Netflix’s first Arabic original is the talk of the proverbial town for all the things it isn’t
Left to right:
Sultan Khail, Aysha Shahaltough, Salma Malhas & Hamzeh Okab
As someone whose worked in the realm of Arab ‘content’ for the last 18 years, I can say with some confidence that self censorship is the bane of our Arab existence on small screens; followed swiftly along by our dismissal of the most integral component of televised storytelling: The Script.
Self Censorship, Old Foe
This foolproof prescription for self-sabotage was at least partially abandoned by Jinn, when it gave self censorship the middle finger (or threw sand in its eyes – for those of you who’ve watched the show), and this alone is reason to ululate its success.
I am here to tell you that getting decades of self censorship’s subliminal and perverse fingers to unclasp your eyes and mouth is a very frightening thing. Seeing the first Arabic Netflix original do just that is so very rewarding and liberating. This is coming from someone who has no direct link to the show in no shape or form.
For that alone – a resounding THANK YOU is owed to Jinn.
Whether they will admit it now or not; once the region’s creators put down their phones and stop passive aggressively frantically typing on their social media of choice anything and everything that Jinn / Netflix had done wrong and let the dust settle – they too will be thanking Jinn for taking one for the team and being the first (if flimsy) Arab show to cut the bullshit on one of the most toxic topics to ever be broached on our screens: Love.
Yes. I said love. Not sex.
There is a lot of sex in Arabic entertainment. It comes in the dystopian, unappealing versions of rape, blackmail, prostitution, unrequited marriage and polygamy. It’s the sex of darkened allies and unlit bedrooms for the most part. Yet, despite the dirty sheets, Arab audiences are complacent in consuming the grim side of relationships but will stop at nothing to wreak havoc when a show dares to flirt with notions and aspects of love and its older sister, dare I say it: lust. That is where Arabs draw the line. A man grabbing a woman violently by the arm and shoving her against a wall – that’s OK. A teenager tilting her head to kiss her on-screen boyfriend now that’s the heinous crime. Break the camera and call the cops! And in Jinn’s case, I mean this literally.
But before we broach the ludicrous (if lucrative) outcry against the kissing and use of profanities in Jinn; causing allegations that prosecutors will ‘ban’ this show in response to the loud gasp of disapproval from truth deniers, alarmists, puritans and authoritarians that cascade their small-town opinions under the guise of upholding the moral traditions of the community; let’s take a minute to backtrack and unpack Jinn’s premise.
Jinn, a young adult themed fiction series set in a private school in Amman, Jordan, is the first Arabic Netflix original.
This show is for young people referred to as millennials. They are the target audience for Netflix. This show is about a very particular demographic of millennials in Amman.This show is created in Jordan debuting first time talent. This show is fiction. This show is on Netflix. This show is the first to gain the much sought and the desperately fought for attention of THE platform that has every creator in the entire region jumping through hoops in hopes that they would be the ‘The Chosen One’. And Jinn was it.
So this is a show for young adults that successfully, but perhaps overs simplistically, tells a story of teens – truthfully depicting their general reality while zeroing in on the world of a privileged private school where the story is set. One that employs high-school characters who swear, smoke, drink and rage with hormones while figuring out how Jinn entered their realm of existence. Where plot is employed to explore sensitive and subversive topics such as peer pressure, bullying, domestic abuse, loss and mourning; is being attacked for being totally inappropriate.
This, despite the fact that the very same young adults who are opting to catch Jinn on Netflix, would have only ever watched non-Arabic shows ablaze with far more x-rated material on this streaming platform and other platforms until now.
I guess hearing our own utter profanities and then kiss in our mother tongue (pun intended) is a step too far for us. We can take it in English, French and Turkish a la Syrian dubbing, but God forbid should it be as it really is: in Arabic and uncut.
But the truth is even more inflammatory. Those who have a problem with Jinn’s alleged misrepresentation really mostly have one problem, which ironically is also perhaps Jinn’s single biggest achievement: that some of the swearing and most of the kissing was off the lips of a Jordanian girl.
For that alone – the heroine of the show is in fact a lot more than just that. Salma Malhas, who plays the main protagonist Mira, is actually a pioneering tour de force in this entire first Arabic Netflix original and a huge debt will be owed to her being courageous and honest enough to kiss on screen. While many may have taken risks and and put themselves on the line to see this show materialize; Salma put her neck on the line to evoke a very simple truth that is compounded with complicated socio-cultural patriarchal gender hypocrisy.
Salma has taken the hit for the team. For Arab/Jordanian girls and women that her character acknowledges into existence by depicting on screen a version of the reality behind the scenes. For anyone who doesn’t think love and lust are a contentious topic that should be self censored. For daring to be different and popping the bubble on the myth that the collective honor or the morality of the masses rests on the lips of any one girl. For showing us that this Arab small screen faux pax can be challenged by one onscreen trailblazer. Not that it can – but that it just did.
For that and much more – a resounding THANK YOU is owed to Salma.
Not only that. But Salma can act and she can do it alluringly well. Her lead is matched by a captivating performance by the dynamic Sultan Khail who plays, Yassin, a downtrodden classmate and old friend of hers who’s days of being bullied at home and at school are soon to be over as he transforms into the ultimate antagonist to Salma’s protagonist. There are some other performances with potential too; but this is where Jinn begins to fall short of meeting expectations hanging on its neck like a noose for being Netflix’s first Arabic original.
The Sad Case of the Arabic Script
Why waste paper when we can waste a perfectly good opportunity.
As a producer working in Arabic content development and scripting, I can attest that this really does seem to be the attitude of many in the industry. As a viewer, I don’t think it takes much to realize that this is true of many Arabic series.
Idea development and script writing is a very challenging and laborious process. It requires equal parts creativity and technical skills. Anyone can tell a story, some can write it, but few can script interwoven plot-lines that illuminate one aspect of the characters while casting a shadow over another to be revealed as the story unfolds to shape ideas. In the end, good shows succeed at getting all the elements of production to synch-up in capturing the imagination and engaging audiences intellectually and emotionally in a constructed reality.
This is often where Arabic drama falls apart, and where Jinn certainly leaves a lot to be desired. This is easily demonstrated in the fact that the strong actors like Salma and Sultan, who have gone through the trouble of understanding who their characters are and succeed at manifesting their truths, couldn’t keep their characters on track as hurdles were being dodged. Hurdles caused by a thinly spread plot with holes and repetitions that loses its momentum and falls flat. No amount of talented performances, cinematography and directing can really mask a weak script.
It’s hard to tell what went wayside for Jinn that lead it to make the same fateful mistake that Arabic productions have been doing for decades – not committing enough pen to paper.
The Show’s creators Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dessani, all of whom have their rising star pegged on relatively robust writing, left a lot to be desired. They didn’t lend enough of the story to the textured and rich material that exists on Jinn in the region. Despite the simplistic story that lays flat tonally, Jinn explores some important teen themes in a promising premise set against the stunning backdrop of Petra that is beautifully shot by various directors including Jordanian Amin Matalqa.
J is very much for Jordan
While indeed Jinn is as much an Arab production as it is a Netflix one, in many ways the best things about it lay in the fact that at the core of it all is a very Jordanian show.
Perhaps if Jordanian producer/writer Bassel Ghandour, who’s name was initially attached to Jinn, wrote the script, he could’ve injected more of the Jordanian authenticity and consistency that allowed the film Theeb to shine for example. As far as Jordanian productions go, scripts that grew wings and soared to national and international acclaim like Theeb, often had the blood, sweat and tears of a band of sisters and brothers beating their drum behind the rising local talent. The likes of George David and Nadine Toukan were among invisible hands workshopping, drafting and redrafting Jordan-bred productions. Such love and devotion for getting the script right is the single biggest missing link for this Jordanian path paver to have seized this golden opportunity.
In the last 48hrs since Jinn dropped, a stream of angry comments have ensued on social media, berating the show for misrepresenting Jordan and accusing it of being dangerous and damning to the extent that it should be ‘banned’. This is a very Jordanian response to a very Jordanian problem – but in it lies a golden opportunity for Jordan to deepen its audiovisual storytelling tradition and begin the groundwork for a permanent local industry.
If Jordan wants a permanent seat at the international table, it has to be brave and honest enough to enable the dialogue that Jinn is generating to blueprint the parameters within which it will create avant-garde, independent productions that push the envelope.
The Jordan Royal Film Commission, an entity behind the growing film and TV industry in Jordan, has facilitated numerous Hollywood productions filming in Jordan and supported the production of Jordanian and Arab films and shows, including Jinn. They have had to come out with strong language clarifying their role on the series and taking a strong stance against the backlash for Jinn breaking the glass ceiling on some taboo topics. Likewise, Netflix has released a statement unapologetically standing by its show and stating that they will not heed to pressures to censor and shame the show and its makers. They both reminded their followers that Netflix is a membership based streaming platform and people who view Jinn on it are choosing to do so and could opt out.
This is a very unique moment in Arab content history and I am so proud that Jordan is at the centre of it all. Jinn is just the beginning and while things got off to a shaky start, the guts and glory behind Jinn are just the kind we need to launch the opportunity for competitive, creative and contemporary Arab storytelling.