SYRIAN director Hatim Ali seeks to raise the bar of television social dramas. He also wants to have a dialogue with history in his accounts of historical events and figures through his historical dramas. At a recent seminar on the role of the media in human development at the UNDP in Riyadh, Arab News had a chance to talk to Ali, who was participating as a speaker, on the influence of television on social values and perceptions. At the seminar, Ali presented scenes from his drama ‘Assie Al-Dam’a’ (Rebellious to Tears) broadcast two years ago. It dealt with women’s rights in conservative societies based on Islamic laws, civil laws and society’s views. The topic and the scenes he showed raised questions and prompted a debate on the gap between the ideal place and treatment of women in accordance with Islam and the reality of twisting, misinterpreting and deliberately manipulating Islamic texts and social traditions in order to control women, break their spirits and prevent them from gaining their rights.
“The problems we had before shooting were with the censors in writing some things. The problems we had after the broadcasting were with the viewers because this was a sensitive issue with both religious and legal aspects to it,” said Ali. He explained that these issues are virtually a red line, not only in Syria but in other Arab countries as well. “What was astonishing to us was that most of the objections came from women. These women not only do not seek change but are against the change, whether it is out of ignorance or misunderstanding,” he said. Although the drama is set in Syria, he said that Arab societies had many similar social problems.
With a topic such as this, it is not possible to be objective. “Any social or historical art work cannot help but be an expression of the maker’s point of view. Personally, I find that the art cannot but raise the ceiling of discourse because it is being broadcast through media outlets owned by pubic or private institutions that have their considerations. We cannot say whatever we want and we must keep all these sensitivities and considerations in mind, especially with television which addresses a wide range of different people. The issue of women is one of those sensitive issues that must be approached with much caution so that we don’t cause a shock or fall into confrontation with society,” he explained.
In his presentation, Ali gave a disturbing account based on research that showed how women are marginalized, discriminated against and mistreated on Arab television. Scenes in which women are slapped across the face, verbally humiliated and sexually harassed are very common and, unfortunately, accepted by society. Yet he was surprised how a series meant to empower women has met with such strong criticism and opposition, particularly from women.
“It is part of the social movement toward development that an artist try to cause change and it is also part of self-defense considering that we are members of society and we cannot live in prosperity unless the society develops,” he said. He believes that the media is capable of causing change because it not only reflects women’s reality but also can help shape both directions and opinions.
His future plans this year are to complete the fourth and final part of the Andalusia series concerning the rise and fall of the Muslim emirate in Spain and another work on the life of King Farouk, the last king of Egypt, which will be shot in Egypt. The script, the actors and locations are still being prepared. “Farouk is a controversial figure and his life was at a defining historical moment in our modern history. That period also witnessed the rise of what was called the questions on Arab renaissance with all that accompanied it of conflicts and social developments,” said Ali.
Ali considers it necessary to have a dialogue with history about the accepted givens because that is the only way to understand today’s problems since they are often variations on yesterday’s problems. “If we don’t read history critically, the works will be either promotional, selecting only the bright pages or will simply relate history without presenting a realistic dialogue or debate,” he said. For him, it is important that the historical work respect historical events as much as possible but also allow room for the creator to interpret those events which of course reflects the maker’s perspective and associations.
Talking about historical works brought up the issue of Syrian productions excelling in them compared to the more established Egyptian productions. The general opinion is that Syrian directors are better at making historical works while Egyptian directors are better in social works. This opinion might be justified, according to Ali, due to the fame of Syrian historical works compared to their social works even though they are few, comprising only 5 percent of Syria’s total annual production. “I think that because of the high quality of the historical works, they give the impression that Syrian production is only historical, even though there are some very good social works,” he said.