Just like many viewers, Mayar Barakat is a fan of foreign television series who has been thankful for streaming services such as Netflix. She can watch up to a whole season of a series like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad in two days. This Ramadan, however, she is offline to find out what’s happening on the local scene.
There are over 30 series to choose from, and though only a handful are up to scratch, for Barakat they are good enough to compete with world fare.
According to film critic Andrew Mohsen, with interesting subject matter and innovative treatment even of age-old social themes, television drama in the US, Mexico and Spain is erasing the distinction between television and cinema.
“It has attracted the most successful movie stars, filmmakers and screenwriters. The narrative thrust and technical quality of such works makes them as good as films.”
It was filmmakers making television, especially in the wake of 2011, that marked a similar turning point in Egypt. Cinematography, lighting, costumes and sets all reflected the power of film, and subject matter and style were quick to follow suit.
“This year for example,” Mohsen explains, “there is very little social drama, Bel Hagm El- A’ly (Family Size) is one such series. But most – Rahim, Kalabsh (Handcuffs), Abu Omar Al-Masry, Nisr Al-Saeed (Upper Egypt Eagle) and many others – are action and suspense thrillers. Even the romance, Laialy Eugenie (Nights of Eugenie) is adapted from a Spanish series. This is a completely different landscape to what we used to have.”
But there is a catch. “From a huge number of series only three can be described as properly made. The others suffer from a strange emptiness, with very little happening in the episodes. This is a recurrent problem but this could be the weakest season in five years. We have a script problem.”
Film critic Rami Metwally feels the foreign series have the edge because of attention to detail.
“The influence of cinema is not only about how you use the digital camera or lighting and colour. In Game of Thrones for example they were able to orchestrate a movie battle within a TV series. This needs time, preparation and long-term planning which I doubt we have in our series industry.”
Indeed, Metwally says, only Abu Omar Al-Masry has a sound script by Mariam Naoum, who wrote some of the most successful series in recent years: Zaat (2013), Segn El-Nesaa (The Women’s Prison - 2014), Taht Al-Saytara (Under Control - 2015) and Wahat Al-Ghoroub (Sunset Oasis - 2016). It is also the one that pays the most attention to detail. “This means that the team work took enough time to make it happen.”
According to Mohamed Al-Masry, the film critic who cowrote Abu Omar Al-Masry with Naoum, the time spent on preparation for a script is key. “We started the discussions of this series in October 2016 and we didn’t start writing until April 2017; shooting started in December.”
For changes to be made during shooting is normal but the script itself should be complete as early as possible in order for every aspect of the series to be well made. “It doesn’t matter whether it is adapted from a novel, time is very important.”
Amr Al-Daly, who started writing for television after a number of films, has produced Ramadan series regularly since Dawaran Shubra (Shubra Square), his debut. And his experience seems typical. For Al-Rehla (The Journey), this year’s contribution, cowritten with Ahmed Wael and directed by Hossam Ali, and based on Syrian writer Nour Shishakli’s premise, Al-Daly had very little time to complete the 20 episodes before shooting started. But this was not always the case.
(Photo: still from Tayea)
For Farah Laila (Laila’s Wedding - 2013), he says, “I was asked to start working in March, Ramadan was in May. I did not have enough time to discuss any details with the director and everything was done in rush.”
He wishes there could be a system whereby the script can be completed, then a director found, then a producer, then a cast. “The parallel method by which we work is destroying the potential for quality series we could have if we worked differently.” But inadequate time in which to produce a series has not been Al-Daly’s only problem, alas.
“When the series has a superstar, the writer is restrained because they interfere in every detail. They have to appear in every episode and everything should revolve around them, and this limits my creativity hugely.”
Happily, with an all-star cast (Basel Al-Khayyat, Riham Abdel-Ghafour and Hanan Mutawi), this was not the case with Al-Rehla (The Journey).
“Despite the time constraint, in a case like this when you have a gifted director like Hossam Ali who likes to spend time with the writers – well, then you do your best.”
Al-Rehla (The Journey) has three storylines with three main characters. “Television drama is no longer a dialogue-dependent soap opera that you can follow while doing the housework – there has to be excitement and suspense even in a social drama. People are seeing foreign productions through the internet and they can easily switch off if you don’t offer the same draws.”
Film critic Mohamed Sayed Abdel-Rehim believes the influence of English-speaking drama is a fact; Osama Anwar Okasha’s Layali Al-Helmia (Laialy Al-Helmia), after all, was a response to Falcon Crest: “It was the first Egyptian series with over 50 characters and six seasons. It was a turning point.”
Okasha, however, was able to effectively Egyptianize the story and the characters, which is very seldom the case in foreign-influenced Egyptian TV today. Technically the picture is closer to the cinema, but in most cases it feels as though the cinematic technique is simply being reproduced without a functional understanding of its use in context: “Why an American interrogation room? Egyptians don’t fight like Hollywood characters, the way they do in Rahim and Kalabsh (Handcuffs). Screenwriters have to respect Egyptian reality I think.”
But more importantly for Abdel-Rehim we need laws and regulations to empower creative people and safegaurd their rights.
Yasser Al-Husseini, the set designer on Awalem Khafia (Hidden Worlds), superstar Adel Imam’s new series – directed by Imam’s son Ramy – says the current system leaves no room for creativity.
“Since I started this career in 2005 it’s always been the same. No matter how big the series I have to do the work of three or four specialist creatives every time.”
Though 15 episodes were completed before shooting, for a series shot on this many different locations, he says, you need time; otherwise you end up working no less than 16 hours a day, which has been the case since January.
It is the of time, and the lack of complete scenes to work with, that deprives the set designer of the chance to study the characters and their back stories or discuss relevant details with the director. In many cases, to improve the look of a series, designers copy the sets of foreign series or movies rather than producing work that fits Egyptian reality.
“Everything depends on your own personal effort and imagination – if you have time to imagine. In a big series like this one the pressure is huge because the décor requirements are equal to those of three other series.” That is why there are mistakes on many Egyptian series’ sets. “But if you do not have time to study how your character live, you will never create a suitable and unique atmosphere for that character.”
Nisr Al-Saeed (Upper Egypt Eagle) artistic producer Sabry Al-Sammak, for his part, is supposed to be in charge of all agreements except those relating to the director, the screenwriter and the star; scene numbers and episode evaluation including post production are part of his responsibility.
“We work under inhuman pressure,” he says. Often episodes are being written well into the screening of the series, for example, meaning up to 22-24 hours’ work a day. “And this definitely affects quality.”
The director often has to leave the actual shooting to their assistant to attend the editing. There is no time to discuss or assess the work of the screenwriter, who is simply enjoined not to upset the censors or come up with ideas that will jar with the storyline.
“But if an idea doesn’t fit and we don’t have time to replace it, we have to go with it, don’t we.”
Al-Sammak believes there should be a collective movement in which the crews working in the series industry push for maximum working hours and minimum wages.
“A different system will improve every other aspect of the industry because we won’t be working under pressure. When the pressure is enough to kill an executive director,” he says, referring to the heart attack that killed Robert Talat, the executive director of Tayea, during the shooting of the series, “then what needs a change is not just the appearance of the series but the way the industry works.”
A version of this article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly under the title Time Matters
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