Syria's War (The Official Version) Plays Out On TV
Over the past decade, productions of Syrian TV series have become popular across the Arab world, becoming a multimillion-dollar business. Most of the shows have focused on the glorious past. One of the most popular, Bab al-Hara, or Gate of the Neighborhood, takes place in a neighborhood in Damascus, the Syrian capital, during the French Mandate in the first half of the 20th century.
But these days, several TV programs are trying to talk about the present — which is no easy task.
Wilada min al-Khasira, roughly translated as Birth From the Loins, is one of them. The series tackles difficult subjects like torture and the detention of protesters, for example, but its ultimate message toes the government line.
The trailer for the third season of Wilada min al-Khasira opens with images of demonstrations and security forces opening fire on peaceful participants. You can also see the word "freedom" written on a street wall.
The title of the third episode is "Dais of the Dead" ("Manbar al-Mawta"), and it talks about the killings of Syrians from both sides — but also about the torture and detention of protesters, and explosions and car bombs, which have become increasingly common in Damascus.
The season begins this week, when Ramadan falls. The show still follows the government line: that Syria is the last country standing against imperial powers. It criticizes the opposition-in-exile as living comfortably abroad as it drives people on the streets in Syria to their deaths. It portrays rebels as thugs and hooligans.
The message is clear: You better stay with the government or chaos will unfold.
"Of course, it will show in the beginning that the regime committed a few mistakes, but the encoded message is that because of the chaos that followed, it is better to stay under regime control despite all its flaws," says Mutasem Abou Al Shamat, a 30-year-old human resources specialist based in Doha, Qatar.
"It is the first time a TV series is addressing what has been happening in the country, so of course I have to watch it," he says.
The show's scriptwriter, Samer Radwan, was detained last month on his way back to Damascus from Beirut. But a friend of Radwan who asked not to be named says the detention most likely was not related to the show.
"The script was approved by censors, but Radwan, who is an Alawite, would often write Facebook statuses critical of the government," the friend says. "I think that is more likely the reason behind his detention."
The series was shot entirely in Lebanon; filming for many other Syrian TV shows also takes place, at least partly, in Lebanon.
Television production has been a lucrative business, so it's no wonder producers want to continue their work despite upheaval at home.
"For security reasons, the TV and art production is moving to Lebanon," says Raafat Al-Zakout, a Syrian actor and director. "Because of clashes, there are no safe locations to shoot in Syria."
Clacket Productions, the company behind Wilada min al-Khasira, is thinking of opening an office in Beirut, says Oula Mohammad, a managing producer at Clacket, who adds that the company's main office will remain in Damascus.
Clacket also produces another TV series, Sanaoud Baada Qalil — We Will Return Soon — which focuses on the Syrian middle class leaving Damascus; it's also partly shot in Lebanon.
Some remain optimistic, like Haytham Chamass, a Lebanese film director and producer.
"[Syrian TV series'] strength was always a good script, good actors, and that they tackled social issues close to the Arab street," says Chamass. "I think the production moving here will actually raise the level of Lebanese productions."
But not everyone is happy.
"At the end of the day, people want jobs, and Syrians want to continue working," says one Lebanese producer, who asked to remain anonymous. "Syrian directors are bringing their cameramen, their actors and staff. Not everyone is happy about that in Lebanon."
It seems tensions are high even in the field of art.