MENA creative boom beckons

Scripted-logo-460_2The-Writer-Key-ImageArtistic experimentation in the Middle Eastern scripted market is booming. TBI assesses a new form of Turkish novella and an Israeli drama written by a Palestinian scribe

Turkey and Israel dominate television in the Middle East and North Africa region: new stats show Turkey and Israel account for more than 70% of the region’s pay TV subs. The Turkish drama export market brought in more than US$250 million for the first time last year, while Israeli creators have spawned Showtime’s Homeland, USA Network’s Dig and now the BBC’s new effort The A Word.

Two new dramas, one from each territory, hitting the market early this year are attempting to keep up the momentum.

Intersection (below) is a new type of action-focused semi-telenovela for Turkish pay TV, while The Writer (top) is from the perspective of a Palestinian Arab writing for the Israeli broadcast market.

Hakan Eren from producer Endemol Shine Turkey is setting extremely high targets for Intersection, which debuted to excellent ratings on Fox in Turkey earlier this year and is set for an exclusive screening at MIPTV.

“It’s very, very important for the Turkish market as well as for Endemol Shine Turkey,” says Eren, the Endemol Shine-owned prodco’s chief commercial officer. “There have been successful Turkish shows, but we want to break sales records with this. We believe Intersection will be a pillar of the Turkish export market, as the production values are so high.”

IntersectionSo what’s the set-up? Known locally as Kordugum, the series is a love story running to 13 two-hour episodes that aims to show the dark underbelly of Turkey’s beautiful capital city, Istanbul, where money is too often the deciding factor. The plots follows the love triangle of a ruthless playboy businessman, a talented but humble automotive designer caught up in the so-called glamour of a new industry, and his wife, an idealistic young pediatrician.

The woman divorces her husband after his personality changes for the worse and soon starts a relationship with the playboy, who becomes determined to change his ways and settle down, especially after an unexpected development. “The rich man becomes more loving and caring as the poorer guy becomes angrier and gains power,” explains Eren. “They change places and swap roles – Intersection.”

“The key theme is love itself,” he adds. “All Turkish dramas have that. They have family relationship and adventure elements, but are not action series like this. Intersection is like a telenovela, but distinguished from them by the production quality. The adventure is there for people to get excited about.”

Distributor Endemol Shine International, a sister company of both Endemol Shine Turkey and Fox through their shared stakeholder 21st Century Fox, is shopping the show after selling another Turkish drama, Broken Pieces, to more than 30 territories.

Savvy market watchers may recognise the name of female lead Belçim Bilgin, who is set to appear with Ben Kingsley and Jacqueline Bisset in Hollywood movie Backstabbing for Beginners. They may also recognise Emmanuel Kadosh, Intersection’s director of photography, who is working with Andy Garcia on new feature Hemingway & Fuentes.

It should be no real surprise, then, that Eren says critics have likened Intersection’s tonal and visual feel to “watching a movie”.

Over in Israel, commentators have been taken by The Writer, which Dori Media Paran produced for Keshet Broadcasting and IBA.

Newspaper Haaretz called it “beautiful, like only a unique one-time thing can be”, while TimeOut Israel wrote that it “looks reality in the eyes”. The NRG newspaper was more unequivocal, claiming it was “the best drama on screen” in Israel.

What makes these comments more striking is that the screenwriter, Sayed Kashua, is a Palestinian who lived and worked in Israel before moving to the US. He is known for creating Arab Labor, an award-winning comedy that ran for four seasons, but The Writer takes a more dramatic approach.

“Arab Labor was the first show to a Palestinian life to mainstream Israeli television viewers,” says Kashua. “It needed lots of humour to bring it into the living room, but after four seasons we were at the point where we could so something else. The political situation was also getting more extreme, and it didn’t feel that making a comedy was the right thing to do.”

The Writer is a semi-autobiographical drama that screened as part of the Special  Series Selection at Berlinale 2016 in February.

The 10x25mins show follows a Palestinian living in Israel and struggling with his sense of identity, nationality and belonging. While his marriage is happy and writing career successful, the lead wonders if he’s caught in a bourgeois nightmare and whether he is liked only for the fact that he’s ‘the right’ Arab in the right place at the right time.

“More than anything else, this is about me being honest with my feelings,” says Kashua. “Everything is political in a place like Israel. Politics even impact on personal relationships and decisions such as where your daughter goes to school.”

The Writer doesn’t scream ‘international hit’, but it was well received in Berlin, and Kashua says the writing could transcend borders, as it is both universal in theme and touches on the hot-button topics of the moment.

“The more specific and human the writing you produce is, the more universal the project will become,” he says. “This hybrid condition I write about could be linked to the narratives of immigration and identity – how can one fit in and assimilate?”