Many filmmakers will know the doggedness required to find funding for a debut work.
MBC Shahid Originals’ new Arabic-language series Brando El Sharq opens with its protagonist in the thick of this beaten trail. Smiling ear to ear, Youssef tries to maintain a fervent demeanour as he goes from one producer’s office to another, pitching his film The Silent Bullet.
Youssef’s film and its genre is mercurial and delightfully prone to outside influence.
At its heart, The Silent Bullet is set in 1930s Lebanon and tells the story of a suicidal man who purchases a pistol in instalments, deciding not to kill himself until after he has paid off his debt. In the meantime, the man falls in love with the woman at the store where he found his gun.
However, the romance in Youssef's film, which starts with glum beginnings, changes its form in each producer's office. As Youssef eagerly tries to sell them the story, he gives in to the producers’ suggestions and his film shapeshifts into hilarious parodies of various Arab film and television trends, while hopscotching between genres from action to drama and slapstick comedy. The audience is taken along these giddy and exaggerated transformations that often pay homage to classic films from Taxi Driver to Casablanca.
Georges Khabbaz, who wrote the series and also stars in it, says Brando El Sharq was born, in part, from his desire to encompass his favourite genres of classic cinema into one project, while also telling a very particular story in a novel way.
“The film in Youssef’s head is set in the 1930s, so immediately you go to Charlie Chaplin when he’s asked to do comedy,” Khabbaz says. “Or, when he’s asked for a drama, his film becomes similar to Casablanca; when he’s asked for an action film we go to action tropes. These tropes are patterns we can all recognise, and I put them in a certain way.”
With each iteration of Youssef’s film, we also get a glimpse of his actual life and the tragedies that have darkened it. The people around him are featured as his film’s characters in fictionalised re-enactments that reflect on the developments of his own life, all while ensuring its comedic flair.
“Youssef, in a way, is Chaplin’s The Tramp of 2023,” Khabbaz says. “Life has wiped him. He has a dramatic story beyond the comedy, as becomes clear later on in the series. He is asked to be somebody he isn’t, and for this, he is all the more eager to fulfil his dream. He needs to prove himself.
“The first thing I established while writing was Youssef’s relationship with his father and his brother who died before he was born. This is a man who was forced to lie all his life; he has had to lie to his parents to convince them he is his brother, with whom he shares a name. The lie has grown with him. It is in his construction. You see in the series how he is made to lie, but in his essence, he is a good person who doesn’t want to lie but was born into a lie.”
Brando El Sharq features a stellar core cast. Releasing two episodes weekly on MBC Shahid, the series stars Amal Arafa, Jihad Saad, Camille Salameh, Zeina Makki and Talal Jurdi. Several surprise cameos include appearances by Elie Mitri and Fouad Yammine. It comprises 10 episodes, with four already released and the rest coming out weekly. The series is produced by Sadek Sabbah from Cedar Arts Productions.
Director Amin Dora says he was intent on establishing a visual and rhythmic distinction between Youssef’s film pitches and his real-life moments.
“I divided it into three layers,” he says. “First, there is Youssef as a real character. Whenever he’s around his father or sister, you can feel there’s something going on. When he’s with the producers, the camera work approach was more dynamic and quicker, because he is someone else. And then with Amal’s character, it’s the only place where he feels loved because he knows she loves him. You can feel like it's choreographed, like a dance.
“The series starts as a comedy but then suddenly you realise this character has a deeper place,” Dora says. “And up until episode 10, you’ll keep discovering who Youssef is.”
Brando El Sharq, or Brando of the East, an epithet for the character Khaled Salah in the series, is everything that Youssef is not but yearns to be, as is made evident by how he passes the thespian’s quotes and mannerisms as his own.
“The character of Brando is more of an idea of stardom,” Dora says. He explains that the film depicts a journey to finding Brando, while meeting other characters. “We then thought it would also be fun to bring on guest stars to play those characters. The scene in episode four, for instance, between Georges [Khabbaz] and Adel [Karam] is one of the most hilarious scenes ever.”
Dora says he is overjoyed at the feedback the series has received so far and is looking forward to seeing how audiences will react to the new directions it will take in the next six episodes.
“I’m waiting for all 10 episodes to release,” he says. “Because it really goes in different directions.”
As for a second season, Khabbaz says while he had intended Brando El Sharq to be a self-contained story, he isn’t ruling out the possibility of expanding on an aspect of the series in the future.
“I could go back and see that another story could grow out of one part of what we’ve seen."