Young Arab film-makers and audiences are turning to the web to create and watch relevant, stimulating content - bypassing television altogether. Melanie Goodfellow reports on the exciting online prospects ahead.
Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh made global headlines in October when his spoof song, No Woman, No Drive [pictured], mocking his country’s ban on female driving, went viral on YouTube. It notched up some 9 million views in a matter of days.
It is one of the more spectacular examples of how young Saudis are turning to the internet, particularly YouTube, to address social and political issues through humour.
There is an explosion of creativity on the web in the MENA region thanks to the voracious appetite among teens and twentysomethings for this new content. It consists mainly of web-soaps, reality shows, animation and offbeat factual series, as well as satirical programming. Traditional television content in the region no longer appeals to this generation.
“People are starving for good content, stuff that’s fun,” says 27-year-old Emirati film-maker Amal Al Agroobi, whose The Brain That Sings is premiering at DIFF. “Every year during Ramadan, we get these melodramas, revolving around the family, illness and death. There’s no fresh content. There’s no Game Of Thrones or How I Met Your Mother for the Arab world. The shows on the web are more in tune with younger generations.”
Fageeh is connected to Creative Culture Catalyst (3C), the Riyadh-based web production house that runs YouTube channel Telfaz 11. Its top shows include the satirical La Yekthar and Al Temsah, about an alligator puppet that interviews people throughout the region.
According to its own data, 3C’s programmes have had in excess of 222 million YouTube views to date. It also has some 2.85 million followers on Twitter and 1.6 million on Google+. Its main Saudi rival is UTurn, which produces the hit web series Taaki. Launched in 2010, UTurn reported some 286 million views on YouTube up until mid-September and has 8 million social-network followers.
C3 and UTurn are aimed at Saudi viewers and are among dozens of YouTube channels and shows to have launched in MENA over the last 18 months. Other key players include Jordan-based Kharabeesh, which specialises in animated content, and Qsoft, the Cairo-based outfit behind the internet phenomenon B+ Show and YouTube star Bassem Youssef, whose channel gets some 30 million views a week.
In the UAE, Peeta Planet, an offbeat social media-based travel programme created and fronted by brothers Mohamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadhi is steadily building audiences. The show launched on the web before airing on local channel Dubai One. All the episodes are also loaded onto the Peeta Planet YouTube site (see below).
“We work with a mix of content providers, from web creatives to broadcasters,” says Diana Baddar, YouTube’s video partnerships manager in the MENA region. “We have seen an explosion in creators making short-form content and launching channels. The key demographic is 15 to 30; there aren’t thousands but it’s growing and emerging.”
Baddar points out how the channels are forging recognisable brands and creating their own stars. “What’s amazing is that they did it by themselves, bypassing traditional broadcasters,” she says. “It was a conscious decision to go straight to the net. They see digital as the future.”
The launch earlier this year of the YouTube Partnership Programme has further boosted figures. It enables users to make money on their channels through embedded advertising, initially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE followed by Morocco and the GCC states of Qatar, Bharain, Kuwait and Oman.
“Google is on fire in the Middle East and Africa,” suggests Maha Abouelenein, Google’s head of communication in MENA.
The digital giant is partnering with DIFF to cover the nightly red-carpet ceremonies with a live show available exclusively on YouTube. Last year’s shows were accessed by viewers from across the region, including in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan.
Google’s head of marketing for MENA, Tarek Abdalla, is keen to point out the company’s support of DIFF is part of a corporate strategy that goes beyond mere public relations. It wants to be in at the vanguard of a new cultural moment.
“We see YouTube as an emerging space for entrepreneurs, artists, creators and film in general,” he says. “The heyday of film in the Middle East, like that of Egypt in the 1950s and ‘60s, is gone but we think we can be part of a new film renaissance in the region. We want to be part of that rebirth.”
Abdalla explains how Google can help: “There is a multitude of ways film-makers can use our products,” he says. “You might not be able to show a whole movie but you can generate interest with clips and trailers.”
Beyond simply being there as a platform, YouTube is also working to foster creativity. The video-sharing site is planning a series of workshops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in spring 2014, connecting some of the more successful channels with up-and-coming content-makers. “We want creatives to understand the value of being on YouTube,” says Baddar. “Our goal is to increase the amount of Arabic content on the internet.”
Qsoft is already fostering a new generation of YouTube talent through its ongoing Tube Star Network programme. The production company trawls the web for promising talent, funds a pilot and then gauges its potential via the number of views on a dedicated website. “We are a discovery platform, scouting for talent via YouTube,” says Tube Star Network digital chief and COO Yasser Ghazi.
Potential series being developed via the site include the satirical football show BooqTV, which has already clocked up more than 1 million views.
The challenge for YouTube, Google and other internet companies is to convince more traditional film-makers to use their services.
“DIFF put the trailer for my previous film Half Emirati up on YouTube, where it got 6,000 hits,” says Al Agroobi. “But I wouldn’t put my entire film up on the web for free.” Instead she is experimenting with video-sharing site Vimeo where Half Emirati is available to watch for $1.99. By mid-November, there had been some 80 downloads.
“I don’t think I’ll make money on this,” Al Agroobi explains. “It costs $200 to put the film up and Vimeo takes a 10% cut on proceeds, which isn’t unreasonable. I’ll be lucky if I break even. I see it more as an awareness-building operation than a money-making one.”
Further Arab-language films on Vimeo right now include Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras and Fadi Haddad’s romantic comedy When Monaliza Smiled. But Al Agroobi notes it is not easy to watch Arab-language films as they are difficult to track down on the web.
“I watched When Monaliza Smiled but only because I follow Annemarie Jacir on Twitter and she put out a Tweet,” says Al Agroobi, referring to the high-profile Palestinian film-maker. “There’s no curated site bringing it all together. Unless you happen to be in the know, you won’t necessarily stumble across the Arab films that are available.”
SPOTLIGHT ON PEETA PLANET
Popular travel show Peeta Planet is an example of a home-cooked UAE show that has its origins on the web. The series is the brainchild of brothers Mohamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadhi, who co-host the programme.
Together they travel the world, dressed in traditional Emirati dress, and attempt everything from scaling tall buildings in Australia to eating sushi in Japan. The pair hit on the idea when they started trawling the social networks for suggestions ahead of a holiday to Sri Lanka.
“The show is unique because everything we do is suggested by our connections on social media,” explains Mohamed Parham Al Awadhi, the older of the two. “It’s a very participatory process.”
The brothers produce the show through their co-owned Abu Dhabi production company Qabeela New Media. They initially developed the show with the help of Abu Dhabi media campus twofour54. According to Qabeela data, the show’s fanbase is 600,000 strong on Google+. It also has around 10,000 Facebook ‘friends’, 3,400 Twitter followers and 8,200 Instagram connections.
The shows are first aired on local broadcaster Dubai One, where it was the third most popular show in its debut season. All the episodes are then posted on Peeta Planet’s YouTube site, where it has garnered another 93,000 views to date.
A second series is in production. Mohamed Parham Al Awadhi says he and his brother would eventually like Qabeela to branch out into other subject areas such as film and entertainment.