Contrary to popular (and mostly Western) belief, the Middle East and North Africa is not the world’s most troubled region, but it certainly does seem to be its sore spot. True, the region is riddled with conflict and corruption, but leave it to the media’s white saviour complex to blow the Middle East’s woes to gargantuan proportions – from Hollywood to C-Span!
Shovelling its way out of the trite melodrama that has come to shape the regional narrative in the media is Netflix’ first Arabic original series, Jinn, expected to premiere next year. Set in Petra, Jordan, the plot follows the story of a girl who accidentally releases a jinn (Arabic for demon) in the form of a teenage boy, unknowingly unleashing “an ancient darkness that threatens the world,” the show’s synopsis reads on its Netflix page. “The region not only has a rich heritage in great storytelling and entertainment, but it is also has a vibrant community of content creators and storytellers. The diversity of the region and its entertainment tastes also gives us so much to work with,” says Netflix MENA spokesperson Leyla Guilany-Lyard.
By packaging its original Arabic debut in a contemporary supernatural teenage drama, Netflix is wagering against the mainstays and conventional wisdom of the MENA region’s entertainment industry, which has historically favoured slapstick comedy and oversimplified family melodramas that lack depth and craftsmanship. But the leading streaming service has its bets hedged for it. “Last year, Stranger Things 2 almost immediately became the region’s (and the world’s) fastest binge-raced show when it was released in October. That suggests a growing appetite for different types of content and compelling stories versus necessarily categorising it solely in the terms of a particular genre,” Guilany-Lyard explains.
Netflix is disrupting the culture that dictates media content in the MENA, which in turn is influenced by the region’s age-old political and economic dynamics. Few networks control the regional market, virtually monopolizing the entertainment industry, which comes with a dearth of variety and ingenuity.
In doing so, Netflix is disrupting the culture that dictates media content in the MENA, which in turn is influenced by the region’s age-old political and economic dynamics. Few networks control the regional market, virtually monopolizing the entertainment industry, which comes with a dearth of variety and ingenuity.
Another reason to inspire confidence – apart from Netflix kicking the door open and walking in guns blazing, is the creators behind the show. Executive produced by power duo Elan and Rajeev Dassani of SEAM, directed by Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya of the critically lauded Very Big Shot, and written by Jordanian screenwriter Bassel Ghandour who also wrote Theeb which went on to earn an Oscar nomination in 2016, Jinn is set to become an instant hit.
Over the past few years, Netflix has cemented itself as the platform of choice for serious and indie storytellers like David Fincher, Peter Morgan, and the Duffer Brothers, to tell gripping, weighty stories, which are usually either shunned by the box office or lack the means for promotion and distribution. The streaming service’s rise has portended the mass migration of Hollywood’s heavyweights to the internet – despite Steven Spielberg’s protestations – and is now seminating this trend in the Middle East and North Africa by giving the helm to region’s on the rise talents.
To unearth the stories that have been eclipsed by the tried and tested, crowd-pleasing hogwash, the creators of Jinn are tapping into the region’s rich folk culture. “It is very common in the Middle East for people to know someone who has a jinn story, so it’s nice to take that and turn it into a fun and mysterious teen adventure that everyone can enjoy,” Ghandour said. “We have such a rich storytelling culture, and we'll finally be able to enjoy Arabic content with Netflix quality."
It is very common in the Middle East for people to know someone who has a jinn story, so it’s nice to take that and turn it into a fun and mysterious teen adventure that everyone can enjoy. We have such a rich storytelling culture, and we'll finally be able to enjoy Arabic content with Netflix quality.
On the demand side of this equation, there are the voracious consumers of online content that are Arab and North African millennials and gen zers, who are increasingly turning away from television and the region’s fastest growing demographic segment. It is a generation that thirsts for authentic stories that mirror the diversity of their heritage and culture, works that neither victimize nor demonize them – they demand their very own Black Panther and Blackish, as opposed to the Arab terrorist victim of the circumstance narrative touted by Netflix’ other MENA-focused project Fauda, an Israeli show that, despite being critical of the occupation, is now targeted by BDS activists.
Recognizing this shift in public mood by Arab youths, who have grown impatient with their whitewashed and watered down representation, the creators behind Jinn – who are given free reign – are committed to tell their supernatural teen adventure through Arab folklore, legends, and ancient mythology, and using fresh faces from across the region to bring the characters to life, instead of the usual suspects. In collaboration with Jordanian talent agency TaleBox, the Jinn crew issued a casting call announcing that they would be holding auditions to fill various roles, regardless of ethnicity and acting experience, to join the show's cast in Jordan this summer, which is when filming is set to begin. The move may mimic previous publicity stunts attempted by big movie franchises, but if the creators’ and the network’s track records are any indication, Jinn should present an accurate depiction of the region’s socio-cultural fabric. "This is a great opportunity to portray Arab youth in a very unique way. The level of authenticity Netflix is trying to achieve with this show is definitely what attracted me the most to be part of this project,” said, Bou Chaaya concluded.
Artwork by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.