Interview with Haitham Hakki

"Every Year We Become a Little More Daring"

Thanks to directors like Haitham Hakki, Syrian TV series have become a favourite of Arab audiences from Marrakesh to Mecca. For more than 20 years he has been shooting TV dramas with high technical quality and politically sensitive content. By Gabriela M. Keller

Haitham Hakki (photo: Haitham Hakki)
Haitham Hakki: "We never call political parties by their names. This is how we get past censorship, and viewers still know what we are talking about."

​​You are regarded as the father of Syrian TV drama. How did you start your career?

Haitham Hakki: Actually, I am a film director. But when I was young, there was no film production industry in Syria. So the government sent a few young film makers to the Soviet Union to study the trade of film making. I came back in 1973. Then I started to shoot films in Syria with a group of other directors.

After a while you began focussing on TV series. How did that come about?

Hakki: All films were state productions; our opportunities were limited. So we came up with the idea of establishing a private TV production industry. But we did not even have cameras. The Minister of Information at that time truly wanted to support Syrian TV drama. He allowed us to found companies and use equipment from the state-run television company. In return, we granted Syria the right of premiering the productions. The first series shot as a result of this collaboration was sold to an additional 22 channels. That was in 1988. Two years later, we were able to buy our own equipment.

The quality of the Syrian productions is by far superior to those of other Arab countries. How did Syria, of all places, reach that level?

Hakki: Right from the start, our aim was to make TV series with the quality of films. So we began to shoot with one mobile instead of three fixed cameras and went outside of the studios to real locations. Also, we let the actors speak the Syrian dialect. Before that everything had been spoken in modern standard Arabic, but using dialect sounds much more natural and makes the series more realistic. Today, the television industry in Egypt hires Syrian directors and actors to help improve the quality there.

How would you evaluate the economic importance of TV series in Syria?

Hakki: Today, TV series are the second biggest industry in Syria right after the oil industry. In the whole Middle East, only Egypt produces more than us, 3000 hours of series a year. Syria produces 1500 hours – that is equivalent to 50 TV dramas. Each one of them has 30 episodes so that they can be shown during Ramadan. There must be one episode for every day of the month of fasting.

But the series are now being shown throughout the whole year...

Jumana Murad and Jamal Suleiman (photo: Haitham Hakki)
Syrian actors Jumana Murad and Jamal Suleiman

​​Hakki: But every producer still wants to place his series during Ramadan. They need to figure out how they can get the costs of production covered. One series may cost one million dollars. And during the month of Ramadan, TV stations pay up to ten times more than usual for the exclusive rights. Afterwards, the TV dramas will be sold several more times to other stations.

The series often tackle politically sensitive subjects even though the limits of free speech are generally very narrow in Syria. Have you ever had trouble with the censors?

Hakki: We used to have a lot of difficulties. In 1995, we wanted to start shooting a series called "Khan al Harir". It was set in the 1950s, the time of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was about the end of the political union of Syria and Egypt and pan-Arabism, which is one of the ideological pillars of the Syrian regime. The plot was historical, but still relevant. We debated with the censors for two years until they finally gave us the permission for the series.

Can you describe the procedure of getting permission from the authorities?

Hakki: Before I start shooting, I hand the script over to the Syrian Committee of Cinema and Television. They pass it on to the state television. There the decision is made as to whether the series may be produced and shown in Syria. After I finish the production, state employees check the outcome.

Do you avoid certain topics because you fear the censors might object to them?

Hakki: There are a few basic rules. For example, we never call political parties by their names. We call the ruling Baath party "the Nationalists" and the Communists "the Reds". This is how we get past censorship, and viewers still know what we are talking about. And we never mention the regime itself. Political grievances, however, can be shown as long as the government punishes the crimes in the end.

Can you give an example of how you turn such grievances into the plot of a series?

Hakki: For example, my series "Memories of the Future" deals with the lives of two generations. The first generation fails to implement reforms. Therefore, the country does not change and cannot adjust to the needs of the following generation. So the young people work hard, even in crime, but they cannot achieve anything. Also, they cannot change anything in politics because that would be illegal.

That almost sounds like a documentary about Syria's current problems. How strictly do the censors control your work today?

Hakki: We have had tremendous difficulties in the past, but censorship has changed a lot since President Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000. Since then, things have become much easier. During the last Ramadan, for example, there was a series about corruption. The production referred to a real politician, a former prime minister, who committed suicide after being accused of corruption. Other series are about political prisoners or Islamist terrorism. Once there were walls, but we have torn them down. Now we become a little more daring every year.

Still, it is baffling that the totalitarian regime allows TV series the liberty to tackle political problems. How do you explain this?

Hakki: We produce quality, and people respect that. There is also an economic aspect: We bring a lot of foreign capital into the country. These series improve the image of our country. Even Future TV, which was founded by former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri, shows Syrian series – even though Lebanon accuses Syria of being involved in Hariri's killing.

But there is not only political censorship. There are also moral and religious taboos. Yet Syrian series address topics such as Aids and drugs. How careful do you have to be with such content?

Hakki: Moral censorship in Syria is not very relevant. The Gulf countries, however, are very conservative, but this is also where the money comes from. Some TV stations do not show any physical contact between men and women.

Not even sons are allowed to hug their mothers because the actors are typically not relatives. If a married couple is alone in a room, the door must remain open. But recently, we have become much more confident. We shoot the series as we find it appropriate and leave it to the TV stations to edit out what they consider offensive.

Gabriela M. Keller

© 2007

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