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Syrian TV Dramas: The Collapse of Freedom

Myriam Sweidan
Lebanese Journalist
May 12, 2020
The increasing censorship, which includes omitting scenes from dramas, totally prohibiting broadcasting them, or even excluding opposition actors from acting, has produced a weak Syrian Ramadan season.

“Writing about the recent Syrian issues has become almost impossible, if not impossible …”

With bitterness, the Palestinian-Syrian writer Iman Al-Saeed described the new realities of work in the drama industry. Iman is a well-known writer of popular Television series, and one of many writers who found that quitting writing was the only safe escape from the new enormous pressures exerted on various types of artistic production. “‘Under the previous constraining conditions,” said Iman, “we used to try to subtly get our dramatic messages across, otherwise they would be rejected and kept in drawers …”.

The dilemma of the Syrian drama, especially television drama, has emerged during the years that followed the revolution, and later the war. It had achieved great success in the two previous decades, but the field and political reality imposed its harsh restrictions on these productions, in a way that made the Arab TV channels’ representation of the Syrian issue far from realistic. Syrian production, and the Arab production in general, has been under the control of the production funds, as well as the conditions imposed by the TV channels, which in turn must conform to the policies of the advertisers or the financier and his agendas, which are often those in power.

“The Guardian of Jerusalem”

Among the most popular drama series this season is Hares Al Quds “The Guardian of Jerusalem” directed by Bassel al-Khateeb, while the screenplay is written by Hassan Youssef. It narrates the life of a Christian clergyman called Hilarion Capucci, who was the Roman Catholic bishop during the sixties of the past century and the beginning of the seventies. He was a supporter of the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation.

A scene from the “Guardian of Jerusalem”

This drama was widely criticized, as many authors and critics considered that it includes a distortion of historical facts related to the character of this bishop, where he is portrayed in a way that praises the late president Hafez al-Assad and the Syrian Ba’athist regime in general.

Nasri Hajjaj, the Palestinian film director and producer, described it as an “Assadist drama”, believing that the script was written to serve the Assad regime. Hajjaj said, “The problem of the “Guardian of Jerusalem” is that while we oppose bishop Capucci’s stance in supporting the criminal Assad regime and his animosity towards Arab revolutions, we still appreciated his patriotic stance in supporting the Palestinian revolution, and his suffering for 3 and a half years in the prisons of the Israeli occupation. But Hassan Youssef, the Ba’athist writer who distorts history, and Bassel al-Khateeb, the Syrian-Palestinian director and the beneficiary of the Ba’athist regime, made the only honorable stance in the history of Capucci appear meaningless against the interests of the most brutally criminal regime in the 21st century.”

“They portrayed the bishop as a cheap agent for an unworthy colonel in Assad’s intelligence agency, whom he met and gave an envelope that contains information that are not about Israel, as much as it is to expose Palestinian activists who were arrested and imprisoned by the regime when they traveled to Damascus secretly to meet their colleagues in guerilla organizations. This happened several times and the Palestinian factions know that well.”

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The Syrian-Palestinian critic Rashed Issa also thinks that this drama expresses the opinion of the censoring authority. He said, “It seemed like it was produced by the censoring authority itself. It is a mix of flattering minorities, using them and exploiting the mottos of the Palestinian issue and Arabism to serve the interests of the Syrian regime in its war against its own people.”

Running away from reality

One of the most important crises of the Syrian drama is that it overlooked the fact that the Syrians have been through a revolution, a war and tremendous oppression, which produced thousands of real-life dramas, which could not find their way to the TV production, except in rare cases, due to the pressures of censorship.

Added to that are the clear divisions in political views between the drama makers themselves. All these factors exhausted the Syrian writers, and forced them to choose one of two choices: either to concede to these pressures, or to quit.

The increasing censorship which includes omitting scenes from dramas, totally prohibiting broadcasting them, or even excluding opposition actors from acting, produced a weak Syrian Ramadan season.

It is still required to simulate a simple drama  copied from identities that are not relatable to the Arab identity, under the pretext of “the limits of the audiences’ understanding”.

“If we want to observe what the censors are doing to the thinking of the Syrian creators, all we have to do is watch their works produced outside the framework of the Syrian drama, and outside Syria, to find that it is related to the freer and bolder societies in dealing with the corruption of the security authorities, judicial and others,” explained Issa to Daraj.

Syrian TV dramas are subjected to several censors, starting from the point of writing the script to the moment of being aired. Then it’s subjected to sects’ censorship, which is being taken into account now more than ever, in light of the regime’s attempt to appease the religious and ethnic minorities, in order to make the revolution in the country appear as a Sunni majority war against minorities.

“What is remarkable about Syrian dramas is that it has, recently, enjoyed some freedom in terms of openness to social subjects that were difficult to address in the past; adultery and forbidden love stories have become among the topics widely addressed. It has also enjoyed greater freedom to refer to religions and sects, albeit in the context of favouring minorities. All of this in the hope of getting around the current incendiary political questions, or to make the revolution appear as the cause of all the emerging problems,” Issa added.

One of the most important crises of the Syrian drama is that it overlooked the fact that the Syrians have been through a revolution, a war and tremendous oppression.

The TV drama Industry is focused on shaping opinions and presenting stories that become, in the viewer’s mind, a collective awareness of political, social, and historical realities. That’s why regimes seek to extend their total control over this sector; starting from the writing phase, moving to the production and distribution stage.

Therefore, the Syrian regime exercises control over works of art, especially TV dramas. The censoring authority banned the Syrian TV series, “Enaya Moshadda” from being aired despite the fact that the committee charged with reading scripts had approved it and allowed the cast to complete its shooting in Damascus. Furthermore, entire episodes were deleted from the “Watan Haf” series when it was aired for the second time. Not to mention their objections on “Al-Domari” series which sheds light on the contrast between moderate Levantine Islam, and Wahhabism with its religious extremism. This is apart from the Syrian political crisis blackout; by addressing only the consequences of war on the people’s daily lives, or escaping to the setting of the Levantine environment, which neither represent nor reflect the condition of the majority of the Syrian society.

“A Safe Distance” Series

One of the most widely-viewed series was “Masafet Aman” (A safe distance), which was aired during the previous Ramadan seasons, but Iman Al-Saeed, the scriptwriter, finally broke her silence and shared a post, on her Facebook page, explaining what she called her script “amendments”. Noting that she delayed her comment for more than a year because she didn’t want to divert attention from her recent series Khamsa W Noss ,“Five Thirty”, which brought together the Lebanese star Nadine Nassib Najim with the Syrian actors Qusai Khouli and Moa’tasem Al-Nahar at the time.

Ms. Al-Saeed told ‘Daraj” that all the amendments in the script reflected a security mindset, especially in the police-related storyline of the organ theft, and the doctors’ role in such a crime, in addition to the character of dr. Salam’s plotline, starred by the actress Sulafa Mimar.

She asserts that her collaboration with the director of “Masafet Aman”, Laith Hijo, was based on a history in which he has mostly sought to bypass censorship or circumvent it. However, she was surprised by the amendments in her script without informing her, and for reasons unbeknownst to her. Mr. Hijo sought the assistance of the Syrian writer, Rami Kousa, to amend scenes and add others.

The “Six-Taboo” That Has Pushed the Arab Audience Away.

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the Syrian TV drama has suffered an obvious setback, not only due to the fragmentation of its makers—because of the war conditions in the country and their deep political divisions, over the regime’s policies—nor to the withdrawal of Gulf capital that has financed this industry for several years, but also due to the audience’s realization that this industry is generally a mere product used to indirectly spread social patterns, as well as political and cultural ideas. Add to it another factor manifested in comparing this industry to the global and Arab productions which are superior in terms of aesthetics, arts and performance, starting from the Turkish series and the joint Arab series, reaching to Netflix’s productions, which have given some people a wider pool for comparisons.

The Writer Iman Saeed

In this context, Ms. Al-Saeed says that the scriptwriters of Syrian TV dramas are not only bound by the censorship rules in the traditional sense—which is summarized in the six following taboos; the army, flag, president, religion, sex and politics—but rather by the more dangerous creative control restrictions; as it is still required to simulate a simple drama copied from identities unrelatable to the Arab identity, under the pretext of “the limits of the audiences’ understanding,” or in other words “that’s what the audiences want.” The Arab viewer has already stopped watching Arab TV drama and started following international platforms that respect his intelligence and freedom.

“We write and try so hard so that the external censorship does not become an internal one, living in our minds and killing any chance for creating free thoughts, thus they never find their way to be written down on paper..” she added.

The Syrian TV drama’s freedoms seem to have been reduced by tight censorship—whether security-based or a creative one—until it began affecting the way people think.

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