Lebanon's 'Shankaboot' brings Arab drama online

TAALABAYA, Natacha Yazbeck - Driving through Beirut's maze of alleys can demand a certain death-defying flair. So it comes as no coincidence that the hero of the Arab world's first webdrama is a delivery boy -- and his noisy, trusty moped.
The online series follows happy-go-lucky Lebanese delivery boy Sleiman as he zooms through the streets on his "Shankaboot," a name invented for his scooter and title of the drama, delivering food, medicine, a gas cylinder or an oversized floral lampshade which he balances on his head.

Lebanon's 'Shankaboot' brings Arab drama online
"What we aim for is to keep the series close to ordinary, daily life, to the way people are on the streets," said Katia Saleh, producer of the first Arabic-language online sitcom.
Funded by the BBC World Service Trust in cooperation with Saleh's production house Batoota Films, Shankaboot pays tribute to aspects of Beirut overlooked on local television: quirky city residents, underage drivers, class, drugs and prostitution rings.
While films, music and television must first pass muster with Lebanon's general security, using the Internet as a medium has given Shankaboot unprecedented freedom.
As the online use of Arabic grows at record speed and more and more young Arabs gain access to the Internet, Shankaboot makes a change from the diet of Latin American and Turkish soap operas so popular in the region.
The script is witty and crude at the same time, echoing the everyday vernacular of the Lebanese rather than the polished Arabic of dubbed soaps.
"What's popular in the Arab world is Mexican and Turkish drama, and I think Shankaboot has appealed so widely to so many people first because it is well-made and second because it speaks to them," Saleh told AFP on the set in the eastern village of Taalabaya where the crew was shooting season two.
"It speaks their language."
While the Beirut cityscape is dotted with landmarks easily recognisable to anyone who has visited, director Amin Dora instead chose to focus on the city "as Beirutis know it."
"In season one, what I aimed for was to reflect the reality of life in Beirut," Dora said. "We avoided everything artificial. We want to show Beirut as it is."
The quest for authenticity also prompted Dora to cast first-time actors in most of the key roles.
"I think what really helped the authenticity come through was the acting, which is a direct reflection of the reality of the people of Beirut," Dora said.
Starring as Sleiman is first-time actor Hassan Akil, 17, who like his peers was attracted to the project's script and medium.
"I don't watch Lebanese television at all. I think it's totally fake," Akil told AFP on set. "I don't think I would have continued to play Sleiman if the script was fake ... But this is something else, and I'm proud to be contributing to it."
And even before its official launch in May, Shankaboot has already become a hit in the online world with more than 7,000 views and 5,000 Facebook fans, or "Shankaddicts."
"I'm very surprised - and happy -- with the series' success among Lebanese expatriates and foreigners," said Dora. "After the Arab world, most of our hits come from the United States.
"A major concern for us was download time, because we didn't want the viewer to give up on the downloading process," he said of the five-minute episodes.
The first season is made up of 11 episodes during which viewers meet the lovable Sleiman, the beautiful runaway Ruwaida and the enigmatic Chady, whose story is not unveiled until season two.
Sleiman and Ruwaida's lives become intertwined when, chatting on his phone as he speeds down the street, he knocks her over as she emerges from a bus.
As the complex plot unravels, the series looks at issues of abuse, drugs, and poverty, dotted with generous doses of comic relief.
Season two takes Sleiman, Chady and Ruwaida to the eastern Bekaa Valley -- Lebanon's Wild West -- and introduces characters from rural life, far removed from cosmopolitan Beirut.
Actor Nasri Sayegh, who plays the dark, sinister Chady, said what drew him to the project was its loyalty to the reality of life in Lebanon.
"Lebanon's 'nakha,' its unique flavour, comes out on the screen ... In season one it was Beirut and in season two it is the Bekaa. You can see it, smell it, taste it," said Sayegh, 31.
"Sleiman is the main character," the actor added. "But the real hero is the city" -- from Beirut to the Bekaa and wherever else the noisy little Shankaboot takes the series.

Thursday, April 22nd 2010
Natacha Yazbeck

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