Opening the Neighborhood Gate: Homswood Rattles Power Behind Syria’s Television Industry Pt 2

Bassam Al Malla (right) is the highly successful director of Bab al Hara. Samer Masri (left) played a leading role as village strongman Abu Shehab for years until falling out with Al Malla. Mustafa Khani (top right) won fame for his role as the supporting character Al Nims. Later, after marrying the daughter of the Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Khani's role was granted more screen time and earned the actor his own title card as a "star". Illustration by Ozan Yüksel 

Bassam Al Malla (right) is the highly successful director of Bab al Hara. Samer Masri (left) played a leading role as village strongman Abu Shehab for years until falling out with Al Malla. Mustafa Khani (top right) won fame for his role as the supporting character Al Nims. Later, after marrying the daughter of the Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Khani's role was granted more screen time and earned the actor his own title card as a "star".

Illustration by Ozan Yüksel 

 

This is a two-part series that covers new developments in the power dynamics behind Syrian Television, and how one Syrian YouTuber has simultaneously attracted the ire of media moguls, and the support of some of the Syrian screen’s biggest names and stars.

Part 1 covers the history of power dynamics, and surveys the controversies of Syrian television from decades past.
Part 2 reviews Homswood’s unexpected growth into a critical satirist of Syrian television, the trouble he has surmounted,
and a fresh new precedent he is setting.

 

Taking them to Task:
Homswood and Seeking Accountability from Television’s Moguls

All the while Dandachi stayed glued to the screen of course, keeping tabs on Syrian dramas that he jokes are now “being sold wholesale and by the kilo”. He noticed a continuous down-tick in quality “and by 2015, it was at its ends”. That sparked Dandachi to do something about the issue. Inspired by Youtubers critiquing Hollywood films, he launched his YouTube channel Homswood (switching ‘Holly’ out for his hometown of Homs) to start voicing the grievances he has with Syrian dramas, considering his education and sheer passion for the TV he grew up on. He began watching Syrian dramas vigorously on the way to and from work, writing his scripts and shooting when he got home. It’s a daunting task by any means, considering Syrian dramas run for a minimum of thirty episodes a season at three quarters of an hour each. 

Dandachi is straightforward about how most of his critique of Syrian Drama today stems from the patronizing way viewers are treated without respect, understood as unable to identify the most basic technical faults, or expected to snore through hours of poorly written scripts (as he aptly put it, as a mazhariya, a flower vase). For an industry so reliant on loyal consumers, there seems to be no desire at all to impress the viewer. Instead, mass-production and lack of accountability are the rules of the game. In fact, now that Bassam Al Malla had become the premiere Syrian director, he no longer feared his audience as he once claimed he did over a decade earlier in response to the discussions of Damascene Days. This is precisely what Abdulrahman now takes on with his protest against the treatment of viewers as a mazhariya.

A major cornerstone of Homswood’s satirical criticisms are continuity errors, blatant potholes (especially between seasons of regional blockbusters like Bab Al Hara), poorly done action sequences like gunshots that don’t land where they’re supposed to (such as in a Syrian television adaptation of the American film The Godfather, of which there are two separate productions), and a slew of unimpressive actors and actresses who are cyclically casted no less, including Syria’s “Cinderella of the Screen” (that’s actually how she’s introduced in title sequences). But most of these light-hearted jabs are accepted by the very directors and actors being critiqued. In the comments, and in personal messages, they assure Dandachi that they appreciate his exacting attention with a “sportsmanlike attitude”. 

Some of his earliest episodes focused on the show Wilada Min Al Khasira (“Birth from the Loins”), which was ostensibly a neutral assessment of the situation in Syria. The show aired over three years, riddled throughout with internal controversies and non-returning cast members (ironically, the first season’s victim of a supposedly one-off corrupt member of intelligence services was played by an actress who left the show because it was too critical of the regime). Dandachi focuses almost entirely on technical faults and continuity errors. But he also occasionally points to the way writers of the show must have been very disconnected from reality that most Syrians live. In one scene, an army recruit loses his cool when his superior embarrasses him in front of his fellow soldiers. Having had enough, he picks up a gun and threatens the officers before running away. Dandachi then wonders whether any cast member had ever actually completed military service – considering embarrassment and physical abuse is rampant and normal, and threatening superiors is an almost impossible scenario to imagine. It was not as the writers may have seen it, a dramatization of a bad government superior abusing recruits – it wasn’t dramatized enough for reality.

 
Homswood’s earliest episodes were filmed out of his living room. 

Homswood’s earliest episodes were filmed out of his living room. 

One of the main plotlines in Wilada Min Al Khasira involves two intelligence officers who are pitted as the ‘good guys’. They are both aware of the rampant corruption in their ranks, and aim to fulfill their service to their country righteously. The writers harp on this chord throughout the third season, and Dandachi quips that the camera angles and close-ups feel almost like a “romantic” plotline. The forceful way the writers seem to be telling viewers “not all mukhabarat” reads as distasteful. By doing this, Dandachi is latching onto a larger issue about the patronizing way Syrian television aims to deliver its messages with forced plotlines. It resonates well with the tanwiri or “enlightenment” modus operandi of many in the industry.

 

The finale hinges on a crucial plot point: when the mother of a government fighter arrives at the morgue to pick up her deceased son, she sees another body that is still moving. Knowing her son is dead, she chooses to claim the boy showing signs of life as her own. As it turns out, the boy she chooses is an opposition fighter who took her son’s life. The dilemma emerges when the neighborhood wants to bury her son. As a resolution, she devises a plan to have an empty coffin buried in her son’s stead. By doing so, the mother avoids revealing to the neighborhood that she left her son at the morgue. The neighborhood then reads the fatiha. Dandachi explains that Muslim burial practice doesn’t utilize coffins – that a Muslim burial would have required the burial of a human body wrapped in white shrouds, which means that for Dandachi, the entire idea falls flat. He clutches onto many such problems regarding the portrayal of religion or religious practices, including unrealistic hijab (head veil) wearing actors in short skirts, and religious leaders portrayed in overwhelmingly negative light in historic dramas (and often anachronistically as Islamists). 

Dandachi likes to routinely explain that his critiques are not political. For one, he never uses his YouTube reach to talk specifically about politics, and is particularly ambivalent about discussing anything related to the regime, or its concentric circle-reach in the media circuit. In all, he offers his commentary as product of his own technical expertise, being concerned only with the technicalities of plotlines and camera angles, but more often than not offers piercing social critiques in his videos. But the combination of his technical expertise -- an Eastern European training much like past generations of artists in Syrian media who studied in the former Soviet Union -- and the opportunity to create content on Youtube has allowed him to rattle a power dynamic that’s long been cementing itself. Where, without the war, he would have joined the media industry itself upon his return from the Ukraine, he’s now affected a new dynamic that’s never existed before: one in which a normal fan, without wasta (connections) can voice his critiques fastidiously.

Perhaps for those reasons, Samer Radwan, a writer for the show, commented on Homswood’s episodes in appreciation of the close-watching.  

Later, in response to criticisms that claimed he focused too much, and was too harsh on government-affiliated productions, Dandachi began looking at shows produced by opposition-affiliated companies. He took on Wujuh wa Amakin by the veteran of Syrian television Haytham Haqqi, who Rebecca Joubin notes is “known as the Godfather of Syrian television drama”. In an interview, he admits that after returning from studying film in Moscow: “I was set to be a film director; however, with only a couple films produced per year by the government and an abundance of film directors, I focused my attention on television musalsalat (miniseries), which gave me the opportunity to present my ideas in a large arena”. In some respects, Haqqi fits the trajectory of most Syrian artists who trained in the Soviet Union, and returned to Syria and eventually benefited from the privatization of the television industry beginning in the 1990s. But Haqqi also represents an interesting exception, having followed through that trajectory to remain a power broker by producing one of few opposition shows. He remains one of very few big-name Syrian directors to openly align with the opposition.

Danadachi spares little in tackling Haqqi’s opposition-aligned production, Wujuh wa Amakin . Much of his criticism points to the blaring obviousness it was shot in Turkey, with Turkish flags and Turkish language billboards everywhere. At one point, the entire camera crew is visible in the glare of a car. He quips: “Of course, Syria loves Turkey so much they stopped flying their own flag – only Turkish flags”. He also presents his disappointment with drawn out scenes and their slow camera pans with lengthy voice overs deriding Islamism in the opposition from a high-horse. Dandachi regrets that the first ‘opposition’ show isn’t even willing to focus on critiquing the regime (which hasn’t happened yet). In fact, in doing so, the message of the show seems to fall more in line with the mainstream of Syrian television dramas, including the latest seasons of Bab Al Hara and historical dramas that anachronistically place contemporary stereotypes of vile, religious extremists in historical settings as a blanket representation of religious characters (like the conniving local wife-beating imam, always set up to allow other characters a to lambast his hypocrisy). 

And beyond finding that Bassam Malla goes to extremes to setup shallow religious characters who are quickly squashed by one liners from other star characters, Homswood also comments on the undeserved roles of many of those actors. In one episode, he draws the connections (wastas) some actors have, including some like Mustafa Khani (well-known for his character al-Nims), who married the daughter of Syria’s UN representative Bashar Jaafari and subsequently had his role highlighted. Later, Malla’s own children were added to the cast – his son receiving his own title card in the intro to every episode as “superstar”.

Another show recently released (not affiliated with the opposition) Madrasat Al Hob (“The School of Love”) supposedly covers the reality of Syrian experiences today with what Dandachi finds to be comical depictions of the refugee experience. In one scene, a Syrian argues with smugglers because they had agreed on a better car for transportation to the shore. Later, they ride a dinghy off the coast of Turkey in broad daylight. Dandachi’s lampoon points to the disconnect the writers must have if they think Syrians are expecting ‘better’ transportation to the shore, let alone any transportation (in reality, those waiting to be smuggled wait at the shore). He then turns the viewer’s attention to a scene in which a dinghy leaves the Turkish coast in broad daylight. He comments with experience, as a Syrian living in Turkey with many friends that have made or looked into making the journey, that it is common knowledge dinghies leave in the cover of night only. The director, writing on Facebook, claims that for safety concerns and due to a lack of resources they had to shoot during the day. But the excuse only followed the criticisms raised by the likes of Homswood. Dandachi also regrets that the story delves into a contrived love-plot between two of the refugee characters using cheesy, cliché motifs – when one of the girls trips on the shore, the camera slow-pans on the male journey companion who helps her back up.

Beyond the idea of the mazhariya, Dandachi is also critical of how out-of-touch the latest television programs are with the reality of Syrians – especially when depicting the refugee experience abroad. In both opposition shows and historical dramas, he cringes at the attempts to deride Islamism and religious extremism in its most serious manifestations, without seeking to critique the government itself, or at least building more substantial critiques of religion. Beyond continuity errors and plot holes that frustrate him, he also is underwhelmed by shows that lift entire storylines or scenes from old Hollywood blockbusters. One such show, Nos Yom (launched this past Ramadan), pulls an entire set of scenes from Focus starring Will Smith.  

And with a critical eye towards the industry’s attempts to use the regime’s most loyal stars from top shows like Bab Al Hara in drawn-out patriotic music videos, complete with cheesy military-chic and aggressive salutes and army propaganda, Dandachi offers a hilarious breakdown. In clips like these, he shows that it’s not only the shows and serials themselves that are subject to critique – but the projects of the media industry as a whole. 
 

 

Defending their “Intellectual Property”

As his channel neared 50,000 subscribers, Danadachi began attracting the ire of some. Eventually, Homswood could begin to think of the project as a career – sponsors began contributing, with a Turkish café being the site of one episode, and a travel agency advertising on others. But none of that prepared him for the surprise this Ramadan, when his YouTube account was marked for violating the terms of fair use. 

Mustafa Khani stars in original, patriotic (and pro-regime) music videos. 

Mustafa Khani stars in original, patriotic (and pro-regime) music videos. 

 
 
Homswood posted videos more frequently in Ramadan 2016, which is considered peak season for Syrian, Egyptian, and other television serials.

Homswood posted videos more frequently in Ramadan 2016, which is considered peak season for Syrian, Egyptian, and other television serials.

The peak of the industry season comes during Ramadan, for which thirty-episode serials are specifically crafted and launched at once. For his second season, this past Ramadan, Dandachi took on the challenge and focused on dramas as they released – posting videos almost daily to keep up.

Meanwhile, a “Global Digital Media solutions” company, with offices based in New Jersey and Beirut (it advertises itself as based in the United States) Watan Network, with “years of experience with media, legal services and digital marketing” took note, and marked the YouTuber for using clips from serials it represented without permission.

 

After his account was closed in the midst of the drama-heavy month, his supporters launched a social media campaign (“#in solidarity with Homswood”). To his surprise, some of the Syrian screen’s most renowned stars and directors shared the hashtag and wrote letters of support. Top Syrian directors, and star actors and actresses joined the push, each writing notes to the YouTuber. The list included Samer Al-Barkawi, Kosai Khauli, Talal Mardini, Seif Elsbei, Tim Hassan, Maisoun Abou Assad, Iyad Abou Chamat, Reem Nasr Aldeen and Maxim Khalil, who wrote:
“Once upon a time, a young Syrian decided not to routinely clap… for people who, their whole lives, have only received praise”. Although some, like Maxim Khalil, are more open about their sympathy for the Syrian Revolution, many of those who came out in Homswood’s defense are widely understood to enjoy good relations with the regime. The consultancy firm ultimately agreed to remove the strike on his account, and he was back up and running three days later. 

The same slow-encroach neoliberal economic shift that began with Hafez Al Assad, which for the media industry meant opening to private investment in 1991, and culminated with Bashar’s more aggressive policies in the 2000’s, including the growing direct investment of the state in 2005, had ended up with private companies seeking to monetize for their clients everywhere – including on the account of some unseemly Homsi, Ukraine-educated media enthusiast.


Back On Air

With Dandachi’s return to YouTube, it seemed the almost complete lack of accountability Television directors and writers had enjoyed for over two decades, along with their profit-protecting media agencies had finally been subjected to some new power dynamic.

Before the Syrian uprising in 2011, the Syrian government kept close tabs on social media (most were completely blocked), and revolutionary effect of YouTube media content and production hadn’t filtered into Syria. Now there’s an uptick in social media activity, media production, and the diaspora taking things into its own hands. Even before, Syrians inside were uploading clips (FSA soldiers playing out Bab Al Hara scenes). 

But all of that is changing, now, as an entire generation finds itself easily capable of producing original content in diaspora – and, like Dandachi, taking old media producers to task. Sixty episodes later, having just launched Homswood’s third season, Abdulrahman is making all kinds of waves in Syrian drama, the Syrian diaspora, and in media circles across the Middle East. In fact, his audience has gotten so big he now has to watch the dialect he uses as Egyptians, North Africans, and Gulf Arabs tune in and sometimes complain his colloquial language and jokes are lost on them.

Yet still, he refuses to take on comedies. In our conversation, Dandachi pointed to the fact that Syrians were now suffering from dismay from all corners – “a crisis of Happiness” as he put it. If some were still enjoying laughs from comedies, he didn’t want to ruin for them. For now, Abdulrahman doesn’t have any plans to take on Syria’s many comedy serials. While they certainly have their problems, and he has already written scripts for them – he “doesn’t want to ruin it for the people who still enjoy them”. Syrian’s are experiencing “a crisis of happiness” nowadays, and he doesn’t want to ruin something that might still be a beacon of happiness somehow. In fact, it’s his geniality, Homsi-ness, that brings a smile to viewers’ faces. He repeatedly assures viewers that his show is entertainment only – his own attempt at alleviating some of the pain in the crisis of happiness.

He’s even devised a way to tackle different audiences. YouTube commenters, he tells me, are dedicated: they register, login, and make a comment, and are devoted to a certain degree. Facebook is much more fast-paced, meaning commenters can leave a note with little dedication. Snapchat viewers, on the other hand, demand a more personal insight. That’s why on Snapchat, he goes in-depth – either polling viewers on the recent ethnic cleansing of Daraya, the controversy surrounds a hijabi shamed by many for her performance in a contest-winning short documentary, or an in-depth lesson on the technical finesse behind the American Godfather Part 1, as contrasted with Syrian television’s less-than-stellar rendition.

And in the use of these different social media posts Dandachi’s creating an online community for debate and discourse. He asks viewers to send in book titles of all kinds, which he discusses over Snapchat. The latest one was Kawk’a or “The Shell,” Mustafa Khalifa’s semi-biographical fiction of a French-educated Cinema director who returns to Syria only to be jailed for twenty years. Although the book’s protagonist is Christian, he is imprisoned in Tadom and accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He shared the link, but with a warning to his viewers in Syria: not to download it on their phones (checked at checkpoints) or ask for it at bookstores, because it is banned in Syria. 

Within the day, viewers sent him their opinions: where they laughed, where they got depressed, where they liked the novel, and where the critiqued it. Many of his viewers had read 3/4ths of the book within the day. Holding off for a few days before spoiling anything in discussion, it’s clear he has successfully created a virtual book club out of a community built around watching TV.
 

Conclusion

Unlike Syrian television, Dandachi is not playing into genre conventions: he is making a new one. In a space long devoid of criticism, even its biggest players are defending him. He’s recently started a new clip called “Homswood News” at the end of his episodes, touching on actual Syrian State Television coverage of the media industry. He pokes fun at them with over-ambitious and confident movers and shakers. And now, with an added channel that focuses more on his daily life and his comments on other trends in social media – including Syrian-Lebanese tensions, and his pleas against generalized racism and hate speech – he’s expanding his empire, and plans to do so for some time to come. 

Much of Homswood’s modus operandi falls in line with trends set by other critical, often opposition-aligned minds in new Syrian media, like Cherif Kiwan, the Abounaddara film collective spokesperson and co-founder who explained in a 2014 talk at the American University of Beirut:

“We’re in a confrontation between society and the state [...] the representation of society is unjust. Unjust because the regime doesn’t recognize society, and the media in general don’t represent society in an accurate and fair way.”

Dandachi is demanding that sort of respect as well, whether as viewers, citizens or consumers. By doing this, he’s reclaiming not only for himself, but also for his viewers, a sort of dignity. The same dignity (karama)  that the revolution tried to reclaim, and a dignity that was being lost with the downward spiral of Syrian TV – only one symptom of a much larger malaise in Syria and with Syrians wherever they are today. Dandachi has finally bursted open the neighborhood gate, and may be paving the way for continued critique the industry so sorely lacked.

 

Ameer Al-Khudari