to a renaissance in Lebanese acting.”

Many agree with Sabbah’s theory, including critics who said industry improvements were related to political circumstances.

They left the audience eager for the next episode and interested in the lives of the women featured

“The production process as a whole moved from Syria to Lebanon and consequently Lebanese actors gravitated toward it,” said Asmaa Wahba, a journalist with a focus on the entertainment business in the Middle East.

Syria has always been known for its quality drama and comedy shows, producing even in times of conflict double, if not triple the number of television series in Lebanon. For example, “Bab al-Hara,” a Syrian show that chronicles the daily life of a Damascene neighborhood struggling for independence under French rule, is considered one of the most watched series in the Arab world.

The show, first produced in 2006, celebrated its sixth season this year during Ramadan and became the most-watched television series out of dozens produced for the holy month, according to TV ratings statistics issued by Ipsos. “Bab al-Hara,” meaning the neighborhood’s gate, combines tales of love, family, bravery, conflict, chivalry, betrayal, and the fight for freedom and justice.

The influx of Syrians into the serial-making business in Lebanon has led to Syrian-Lebanese collaborations and even work involving Egyptians, which has hooked millions of viewers across the region to their TV screens.

Wahba said the tripartite collaboration began in 2012 with the production “Ruby,” starring Lebanese actor Cyrine Abdel-Nour, Egyptian Amir Karara and Syrian Maxim Khalil. The show was inspired by a Mexican a soap opera and follows the trials of a greedy girl who prefers a cash-loaded husband to a poor doctor.

“Aside from the plot, this Arab collaboration gave the Lebanese actor a big push in the regional industry and the idea was successfully repeated,” said Wahba, a staunch critic of local television series.

After decades of strictly local exposure the Lebanese actor has now entered the home of many Arab families, especially during this year’s Ramadan when the TV show “Laou” (What If) received the second-highest rating after “Bab al-Hara.”

“Laou,” based on the movie “Unfaithful,” featured Abed Fahd, a renowned Syrian actor, Nadin Njeim, once Miss Lebanon and now an actor, and Lebanese Youssef al-Khal, along with other Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian actors.

“‘Laou’ marked the introduction of a new school of television series, it was a courageous, professional jump,” said Sabbah, whose company produced the series. “It represents the integration of Syrian professionalism and Lebanese acting.”

“It proved that the Lebanese actor, when correctly guided and directed, can make it, especially because everyone behind the camera was mostly Syrian, not to mention the presence of actors such as Abed Fahd,” Sabbah said.

Regardless of the recycled plotlines, which focus on love affairs and betrayal, the series set the stage for other similar pan-Arab series, as Elias Dummar, a movie critic, said.

“This type of series is fruitful and will certainly prosper, especially because it was successful in the Arab world and particularly in Gulf countries, the largest Arab market,” Dummar said.

“While we do need to work more on the storytelling, on how to develop a plot and start new conversations on television, the success of these serials is really about bringing together good-looking people from the Arab world who have decent skills. Slap on nice locations and outfits and you have an attractive series.”

Dummar gave the example of “Al-Okhwa” (The Siblings), a story of a group of adopted siblings who inherit their father’s massive fortune. The series is based on a simple plot displayed ostentatiously in locations from Dubai to Beirut, with expensive clothes, cars and good-looking actors.

But Dummar is optimistic that the pan-Arab serials will only get better, speaking extensively about “Ishq al-Nisaa” (The Passions of Women); a collection of stories about different women that address various themes of love, greed and, again, betrayal.

“This series brought about exciting stories, although they still need work, but they left the audience eager for the next episode and interested in the lives of the women featured,” Dummar, who has also judged in several regional film festivals, said.

The pan-Arab collaborations have not only raised the status of the Lebanese actor, who has become in demand, but also pay them a whole lot more than they are used to.

Although many in the entertainment industry declined to comment about wages, a source told The Daily Star that Cyrine Abdel-Nour, the main character in “Ruby,” was paid an estimated $250,000 for 95 episodes. “I will give you an example of a collaborative work versus a local production. The latter costs around $1,000 per episode, a collaborative work would cost $30,000,” Wahba said.

Ward al-Khal, a prominent Lebanese actor who plays one of the main characters in “Ishq al-Nisaa,” agreed that the pay was higher in collaborative series, saying a Lebanese actor gets “double and sometimes triple what they get in local production.”

While Khal said the pan-Arab work gave a push to the Lebanese series, she insisted that the local production needed plenty of work.

“We lack sufficient capital but the talent is there, though it is limited,” Khal, who got her first break in the widely acclaimed Lebanese series “Al-Asefa Tahob Maratayn” (The Storm Blows Twice) in 1994, said.

She also noted that Lebanese series failed to improve because “many worked with what was available and what was offered to them, and rarely did we see new plots emerging.”

Khal prides herself for being one of the few who prefer to leave their mark on the local market rather than the Arab world, saying: “I would rather focus on Lebanese series and being memorable in that market.”

There are fears that the pan-Arab shows’ attractive model for both the audience and the actors could overshadow what little Lebanon has of television series, unless the local industry rises up to the challenge.

Many concur that Lebanese dramas lack essential elements and are out of touch with reality, compared to Syrian productions that reflect Arab struggles.

“The issues do not delve into the daily issues of the Lebanese ... we face war, death, corruption, immigration, hunger but the series are all about love affairs,” Wahba said.

Dummar also pointed to what he said was “the theatrical acting style of some Lebanese actors who need to abandon that for television.”

“To put it simply, Lebanese drama is unwatchable, without exception,” Wahba said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 20, 2014, on page 1.

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