Sunday, December 18, 2011


Picture of Shankaboot filming
A veritable first in the Arab world, Shankaboot is an interactive series aired only on the Web. It forms part of the Web drama concept that is all the rage in the USA and UK.

By Dr. Pamela Chrabieh Badine

Shankaboot is the first interactive Web drama in the Arab world. It recently took first prize in the “Digital programme – fiction” category at the sixth International Emmy Awards (April 2011). Produced in the Lebanese Arab dialect, it handles social topics that are taboo in the Arab world and opens the gates to an exchange of opinions amongst young Web users in the region.

Shankaboot forms part of the Web drama concept that has been developing for more than a decade, particularly in the USA and the UK. Web dramas began in 1995 with the airing of the American series The Spot, and appear in various formats – series, serials, one-offs. They are growing in importance with the dissemination of video blogs, or vlogs, on Youtube and other platforms like Dailymotion and Kewego. Amongst the most successful examples are Lonelygirl115Quarterlife, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who: Dreamland (video), or even Girl Number Nine.

These series highlight togetherness and local community. They make use of a specific camera style, close-ups or frequent direct-in-the-face shots. Some are produced using the traditional tools of story- writing; others rely on interactivity with the public and can take many forms via the channels they use (videos, blogs, appearance of characters on social networks, etc.) exploiting transmedia deployment of the story. Examples from the work of the American Lance Weiler as story-architect, and the French projects Faits Divers Paranormaux (Orange Ciné Choc) and Clem (TF1) are noteworthy examples of this.

In other words, Web dramas emerge largely from the interaction between the narrator and his or her audience. The audience imagines the story and appreciates being both a witness to the characters and the events described as well as being an actor, unlike traditional theatre or film. This is a new narrative technique known as Digital Interactive Storytelling.

According to British photographer Daniel Meadows, Digital Storytelling consists of brief personal multimedia stories told by individuals of all appearances and identities, on a multitude of topics and split between electronic formats. According to theCenter for Digital Storytelling, the digital story is a short video created by an individual combining sound, still and moving images, music and dialogue in a personalised narrative. The subjects handled are varied, ranging from fiction to past memories (e.g. wars, historic events) together with real life in a community or crossing national borders.

Digital interactive storytelling commonly encourages the listener or user to become a joint creator via amateur contribution to enrich the narrative universe, beyond simply pasting on comments and photos. This is particularly what the Shankaboot project, the first Web drama series in the Arab world, has to offer.

Shankaboot is an interactive video series on the Web or a Web series filmed in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Produced byBatoota Films[+], financed by the BBC World Service Trust[+] thanks to the expertise of the Welded Tandem Picture Company[+]it scored a swift success among Web users and gained some prestigious awards, like Cinema Tous EcransBest Web Series 2010 and International Digital Emmys 2011.

Presentation of Shankaboot
Presentation of Shankaboot.

This series was launched in March 2010 and portrays the daily life of young Beirut residents like Sleimane, a 15-year-old courier who roams Beirut and its suburbs on his scooter, called Shankaboot; Roueida, a young woman who fled a violent husband and is trying to become a singing star; Chadi, her best friend with a shady background, etc. These characters and many others, whose roles are played by professionals and amateurs alike, find themselves caught up in adventures blending comedy and tragedy, reflecting the daily life of the Lebanese capital with all of its contradictions: tension and friendship, traditionalism and modernism, chadors and mini-skirts, luxury and poverty.
The five seasons available online comprise some thirty episodes, each 4-5 minutes long. The production house bore in mind the unsatisfactory Internet connections currently available in Lebanon for quick and effective downloading of the episodes. These have been dynamically edited with a realistic screenplay and music composed by various young Lebanese artists likeRayess BekMashrou3 LeilaZeid Hamdane, and Tania Saleh. The dialogues are in Lebanese dialect and the plots attract an audience of young people keen to get away from locally-produced televised series and imported series – Turkish and Mexican particularly – dubbed into literary Arabic. In fact, Shankaboot shuns artificiality and features familiarity and naturalistic interpretation so as to better encourage identification of viewers with the characters in the series. One of the fans of the series commented on Facebook: “This is the first Lebanese and Arabic series with realistic dialogue, screenplay and acting”.
Each episode is accompanied by a short comedy show, Waheed El-Booz, which presents the twists and turns in the life of a Beiruti electrician named Booz. The interactive features on the Shankaboot Website are in Arabic and English, both games (point and click) and the sharing sites of Web users eager to propose new ideas for future episodes, or even Shankactive, a platform that allows users of the Shankaboot site to create their own stories using a variety of audiovisual tools. The most successful of these is Srilankieté Libnanié, which reverses the roles of a Lebanese woman and her Sri Lankan housekeeper. It should noted that the principle of interactivity was also recently used in an online cartoon, along the lines of Sarab, the first Arabic cartoon production whose hero inhabits a fantastic imaginary world and has the course of his life decided by the Web viewers. The project won the 2011 prize for best online content in the Arab world in the entertainment and games category of the World Summit Award, an initiative of the United Nations.
During an interview at Batoota Films in Acrafieh (Beirut, Lebanon) in June 2011, Tony Ovry, the director of the Shankaboot project, said: “Shankaboot is relayed via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and by other information sites and social networks (…). The project is well received both by the local audience (the Lebanese represent at least 65% of the visitors) with an average age of 16-40 years, and by the regional (Egyptians and Jordanians mainly) and international public (especially North America and France). […] Less than two months after we started broadcasting, the 11 episodes of season 1 had been viewed more than 24,000 times on YouTube. To date, we have had more than 800,000 viewings on Youtube and more than 24,000 fans on  Facebook. The most popular has been viewed over 60,000 times. The site has already received more than 130,000 hits – at an average of 3,000 per day. At the Digital Emmys 2011, it was awarded the top digital fiction prize in the category Digital Program: Fiction – in competition with high quality multimedia productions from the UK, the Netherlands and Brazil."


For the fans talking mainly on Facebook, Shankaboot is also “a series that deals with sensitive subjects of great importance in the Arab world”. In fact, for the project’s producers, one of the major objectives is to break a range of taboos at both local and regional level, topics that are not debated – or only rarely – on the radio and television: prostitution, corruption, poverty, drugs, denominationalism, discrimination against foreign workers, sexism, violence towards women, etc. The debate on women and the adherence to particular faiths, addressed by Web users on the Shankaboot Facebook page, reveals the existence of many stereotypes, and the consequent urgency of promoting respect for religious and cultural diversity and creating conditions conducive to greater dialogue.
Moreover, one of the messages carried by the Shankaboot project is the importance of information and communication technologies in constructing a climate for dialogue and building bridges for understanding. In these terms, the project aims at fostering freedom of expression and human rights, and encouraging young people to use new technologies, and the Internet in particular, to promote their world view and peaceful practices. Alongside the project, offline activities are organised around the “Shankactive” concept, such as storytelling workshops and digital audiovisual projects for young people, school visits and cultural events – in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

 The project aims at fostering freedom of expression and human rights and encouraging young people to use new technologies and the Internet to promote their world view and peaceful practices. 
Accordingly, Shankaboot forms part of the social network movement like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., which are increasingly used in the Arab world as platforms for fighting for democracy and  fundamental freedoms, accompanying the cultural and political revolutions taking place in the societies of the region.

Web dramas and the Shankaboot project in particular face a number of obstacles in the Arab world, such as the slowness of Internet connections compared to international standards, hacking attacks, censorship and the lack of funding for local productions. As a result, the sluggishness of the Internet connection in Lebanon, for example, does not allow for the development of episodes lasting more than five minutes each.  In a recent interview, the former minister of Telecommunications, Charbel Nahas, looked forward to an upsurge in  the digital and telecommunications fields, thanks to the completion in the near future of fibre optic projects and 3G technology. While the shortcomings of the network will be dealt with imminently, in the meantime, the Lebanese Web has become a primary means for political, economic and media players, and particularly young Lebanese and Arabs, to promote their individual institutions and initiatives and achieve their objectives in terms of democratisation, social justice and the respect for fundamental freedoms.
As for censorship, it is still practised by several governments in the Arab world and the Middle East. Nevertheless, it is often circumvented, as was the case in the recent uprisings in the region, based partly on the use of social networks, mainly Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, the producers of Shankaboot, who have faced attempts at censorship from certain government authorities – beyond Lebanon – as well as hacking attacks, have managed to cope, according to Tony Ovry, by relying on “their imagination”. This includes broadcasting episodes on several platforms, such as YouTube and across the blogosphere, anti-hacking techniques, and adapting the content of workshops for young people to the standards of the countries concerned.
Furthermore, imagination, even creativity, constitute – according to the producers of Shankaboot and many other young Lebanese and Arabs up to speed on digital storytelling – a major challenge to the Turkish and South American programmes for which the cost of dubbing into Arabic remains below that of a local quality production. This is also the case with reality TV programmes, particularly popular programmes which, like Super Star and Star Academy, are imported and broadcast by satellite to viewers from Morocco to Iraq.

Leading actor of the series, Assan Akil (Suleiman).
Photo taken during a shoot.
The question of financing independent local productions remains unsolved. An alliance with major Arab media groups ready to invest in projects that for them represent a great marketing lever for capturing new audiences would not come about without a loss of independence and freedom of expression. Consequently, what is to be feared is a loss of values in terms of narrative innovation and editorial input, as is the case with digital storytelling when produced by brands whose primary objective is to serve their own interests – unless they are not the originators of the creative process, but associate their image with the transmedia experience proposed to the public.
According to Toni Ovry, “despite all these obstacles, the future of Web dramas in the Arab world looks promising, as is borne out by the success of the Shankaboot project and the outstanding sociocultural impact it has had. However, the movement is only just beginning, and we will have to prove that there is potential for the long-term survival of the local transmedia productions and new storytelling genres up against the traditional mentality of the entertainment and media industry. One thing is sure: storytelling has a great future ahead of it given the abundance of stories to tell in the Arab world”. 

Translated from the French by Christopher Edwards.

To go further:    
- Video presenting the Shankaboot project : "Shankaboot in a Nutshell";
The Shankaboot project team, including:
       • Katia Saleh: producer;
       • Amin Dora: director.

 Illustration credits:
- Shooting photos, 
Batoota Films;
- Poster presenting Shankaboot,

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Revolution of Mentalities in the Arab World?

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh Badine 
('Revolution', Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 2011)

Am I denying what is defined as the 'Arab Spring'? In a way, definitely! Especially following the Tunisian and Egyptian recent elections (Autumn 2011). There are individuals and groups of activists who are truly fighting for equality, justice, conviviality and pluralistic nations... Unfortunately, a minority in a sea of fundamentalism and extremism.

Changing the political regime isn't the solution to a nation's crisis. A revolution must happen in mentalities,  world-views or ethos ('visions du monde') and in practices. How can it be possible when a 'certificate' of doctrinal allegiance takes the place of a genuine 'diploma' of culture? How can the development of audacious and autonomous minds not be impeded by the pressures of ignorance and hatred? 

A vibrant intellectual and political intelligentsia is a must... However, it easily collapses when it seeks power and uses the same techniques/approaches as the 'oppressors'. It disintegrates when it is not founded on sustainable basis. Its influence fades when its core message isn't properly shared.  

The revolution of mentalities is not essentially a political phenomenon, but a spiritual and psychological one, though its field of expression and its fundamental instrument is political action. When it occurs, individuals are capable of remodeling societies. They become agents or bearers of a better future, without considering themselves to be above all judgement by present or past humanity - or being accountable only to the 'court of History'. 

The revolution of mentalities doesn't mean a totalitarian and universally expansive phenomenon. It doesn't intend to submit all aspects of human life to its power. It doesn't only mean 'coming out of the status quo to a better or worst status'. It isn't only 'the change that a people can make through its tools such as the armed forces or through some historical characters so as to meet the ambitions of changing a regime incapable of meeting these ambitions'. It aims at a progressive change in visions, practices and relational dynamics while recognizing  the plurality of differences within a nation; it aims at building bridges in order to implement unity in diversity.

The miracle still has to happen...