Against corruption and for culture

“Documenting the Undocumented” by Huda Beydoun, 2013.

Misk Art Institute is organizing an October Arab art festival in New York and sending Saudi artists to study in California

By Rasheed Abualsamh

The sweep against corruption in Saudi Arabia began to wind down on Jan. 27, 2018, when Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman, was released from his luxury jail at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the capital, Riyadh.

Hours earlier, an interview that he gave to the Reuters news agency was posted on the internet. In the video, the prince – whose personal wealth is estimated at US$17 billion, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world — categorically denied that he is corrupt and said he had insisted on spending more time in the hotel to get rid of all suspicions. It seemed strange how he showed the little kitchen where they brought vegan dishes for his meals, since he owns a palace in Riyadh with more than 400 rooms. Alwaleed said he will return to running Kingdom Holding, which includes several cable TV networks, a record label, a stake in Banque Saudi Fransi and large stakes in Citibank, Apple, Twitter, and Lyft, among others.

News of Alwaleed’s release made the value of Kingdom Holding shares rise 10% in one day, after having fallen more than 20% when he was arrested in November.

Bakr bin Laden, the former head of the Saudi Binladin Group, was also freed last week. But the government now controls the construction company, although the Bin Laden family holds several seats on the executive board. The contractor faced difficult times in recent years, despite being hired for decades for the expansion of the mosques in Mecca and Medina. But a lamentable accident occurred in the Great Mosque of Mecca in 2015, when a crane fell during a violent gale and killed 107 people. It seems that this sealed the fate of the company, which never recovered from the accident.

In any case, the Saudi attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, announced on Jan. 30, 2018, the end of investigations into the 325 people who had been detained at the Ritz-Carlton. He also announced that the government had recovered US$107 billion in deals made with the detained princes and businessmen. About 60 prisoners remain, who have refused to make a deal or admit to having made money illegally. They were transferred to Al-Hair prison, south of the Saudi capital, and will face legal proceedings.

As far as the eye can see, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has the support of the Saudi population for this anti-corruption campaign and for his liberalizing steps. Under his influence, his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has allowed Saudi women to drive automobiles from June of this year. Until 2017, the conservative kingdom was the only country in the world that banned women from driving. King Salman also ordered the reopening of cinemas, after a break of more than 30 years, and allowed the entrance of women in sports stadiums to attend football matches.

But it is in the area of ​​culture that MBS is going further. He authorized the formation of the Misk Art Institute and appointed the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater to direct the institution. The Crown Prince already chairs the Misk Foundation, with educational, social, and cultural programs aimed at Saudi youth.

The institution has several Saudi artists on display at a museum in Brooklyn, New York, and is choosing the design for the Saudi pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. The institute will also organize an Arab art festival in New York in October, and send Saudi artists to study in California. More than 60% of management positions in the entity are held by women.

Saudi directors were very excited about the news that cinemas were going to open again in the country. Until now, they could only display their works abroad or on the internet. Now, with these cultural reforms, they will be able to show their films in local cinemas or on Saudi TV.

Saudi filmmaker Faiza Ambah, who filmed “Mariam” in France in 2015 — about the struggle of a young Muslim woman on whether to use the hijab (Islamic veil) in her public school — told me that she recently showed her film to a mixed group of young Saudis at a café in Jeddah, and then participated in a conversation with the public about the topics touched on in her film.

“The audience’s reaction was very surprising to me,” she said. “First, they understood the movie on several levels. They really were movie fans. Half the audience was female, and two girls talked about relationships that did not work out over the issue of whether or not to use the hijab,” said the director.

According to Faiza, the next exhibition of a movie in that café is already scheduled, and will be a film of another Saudi director, Shahad Ameen.

Faiza told me that she has already received invitations to show short films on Saudi TV, and that the Misk Foundation is granting funding to filmmakers in the kingdom. “The King Abdul Aziz Cultural Center in the Eastern Province is also supporting Saudi filmmakers. They called me a year ago and asked me to share new projects with them, and they wanted to support me. And a university professor who was in the audience offered to provide me her students to be interns on any project that I would execute.”

Only five years ago, this level of official support for Saudi artists and filmmakers did not exist. Film funding always came from the private sector, and even so, several Saudi filmmakers had to seek foreign funding to make their films. But now, it seems the Saudi government has realized the soft power that culture has. It remains to be seen how much freedom Saudi artists will have.

–This article appeared originally in Portuguese in O Globo newspaper.

Brazilian Soaps Profit from New Story Line: The Lives of the Booming Middle Class

Nina and Max in a scene from Avenida Brasil. (Photo courtesy Rede Globo)

This story appeared at International Business Times on Sept. 8, 2012


By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

BRASILIA, Brazil – In South America, soap operas are an immensely popular genre. And in Brazil, the biggest country and economy in the region, they are the mirror of the nation’s newfound economic success.

The new Brazilian middle class, commonly referred to here as the “C-class,” is becoming the focus of marketers and soap opera writers, both eager to cash in on the culture and tastes of this huge swath of the Brazilian population.

The phenomenon is evident in one of the most popular programs in the nation, the 9 pm soap opera Avenida Brasil on Globo TV (which is itself, in a reflection of Brazil’s growing clout, the second-biggest TV network in the world by revenue behind ABC.) The prime-time soap has gone to extreme lengths to accurately display this new middle class, with the whole drama focusing on characters living in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, something that had not been tried before in Brazilian TV.

Soap operas have usually focused on the swanky neighborhoods of Rio and São Paulo, where the A and B classes live, or the top of Brazilian society, according to a now-popular A-to-E classification. In this analysis, people in the C-class are the backbone of Brazil’s new consumer economy, and soap operas are increasingly featuring the way they live.

The main story line of Avenida Brasil is the obsessive quest for revenge by Nina/Rita, who as a child was abandoned in a garbage dump in Rio by her evil stepmother Carminha and her lover Max, after they both rob and push Nina’s father to his death. Years later, Nina returns and gets herself employed as a cook in the suburban mansion of Tufão, a rich (and cuckolded) former football star who is now married to Carminha.

The soap, or novela, as they are called in Portuguese, has been so successful that it has garnered a market share average of 38 points in the greater São Paulo area alone, according to the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics. That means 65 percent of all televisions in Brazil are at some point tuned in to Avenida Brasil.

This has not escaped the attention of marketers, who are always eager to reach this new mass of Brazilian consumers. Evidence of this are the endless commercials for new flat-screen TVs, mobile phones and refrigerators that appear when this novela and others air.

“Brazilian novelas have always had suburban characters ever since the 1970s and 1980s. What is different now is that mainstream TV networks are focusing much more on what the marketers call the ‘new middle class’ or the C-class,” said Heloisa Buarque de Almeida, a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo. “This is a section of the population that has ascended economically since the years of the Lula government, and they are consuming much more now.”

Middle Class On $875 A Month

Granted, the C-class isn’t making a lot, in absolute terms, when compared to similar earners in Europe or the U.S. But in a developing country, where the average family income for the upper levels of the C-class is around R$1,750 a month or $875, they make enough to have money left for disposable income.

And that’s also enough money to attract advertisers that have already flocked to Brazil’s fast-growing economy, Almeida said. “In the 1980s and 1990s, advertisers were much more focused on the A and B upper classes. It is only fairly recently that they have realized the significant volume of consumption of the more popular classes. So that is why ‘Avenida Brasil’ is so focused on characters that came from the poorer classes but who have succeeded in moving up into the middle classes.”

José Afonso Mazzon, a professor of marketing at the University of São Paulo, has studied this social mobility phenomenon, and he is going to publish his findings, along with Professor Wagner A. Kamakura of Duke University, in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, in the first semester of 2013. Titled “Social Class and Consumption in an Emerging Economy,” their study looks at the consumption patterns of all social classes in Brazil. Mazzon said that there had been a noticeable increase in disposable income starting in 2003, which is the same year that the government of then-President Luis Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva greatly expanded the Bolsa Familia wealth transfer program through monthly government payments to the poorest of families.

“We saw a huge shift in spending patterns of the C-class population starting from 2003, when the Bolsa Familia program freed some of their income to be spent on other things than just basic necessities,” explained Mazzon. “The yearly growth in the minimum salary, always above the inflation level, also helped propel consumers in the lower classes to eat out more, go on trips, buy more meat, chicken, and fish, and spend more of their income on personal beauty goods such as shampoos, soaps, perfumes and manicures.”

Mazzon now believes that 14 million families are part of the C-class, which if multiplied by four, means that 56 million Brazilians have landed in this new middle class, or roughly one-third of the population. In contrast, he estimates that only 25 percent of the population is in the A and B classes, giving advertisers good reason to focus on the C segment.

Language, Music, Fashion

But Avenida Brasil is not only a reflection of this new middle class. It also influences popular culture, from its catchy soundtrack to the jewelry that the main characters wear and that people now want to buy.

Not that jewelry and social mobility can buy class. The producers know this, and Avenida Brasil’s characters are, despite their newfound money, still a little unrefined. One of the directors recently told the Folha de São Paulo that she studied how people spoke in the suburbs and then instructed the actors playing Tufão’s family to speak in a similar manner.

“I told all of them to speak at the same time, one on top of the other, sort of shouting, while they are being filmed having meals around the dining table,” said Amora Mautner, who as one of the many directors on the soap is tasked with filming Tufão’s family. “I think of Tufão as a nice version of Tony Soprano.”

The novela’s opening song “Dança com Tudo,” penned by the relatively unknown songwriter Robson Moura, has been a big hit. Many users of social media use the song’s opening line of “Oi, oi, oi,” in their many snarky Twitter messages about the show.

“This song has been a big hit because it’s so catchy,” said Jads Antunes, 26, who works in public relations and often uses “Oi, oi, oi” in his Tweets about the soap opera.

Even in the realm of costume jewelry, Avenida Brasil is having an effect, with the earrings used by the character Suelen and the many bracelets and necklaces worn by Carminha a big hit among women in markets across the country.

“Suelen’s long earring has been very popular among my customers,” said Ana, 27, who has been selling women’s costume jewelry at Brasilia’s Feira dos Importados market for five years. “I’ve sold out of Carminha’s saint medallion necklace,” she said, adding that it was a little more expensive, at R$65 or $32.50, than her other items. At the stall of another seller named Milena, Carminha’s gold-toned bracelets were fast sellers at R$35 ($17.50) for a shiny set of three.

Yet, for all its consumerist implications, Avenida Brasil is as much the image of the new Brazil as it is steeped in a traditional Latin American trope: the hyper-dramatic novela full of intrigue and passion, where the inevitable character of the cruel stepmother is the focus of everybody’s hatred. This, too, has an economic consequence. Milena, the bracelet vendor, summed it up when explaining why Carminha’s jewelry wasn’t selling as fast as the other characters’: “It’s because she’s evil, so there’s not that much demand for all of her stuff.”

Click here to read the story on the IBT website.

Saudi filmmaker makes YouTube splash

The Saudi filmmaker Mohamed Makki in Jeddah.

This article was published by the International Business Times

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Saudi Arabia is a country of 27 million people, and not a single movie theater. Still, filmmakers there are a rising force — and Mohamed Makki is one of the names to follow, thanks to an Internet mini-series called “Takki.” In three months the first episode has racked up more than a million hits on YouTube. The second and third episodes had more than 700,000 hits each within a month of being posted.

YouTube is hugely popular in Saudi Arabia, which has 12 million Internet users but 90 million YouTube page views a day, according to a report in Al-Arabiya. One reason might be that movie theaters have been banned since the 1980s, to appease conservative clerics.

Saudi filmmakers have had to turn to the Internet in order to get an audience for their films, and Makki is no different. His “Takki” is the story of a group of young Saudi men trying to make films in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, and of their romantic entanglements with women.

“Much of the story is based on my own life,” Makki, 23, said in an interview recently. “I have my own production company called Kingdom Pictures. We produce corporate films and documentaries. That pays the bills. But I’m more interested in storytelling, which is ‘Takki’, a project that I have been working on for a year and half.”

Makki hopes to eventually film several seasons of “Takki” – which means “where are we going to hang today?” in Mecca slang — with each season consisting of 12 episodes. Each episode so far has been only 10 to 14 minutes long each, something he has done deliberately, aware of the short attention spans of today’s youth.

In the series, Moayad Althagafi plays Malek, a twenty-something aspiring filmmaker who hangs out in a trendy café-lounge in Jeddah with his buddies Majed , Abdullah and Badur. One day Malek meets and films a woman, Bayan, while shooting a documentary at the café. At the end of the day she is standing outside waiting for her driver to pick her up – since women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia — and ends up being harassed by a carload of young guys. Malek just happens to be leaving at the same time, and after much persuasion she agrees to accept a lift home in his car, mostly to escape the rowdy teenagers. Sitting in the back of Malek’s messy car she finds an interesting book that he insists she take to read. From this seemingly innocent premise — something that would hardly raise eyebrows in the West but does in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are strictly segregated — stems a social scandal that will make Bayan’s life hell. And in another twist to the plot, Malek does not know yet that Bayan is the new fiancée of his best friend Majed.

Social Disaster

“Bayan will face the consequences. Her father is going to find out about it, her fiancé is going to find out about it, and people on the Internet and social media are going to talk badly about her. Her reputation is going to be ruined, and she’s going to be devastated, crushed,” said Makki.

In such a stifling social climate, the director and his crew are surprisingly able to bend some rules. They’ve even filmed men and women together without being harassed by the religious police, who regularly raid restaurants in order to try and catch unmarried couples having romantic dinners. Sometimes they’ve filmed in public: “We just go ahead and start filming, we don’t stop to ask for official permission as that would slow things down,” explained Makki.

ABS-CBN tries to eat its cake with Cory funeral

WILLIE Revillame, the host of the wildly popular noontime variety show Wowowee on ABS-CBN Television, is no stranger to controversy. His latest venture into hot water occurred on Monday when he objected on the air to having the “live” windows on television screens showing the procession of the body of the late President Corazon Aquino from La Salle Green Hills Gym to Manila Cathedral.

“It’s not right that we’re having fun here on Wowowee and then viewers also watching the funeral procession of Cory Aquino. Please take away the small windows,” said Willie in Tagalog, apologizing to his bosses at the network.
The technicians in the control room followed his instructions and took away the two live boxes that had been showing Cory Aquino’s funeral procession.
According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, bloggers and viewers were outraged at Willie’s remarks, saying they were insensitive and should not have been said on the air.
I must admit to agreeing with Willie this time, even though I have criticized him harshly in the past for other sexist and sleazy remarks he has made on the show in the past. He says that he told the ABS-CBN that he was ready to give way to live broadcast of Cory’s funeral procession, but that the network had forced him to go on with his live show.
I call this a case of greedy ABS-CBN trying to have its cake and eat it too! They should have chosen one or the other, and certainly not try to mix the sad and emotional pictures of the former president’s body being taken to the Manila Cathedral, while skimpily clad women gyrated and laughed on Wowowee. That was truly grotesque and revealing in a horrifying way of how ABS-CBN felt the money-making vulgarity of Wowowee had to continue no matter what, even if Cory Aquino were being mourned and buried.
Willie shouldn’t have apologized. ABS-CBN should apologize for mixing the two events together. What they did was unforgivable and in terrible taste. Shame on them!

Watching ‘Showdown in Little Tokyo’ and camp Pakistani movies

FOUR weeks into my business trip to Saudi Arabia, I’ve been watching hotel television and have noticed that most of the channels are Islamically-correct news or sports channels.

Not that I was expecting X-rated channels. Far from it. But out of the 60 channels I currently have in the cheaper hotel I’m now staying at in Jeddah after leaving the Crowne Plaza, 50 per cent of them are football channels, 30 per cent are Arabic news channels, while only 20 per cent of them are movie and entertainment channels in Arabic and English.

The Fox Movie channel seems to specialize in films from the late 1980s and early 1990s that no one watched in movie theaters when they were initially released, but do watch now because they’re on a free channel and because there are scant other choices.

Being a captive in a hotel room means that I have been watching snippets of channels that I would never usually watch. The other day I watched a Turkish soap opera dubbed into Arabic that featured a pretty young woman with long dark brown hair being chased around Berlin airport by two Arab-looking men, until she managed to escape onto a flight to Istanbul. Lurking in the shadows of the airport was a German-looking man who it seems was the boyfriend of the pursued woman.

Another night I caught a Pakistani movie from the late 1960s that had a ridiculous romantic storyline but featured the best mod clothes and hairdos that I had seen in a long time. Of course, in between the channels that I watched were plenty of other ones offering the usual endless parade of Egyptian movies featuring characters shouting their heads off and trying to pull off what they think are comedic acts.

On Dubai One I caught Rosie O’Donnell being interviewed on the Tyra Banks Show. Her face looked so weird, her mouth frozen in a strange way, that I swore she had Botoxed herself to hell.

The best movie I’ve seen so far in my hotel stay was the 1991 Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren film Showdown in Little Tokyo. Lundgren is police detective Chris Kenner, an American who grew up in post-World War II Japan, and whose parents were brutally murdered in front of his eyes by a member of the Japanese Yakuza. He’s paired with Lee, who plays a biracial cop who does not know much about Japanese culture despite having a Japanese mother.

The best line in the movie is when Lee tells Lundgren that his penis is the biggest one he’s ever seen: “Just in case we get killed, I just wanted to say you’ve got the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a man.”

“Thanks, I don’t know what to say,” Lundgren replies. Watch the clip above.

Unfortunately, parts of the movie were so mutilated in order for it to be shown on a family-oriented TV channel, that I was not able to see much of Lee’s or Lundgren’s bodies in the Japanese bath scene. The scene where they are both bare chested while being tortured with electrical jolts while strapped down to metal bed frames, is deliciously sexy, what with Lundgren’s tight jeans and Lee’s abs.

Project Runway Philippines rocks!

I have been a fan of the television reality show Project Runway since I first heard about it online and ordered the DVDs of the show from Amazon a few years ago. Hosted by the super-model Heidi Klum, I loved the whole concept of having various fashion designers compete against each other every week to see who could make the most fabulous frock or creative outfit.

Now, to my great joy, there is a Project Runway Philippines which debuted in the Philippines on July 30, 2008, on cable’s ETC Entertainment Central and on free TV through SBN 21. I only recently was able to watch the entire first episode on YouTube and liked what I saw.

This is in stark contrast to Jessica Zafra who said on her blog that she thought PRP “is the drab distant relative of the original series—the cousin from the province who gets sent to your house for summer vacation, doesn’t utter a word, acts like you’re about to push her down a well, and refuses to get on the escalator because it’s the devil. The show follows the series’ format, but it has all the excitement of homework. It’s no surprise that the production values can’t match those of the original—I assume budgetary constraints (But if the producer wasn’t prepared to spend spend spend, why bother getting the franchise?) and all the other logistical issues that are usually solved through the puede na method.”

I beg to disagree! I found the show to be a faithful reproduction of the American original. It was just as slick, just as well edited and the contestants just as interesting and varied in their talents, experience and ages. Jessica goes further and accuses the participants to be too buttoned-up and self-conscious. Once again I beg to disagree.

Hosted by the Filipino-American model and actress Teresa Herrera, PRP also has fashion designer and faculty member of the School of Fashion and the Arts Jojie Lloren as the mentor (playing Tim Gunn’s role), and Filipino model Apples Aberin-Sahdwani with top fashion designer Rajo Laurel as part of the judging panel. The winner of each season wins P500,000, a spread in Mega magazine, a start-up business package and the chance to show their collection in Philippine Fashion Week.

The first episode starts with all 14 contestants meeting at Manila’s Liwasang Bonifacio, where they are greeted by Herrera and meet Lloren. They are quickly plunged into their first challenge, after a drink of fresh coconut juice, in which they have to create a dress from material draped inside two jeepneys. The eldest contestant, Loida Hunter, is a 51-year-old dressmaker from San Pedro, Laguna, who ends up with only the leftovers after complaining that she wasn’t as fast as the other contestants in running to the jeepneys and snatching the fabrics because of her older age. No one befriends her, and it seems clear that she’s not going to make it. True enough, her uninspired dress made of green material gets the worst reviews during the runway show and she is eliminated.

I can’t wait to watch further episodes of PRP on YouTube.

The hot host of Project Runway Philippines Teresa Herrera.

TV as a Reflection of Society

WHAT appears on television in most countries is a useful reflection of what topics are on the mind of the people and what is considered socially acceptable. Both Philippine and Brazilian television have current shows that reflect similarities in outlook that come from being developing and Catholic nations.

In Brazil this month I watched the country’s most popular telenovela “Paraiso Tropical” which airs on the country’s largest TV network Globo. One of its main characters is a social-climber prostitute called Bebel played by Camila Pitanga. She was originally supposed to be an evil “contravida”, but her struggle to lift herself out of prostitution by snagging a rich husband is being viewed positively by a majority of the show’s viewers, making Pitanga one of the show’s and country’s hottest new stars.

In a newspaper interview the head writer of “Paraiso Tropical” said that he and the other writers of the telenovela were surprised that Bebel turned out to be such a favorite of the viewers. But in a country like Brazil where there are so many poor people, and the gap between the rich and poor is still so large, is it no wonder that viewers identify and root for a character such as Bebel?

In the Philippines, ABS-CBN television is embarking on a similar telenovela with the launch of “Margarita”. So far only teaser ads are being shown, but it seems to be the story of a female dancer torn between loving two men a la “Burlesk Queen”. Starring Wendy Valdez of Pinoy Big Brother fame, I’m sure Margarita will undoubtedly pull herself out of the sleaze of nightclubs and into a better life, only to be eternally haunted by her fleshy origins. But the new telenovela is not getting very good previews, even though no one has seen any episode of it yet. One Filipino blogger said: “Brace yourself for crappy acting from the lead stars Wendy, Bruce, and Diether on July 30.”

ABS-CBN is launching “Margarita” as a replacement for their martial arts, science-fiction telenovela “Rounin” which has been a dismal failure with viewers. Obviously, television executives believe that viewers will be able to identify more with the struggles of a showgirl than with the flying fights of the characters on “Rounin”.

Some commentators made a big deal when “Paraiso Tropical” launched in Brazil because it includes a gay, male couple. But they are depicted as young, professionally successful men who live together in a nice apartment. Globo said it was never going to show the couple kissing each other as it had polled its viewers and found out that the majority of Brazilians were not ready to see that just yet on their TV screens.

But Globo television has been hyper-successful in making and exporting telenovelas to countries around the world. One such weekly series, “Malu Mulher”, was a huge hit when it aired in 1979. Starring Regina Duarte, one of Brazil’s best actresses, as a recently divorced sociologist living in Sao Paulo with her 11 year old daughter, the show was innovative and progressive for dealing with such sensitive topics such as abortion, divorce and the rights of working women.

I was delighted to find the whole series on DVD when I was in Brasilia. I immediately bought it and watched a few episodes at home, finding that it still was excellent even 28 years after it first aired. What was amazing to me was the bold dialogue of the characters, especially given the fact that Brazil then was still under a military dictatorship and all television shows were closely scrutinized by government censors who strictly monitored programs for anything they could consider immoral or subversive.

If only Philippine television could produce something similar, instead of the dopey programs that networks currently churn out.
What Happened to Freedom of Speech?

THE news that foreign activists who participate in demonstrations next week at the ASEAN summit in Manila will be arrested by police and deported from the Philippines is alarming and ridiculous.

What harm can an admittedly small number of foreign activists do while protesting in Manila? As long as they are non-violent, what is the big deal? The Philippines is supposed to be one of Asia’s most democratic and freewheeling when it comes to public demonstrations and freedom of speech.

Arresting foreign activists will not only be a waste of time and public resources, it will also give the Philippines a black eye and cause unfavorable comparisons to police states such as Singapore and Malaysia, where public dissent is tightly regulated if not completely strangled.
Will the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo justify this new policy under the new Human Security Act? Perhaps. But it is a shame that foreign activists will no longer be able to come to the Philippines and join their Filipino allies in protesting governmental actions that they consider unjust.

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