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This was originally published at American Bedu.
American Bedu is pleased to present an exclusive interview with an inspirational Saudi woman, Aysha AlKusayer. Aysha (and her husband) have always been writers. Aysha now shares with American Bedu readers about a TV dramady she has lead with a group of 15 Saudi women under the umbrella of Scenario Creative Production; the dramady will debut on MBC Group in the near future.
American Bedu: Gosh, Aysha, I am so excited for you and for this great opportunity! How did it all get started?
Aysha AlKusayer: Please allow me to begin by shedding some light on Scenario Creative Production. In 2010, Scenario Creative Production launched as a sister company to MBC Group. It was launched as part of the New Media Department at MBC, headed by Dr. Ammar Bakkar. CEO of Scenario Creative Production is Thamer AlSikhan. Director of content is Ahmed Albishri. They are all quite a young group.
The purpose of this company is to enhance the quality of comedy and drama in the gulf region, with a primary goal of producing young Saudi cadre of professional screenwriters. Actual production for Scenario started in 2010, with a target of 150 hours of TV comedies and dramadies each year. Examples to the work of Scenario are: Um El-Hala and Comedo.
The screenwriting project I have just concluded with Scenario came as part of the initiative to renew comedy, and to bring forth a fresh perspective of things. It is written by Saudi women, about a group of aspiring career women. As is the norm in Scenario Creative Production, the writing process was conducted through brainstorming workshops. This was not previously common in Saudi Arabia, as scripts were generally written by individuals which in turn effects how dynamic and versatile the characters are.
My colleague, Hanaa Alfassi, and myself were head writers in this project under the supervision of the director of content, Mr. Ahmed Albishri. Hanaa lead a group of five ladies in Jeddah. In Riyadh, I lead a group of ten. The girls reflected a wide array of ideologies and backgrounds. Each, in her turn, lent a part of her aspiration as a Saudi woman to the story.
AB: I have so many questions for you, Aysha. Let’s start first with the workshop. When and where did this take place? What advance qualifications did the Saudi women have to have in order to participate in the workshop?
AA: Preliminary work on the project started in June and delivery of the 30 complete and revised episodes was in September. The meetings took place at the minimalistic, aromatic offices of Scenario Creative Productions. The offices have cozy meeting rooms with clear glass that bears the company’s logo, each room has a fair view of the other, smelling of tobacco and brain-watering coffee around the clock. Have you seen the company’s logo, by the way? You’ve gotta!
AB: How were you and Hanaa selected as the head writers in the project? What did that mean for the role you performed?
AA: I was handed the project with a fast approaching deadline stamped on it. There was no time to experiment with uncertain partnerships, so I had to collaborate with a partner to whom I have a working relationship. Hanaa Alfassi was perfect, as I’ve worked with her before on a TV dramady. She was in Jeddah, while I was in Riyadh, which worked well in terms of diversifying our writing group. From both ends, we sent out a series of requests for writer recommendations through our contacts. In two weeks, we had to move on with the names we had. Most of the girls we worked with were artists or writers, but whom have never tried screenwriting, which perfectly suits the ultimate goal of the company which is to train a cadre of professional screenwriters.
AB: Were you surprised by the number of participants? Did you expect more or less? Did these women have to acquire a mahrem’s approval in order to participate?
AA: We had to rely on a large number of writers for two reasons: First, to meet the deadline by writing the episodes simultaneously. Second, in order to enrich the scripts with true-to-life ideas from Saudi women from various ideological, cultural and social backgrounds. The writers were ladies who are single, married, with children, liberal, conservative, tribal, non-tribal, hijazi, najdi, etc. I don’t know if any of the participants faced difficulties with her mehrem with regards to joining the project. That said, two writers chose to release an “artistic” name instead of their real name in the credits.
AB: What has been the reaction of men in Saudi as they begin to hear about female screenwriters?
AA: Writing continues to be one of the safest platforms for self-expression for Saudi women, the real issue is the content, how controversial or conventional is it? I can’t speak for the reaction of men in Saudi, as it is important to identify the richness and diversity of opinions amongst Saudi men, based on a number of influences such as: economical, ideological, educational, and geographical factors. Artistically speaking, I believe that the more real, truthful, and multilayered the work is, the more acceptable it is by the larger society.
AB: What was it like writing script in a group setting? How did that enhance creativity? What were the biggest challenges faced with the group approach?
AA: The writing process was held in three major stages. The preliminary stage involved meetings between creators, headwriters and director of content. Second stage involved meeting with the writers, enriching scope, characters, back story, and the actual episodes. Final stage consisted of three review processes, one by the headwriters, second by the assistant director, third by the leading headwriter.
AB: Can you provide some details about the ideologies and backgrounds of the women who have contributed to the story? How easy was it for the Saudi women to create a character from their background and convert their life experience into a story?
AA: With us in the group are women who reflect the following segments: tribal, non-tribal, liberal, conservative, single, married, mothers, Central region, Eastern region, Western region, Bedouin, modern, traditional, students, employed, stay homes. All ladies were dressed in the national attire “abaya”, the professional dress code for mixed office setting.
With such a large and diverse group, it took some effort at the outset to move beyond personal opinions about what is realistic to each individual and to reach a consensus on what is realistic to the character in the story. Once the concept was established, brainstorming with the ladies was laugh-therapy. The best job on the planet!
AB: Were the women able to create freely or did a mahrem or any other individual have to approve content?
AA: The women with us were pretty mature and empowered in their own ways. Together, we formed a collective judgment of what is tasteful, what is tease-full, and what is straight out offensive. The benefit of writing in diversity is that it enables you to test-drive reactions to the final product throughout the writing process.
AB: Do you think viewers will be able to relate and identify with the female characters?
AA: It might be too early to judge, as the scripts have not been into production yet. The casting, acting, and directing are yet to determine the fate of the script. Finding professional Saudi actresses is VERY difficult. Often times, relying on actresses from the gulf region is necessary, but even “khaliji” actresses are a restrictive option. That said, we have a FANTASTIC director (Thamer Alsikhan) and assistant director (Hussam Alhulwah), and we have strong faith in their creativity J
AB: Who is the target audience of the screenplay? What language will the screenplay be in?
AA: Target audience is ladies between 25-40. Language is Arabic.
AB: Will the screenplay be broken into different episodes? If so, how many? Will this be a weekly series? Would it be shown during Ramadan?
AA: This TV dramady runs in 30 episodes, an average of 22 pages each. No airing time has been determined yet.
AB: What teaser can you give us about a favorite episode or scene of the upcoming screenplay?
AA: Tahani, a social worker in a middle school and a mother of two, is stuck in the elevator with her baby and eight year old. She has been dreading this emotional confrontation with her older daughter for a while, as she struggled with postpartum blues.
AB: What have you enjoyed most about producing a screenplay? The least?
AA: he wisdom I’ve acquired while working on this project is that the best and the worst thing about writing are deadlines.
AB: What have you learned about yourself through this whole process with supervising the other women and getting the screenplay produced?
AA: Transitioning between having a boss, and being a boss, might be one of the greatest learning curves for me. It allowed me to understand the incentives and the drivers of each role.
The second lesson I learned is that I can do it! With the help of an excel sheet, and assigning tasks to the group, I can plan out a huge project, and think of it as a simple block-by-block process.
AB: What plans do you have next for yourself?
AA: I have just started a sitcom project in Ottawa with an incredible Saudi team. Help me Carol, I keep getting myself into trouble!
AB: What do you foresee as the role and opportunities for Saudi women in creating, producing and directing? Who are the biggest proponents within Saudi Arabia in wanting to see the Saudi women more active in media?
AA: From what I see, Carol, opportunities are not out for grabs. Opportunities are created, defended, and shared by individuals whose survival depends upon the existence of those opportunities. I am proud to say that in my generation and younger are large group of aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters who thrive on art and visual forms of expression. They were born to a time when there was no platform to meet, learn, and produce, so they collaborated in groups and continued to create opportunities and share them.
How I came to work with MBC is an example of how this group support works. Upon graduating from the USA, with an MA in Screenwriting, I spent an entire year in Saudi Arabia trying to penetrate the media scene and work somewhere where my degree holds meaning. One day, and out of the blue, I received a call from Tariq Alhossaini, who invited me to join a tv dramady project. That’s when I met Hanaa Alfassi, Hazim Aljurayyan, and Sameer Arif; an inspirational group to whom I will remain indebted in my screenwriting career.
AB: If a Saudi woman has similar aspirations to yourself, where does she start? What should she study? What kind of school?
AA: Carol, I’m not good with going into specifics, but please allow me to share three major philosophies that were true to my situation, and might ring true with others. First, do not put a label on yourself from early on, by saying I am a “journalist”, “actress”, “dancer”, “poetess”, etc. If you are an artist, recognize your constant need to be many personas at once, or at intervals; if you like something, give it a try. Second, when you give something a try work hard at it because curiosity does not determine whether you are well suited for something or not. Hard work, perseverance and enjoyment are the truest measure to what you’re made for. Thomas Edison says “The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.” Third, surround yourself by artists or people of your element, because as an artist you are fragile despite any outer mask that you wear. Be around people who understand your constant need to experiment, change, and evolve, and won’t judge you just the same way they hate to be judged. Being somewhere where you feel “normal” saves you the energy to explain yourself to people who might never understand, and allows you to invest this energy in creation.
AB: Are there any additional comments you’d like to add?
AA: I would like to thank my screenwriting teacher and thesis supervisor at Portland State University, Prof. Charles Deemer, a true old-school. I came to his classes curious about screenwriting, and graduated as a committed screenwriter. The day I graduated he helped me send out a bunch of scripts to studios in Hollywood which have responded to my query letters. Up to this day, and despite his many commitments and projects, he takes the time to respond to my emails, and to answer my questions about screenwriting. How could you thank dedicated teachers like that, except by trying your best?
AB: Thanks, Aysha for this opportunity. I’ve no doubt that before too long, Aysha AlKusayer will be a household name throughout Saudi Arabia and the GCC!