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Aleppo’s Real-Life Soap Opera

SYRIA

As the Syrian conflict drags into its fourth year it is disappearing from the world’s television screens. New crises in Gaza, Ukraine and Libya have pushed Syria’s war down the news agenda, and the messy dynamics between the government, the rebels and the Islamists mean it is almost impossible for foreign journalists to report on the ground.

But a team of actors and producers in rebel-held Aleppo have brought the grisly realities of the war to a new audience. Banned in Syria was a Ramadan drama set and filmed in the battle-scarred city, featuring locals who are living the stories they acted out. It was broadcast on Halab Today—an opposition media channel—throughout the holy month.

Banned in Syria was shot in Bustan Al-Qasr, a neighborhood right on the dividing line between the city’s rebels and government forces.

The locations were bombed “around the clock” by the government, says director Bashar Al-Hadi. In one instance the fighting came so close that filming had to be halted.

“We were being [targeted] by a shell from the regime that was yards away from the location,” said Hadi. “We had to stop so that we could wash the dust away from the technical staff, photographers and actors.”

Syria’s Ramadan drama industry is huge—dozens of series are produced in the country every year for various satellite channels—and many use current events as a backdrop. The war has been a recurring theme over the past three years, with the productions split—much like the country itself—into pro- and anti-regime camps.

The Ramadan dramas, once a window of escapism at iftar time, when the fast is broken, have become politicized. Only the pro-regime productions can film inside the government-controlled areas of the country—filming permissions are not granted for any series that are believed to show sympathies for the opposition. Syrians who support the opposition have also called for viewers to boycott the pro-government productions. Productions sympathetic to the revolution, meanwhile, have been forced to film in neighboring countries such as Lebanon.

Banned in Syria was the first pro-opposition drama to be filmed inside Syria, with a cast comprised of opposition activists and actors who have defected from the regime.

“The Syrian regime suppressed the freedom of artists and fought everyone who wanted to express their opinion openly,” explained Hadi. “So by appearing on the screen the artists and the young activists blew up all the energy that was repressed.”

They chose their subject matter, said Hadi, because of the shortfalls of the international media’s reporting on Syria. The government’s draconian restrictions on the movement of foreign journalists inside the country, coupled with the increasing dangers of reporting in the rebel-held areas, mean that the plight of the ordinary people who remain in the opposition-controlled quarters of Aleppo is barely being reported any more.

The government’s eight-month barrel-bombing campaign has left much of the city in ruins, while many of its residents have fled to government-held areas, the surrounding countryside, or across the border into Turkey.

Those who have remained are enduring conditions that would have been unthinkable in Syria’s economic capital just three years ago. Water and power supplies have been cut, schools are closed, and poorly equipped doctors in the field hospitals are struggling to treat the scores of injured civilians who are brought through their doors after each new attack.

Unlike the sanitized war-themed dramas that are shot in the safety of tightly controlled film sets, Banned in Syria brings the reality of Aleppo home.

“Our goal was to deliver a clear and honest image,” said Hadi. “When the sounds of shelling ended up on the tapes we deliberately kept [them] in. It allowed the viewer to live with us in our daily life—even if just for moments.”

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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Hannah Lucinda Smith
Hannah Lucinda Smith is a freelance journalist and photographer covering conflict and humanitarian issues in the Middle East. She has been reporting from Syria and investigating its impact on the wider region since early 2013, and has previously worked on investigations in Kosovo, Brazil and the UK. She lives in Istanbul.

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