Egypt: Profit Above the Safety of Ramadan Series Crews

Khaled El-Masri
Egyptian Journalist
April 5, 2020
“Nobody regards us as human beings or artists, we’re just a cog in their money-making machines. We are, literally, tools in other people’s hands.” What do some of the makers of Ramadan Television series have to say about having to work during a pandemic?  
Mariam Naoum

“I feel so sorry for myself and my colleagues, because I discovered that our safety is not a priority for those in charge of the industry, we are merely the goose that lays the golden egg; on the day when our lives are threatened, our gold will be more important to them, even if it’s the last of the gold we’re able to produce.” With these words, the Egyptian scriptwriter and writer Mariam Naoum expressed her frustration at the pressures that the TV-drama creators in Egypt are subjected to because of the ongoing filming of series, so that satellite channels can display them during the next month of Ramadan. This is despite the spread of the Corona virus in Egypt, and the government’s resort to taking preventive decisions to combat the spread of the disease among citizens, including a curfew and granting leave to the workers in the administrative apparatus of the state.

What Naoum expressed seems to be the case of a large sector that includes thousands of workers in the Television Drama industry in Egypt, including artists, technicians, writers, cinematographers, producers and workers in all their specializations; these are the ones who cannot confront the pressures exerted by the departments of the satellite channels and production companies that require them to continue to go to shooting locations to complete their work on the dramas so that they are able to compete with others in the upcoming Ramadan series season. Ramadan is around the corner, and they don’t have the luxury of postponing their filming for two weeks, for example, like other industries.

It is practically impossible to disinfect all the locations, and sterilize every clothing item, accessory, lens, microphone or script copy…Can you force the actors to not touch anything? What about the scenes that require the actors to touch and exchange kisses or hugs?

“We’re being threatened through the release clauses and penal terms of our contracts, and of course the conditions come at great cost that we cannot afford. Moreover, we are still waiting for the returns from those projects from year to year.” With that sentence, a rising young actor―who asked not to not be named―explained why the artists submitted to the producers’ decision to keep filming, despite their fears of contracting the disease.

  “There are artists with weak immune systems, others with some chronic diseases, which raises the risk of death in the event that they are infected with Coronavirus; But, they cannot ask to stop shooting, because of the terrorism practiced by the production companies against them, and their wages and penal terms stipulated in the contracts. On top of that, they all fear the consequences in the future, such as being prevented from acting,” the actor explains to Daraj.

The same actor confirms that many of these artists shooting their roles while carrying deep concerns due to fear of catching the virus, “So many scenes are repeated due to the actor’s inability to tap into the mood of his character, which makes for a lower quality performance. This makes us have to take more time than expected, in addition to the physical and psychological pressures, which all increase the cost of production, and increases the financial burden on the production companies.”

Contradictory Decisions

In Egypt, there are inconsistencies in the decisions combating the spread of the “coronavirus”. The country took precautionary measures to fight the pandemic inside the state, including; night-time curfew, granting employees working in the country’s administrative apparatus a two weeks’ leave, suspending schools and universities, giving instructions to the private sector to reduce their workforce, and so on. However, the ‘United Company for Media Services’―which owns most of the Egyptian satellite TV channels, including the huge production company “Synergy” which controls the drama production market in Egypt―has been pressuring all those involved in the drama industry, forcing them to keep on shooting Ramadan series, in order to be aired on time during the season. This has raised many question marks around the reason for such a contradiction.

The ‘United Company for Media Services’, a company owned by a sovereign security agency, is behind the pressure that drama producers in Egypt are facing. There are three main reasons behind this pressure, according to the followers of the TV drama production field: The first is the huge profits gained from the Ramadan TV drama season achieved from advertisements; these series garner a very large number of viewers, which means they attract advertisers to their assigned satellite channels which ends up translating into lots of profit.As for the second reason, it is that the TV networks affiliated to them are always trying to maintain their audience, and prevent them from heading to other channels; this means the persistence of their policies that are aimed at whitewashing the ruling regime in the eyes of the Egyptians, and gaining more of its loyalists, in addition to defaming the regime’s opponents and adversaries. The third reason, is that TV dramas function as an outlet and a distraction for the Egyptians, to preserve the thoughts and beliefs that satellite networks supporting the ruling regime are broadcasting, and to prevent any opposing lines of thought from reaching them through any source, especially since this is happening more now in the era of globalization and new open satellite channels. This last reason is that these are a pillar in the tent of the Egyptian security mindset, ever since the era of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

This pressure is exerted in the context of the presence of strong competition to the TV channels affiliated with the political system in Egypt, firstly from the Muslim Brotherhood channels that broadcast from Turkey and Qatar, which plainly oppose the ruling Egyptian regime, and have a very large audience in Egypt. Secondly, social media and independent news websites that are seeking to reveal the faults of the Egyptian government and ruling regime in Egypt, in addition to the increasing number of people opposing the Egyptian regime in the last few years, which was seen in the demonstrations on the ground last September, putting more pressure on the state and political system to exert more intensive effort to restore the loyalists and increase their numbers, using TV dramas to help implement this agenda.

Drama Fascism

In fact, there is no possibility to resist what some describe as ‘drama fascism’ in Egypt, so the decision-maker and the one controlling the market are one and the same; which means he can throw his opponents in desperate isolation and prevent them from working in any artistic work at all, whether in TV, cinema, theater, or media. Therefore, all those who work in the industry are heading to the shooting locations, and remaining there for hours, under the threat of losing their jobs, which leaves them with no other choice.  

Facing a flood of complaints and calls that they receive daily from artist and technicians who complain of being forced to go to filming sites, the Theatrical Professions Syndicate resorted to issuing a decision to reduce the number of working hours and determine them between 10am and 3pm. They also obliged production companies to take all the precautionary measures in shooting locations to prevent the spread of the virus among the cast members, but many companies are not adhering to the first decision, forcing the cast to stay in filming locations for long hours, sometimes up to 16. This is particularly harsh because there is less than a month left until the beginning of Ramadan. As for the second decision, it cannot be implemented efficiently, as it is practically impossible to disinfect all the locations, and sterilize every clothes item, accessory, lens, microphone or script copy. And even if you do manage to do so, can you force the actors to not touch anything? How? What about the scenes that require the actors to touch and exchange kisses or hugs?

Naoum expresses the tragedy those who work in the field of TV dramas are facing, “Nobody regards us as human beings or artists, we’re just a cog in their money-making machines. We are, literally, tools in other people’s hands. They control us from the safety of their home, doing nothing other than giving orders from their couches, with their families, as we are forced to leave and film”. She also noted that Egypt’s soft power is in great danger, and is under the threat of decline and losing some of its power due to the coronavirus.

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