Netflix is on the look out for compelling stories from the Arab world, particularly “big ideas” that give the opportunity to represent the diverse voices in the region, to add to its extensive collection of shows.
“We are here to tell stories by Arabs for Arabs, and then take them to the world,” says Ahmed Sharkawi, director of Arab and African Original series at Netflix. “We want to collaborate with creators from all around the Arab world. What we are looking for is big stories. Big ideas. And I don’t mean they need to be big productions. There are big ideas that are small productions, and others that are mega productions. So it’s all about ideas. And we’re out there shopping.”
Netflix began its regional production mission in Jordan. Last summer, the streaming platform released its first Arabic Original series, Jinn. The show, set in modern-day Amman and ancient Petra, tells the story of a group of teenagers who unwittingly invite the supernatural forces of a jinn into their world.
A few months after Jinn premiered, the streaming service announced its second Arabic Original series, AlRawabi School for Girls, which follows a group of bullied outcasts at a girls' school in Jordan.
"We're very proud of the show," Sharkawi says. The female-centric teenage drama became an instant fan favorite, he adds.
Earlier this month, Netflix also launched its first Egyptian Original series, Paranormal, setting a milestone for thrillers produced in the Arab world.
The show is based on the bestselling novel series of the same name by the late Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, who is often hailed as the first contemporary horror and science-fiction writer in the Arab world. The story, set in the 1960s, centres on haematologist Refaat Ismail (Ahmed Amin) who tries to uncover the truth behind a series of supernatural events.
"Paranormal is particularly special because it's based on the famous book series [Ma Waraa Al Tabiaa]," Sharkawi says. "It is one of the top-selling novel series in the region with many, many fans. We hope that genre fans identify with it and see something different in the show."
Sharkawi says he hopes the series will inspire budding filmmakers and creators in the region to dream bigger. He cites Paranormal creator Amr Salama as an example, saying the Egyptian filmmaker had been striving to bring the series to the screen for 15 years.
“He proves that one day things can happen,” Sharkawi says. “This is our message to the industry, to bring the bigger shows. And we’re happy to be there and usher it to the world, not just the Middle East.”
Sharkawi says he hopes Paranormal will pave the way for genre appreciation in the region, saying that not enough supernatural or sci-fi works are produced in this part of the world. But that, he says, is also down to the cost of such productions.
“The amount of visual and special effects that were employed in the show is unprecedented in the region, especially for a series,” he says. “Usually you’d see that in a feature film, but to do that level of production across six 45-minute episodes is unprecedented.”
Sharkawi says that after the shooting process, Salama often joked that producing Paranormal was not so much like making a six-episode series as it was creating six separate films.
"So the scale definitely allows the industry to dream bigger and bring in higher quality content as a series," Sharkawi says. "Everyone talks about the big blockbusters being film, but never talk about the blockbuster or a big-scale TV series. I think Paranormal will set the stage for more shows of this genre and scale to come."
The premium drama concept, Sharkawi says, is still a new concept in the Arab world. And Netflix will help it gain in popularity and appeal. He also notes that productions were usually forced to adhere to a month-long 30-episode format. Shows such as Paranormal and AlRawabi School for Girls will help extricate productions from that trend, so creators will no longer feel bound to unnecessarily stretch or abridge storylines.
"We want to empower creators and give them the freedom to structure their vision however they see fit," Sharkawi says. "With Paranormal, we decided on making a six-episode series, that does not mean other shows have to follow the same format. Some shows could be shorter, others can be longer."
So what is Netflix Mena cooking up? Sharkawi says there are a number of projects in the pipeline including the drama featuring Egypt's most popular comedy puppet: Abla Fahita. Titled Drama Queen, the show features six 20-minute episodes, and will present a more human side to the smart-talking puppet, with her being implicated in a crime and forced to separate from her children.
Netflix has also teamed up with Tunisian superstar Hend Sabry. "We're very proud of Sabry finally getting her chance to produce her own show, which is a female-centric dramedy that we're sure fans will be able to connect with," he says, not revealing whether the show had been given a title yet.
Netflix also managed to persuade Egyptian superstar Amr Diab out of his 27-year acting hiatus. Though not much is known about his series at the moment, what’s certain is that it will be a musical drama. “We’re bringing him back to the drama scene for the first time since 1993,” Sharkawi says.
There are a number of other projects under wraps, but the streaming service will continue looking for the next "big idea", Sharkawi says, throwing its support behind regional storytellers, whether established or up-and-coming, helping them to tell their stories to the world.