Doha Film Institute Pioneers Series Lab As MENA Indie Film Producers Push Into Drama In Untapped Region

Lamia Chraibi is one of Morocco’s best-known indie film producers whose credits include Mica, about a boy from the slums who is discovered to have a talent for tennis, and Sitges prize-winning horror Achoura as well as co-producing 2016 Cannes Critics’ Week winner Las Mimosas.

The Franco-Moroccan producer, who works under the banner of La Prod in Casablanca and Moons a Deal in Paris, is now attempting to break into drama series. 

It is a transition that has been tried and tested by indie film producers in Europe and North America but is less common in the Middle East and North Africa. 

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Chraibi is giving it a shot in the belief that North African drama could eventually enjoy the same popularity as the non-English language shows out of Scandinavia, Turkey or South Korea.

“I’m convinced that they could seduce audiences in the same way,” she says. 

“Language and origin of a series is no longer an issue, if anything, there’s an appetite to see stories set in other worlds and once a series from a certain region takes off, people will seek out other series from that region.”

A game-changer, she says, would be more support from local broadcasters and platforms for development.

“For the ecosystem to grow we need some support from within our own countries, from the local broadcasters, for example, so we can retain our authenticity and also get projects to a stage where they can attract regional and international partners,” she explains.

Chraibi is at Series Mania this week under her own steam for meetings on three drama series she has in development: MeskounMiara and Noor

Meskoun is a pan-Arab fantasy about a man who drowns while trying to enter Europe illegally via a dangerous small boat Mediterranean crossing. He is washed up alive on a beach a week later, his body carrying the souls of the other people who went down with him. 

The show, created by Berlinale regular Hicham Lasri (Starve Your DogJahilya), was announced as a development project in late 2019. Chraibi says Lasri is currently rethinking the proposal after initial interest in the project went off the boil during the pandemic.

Noor is billed as a “mystery, sci-fi dramedy” set against the backdrop of Morocco’s Ouarzazate film studios and revolving around what happened to a six-year-old girl after she disappeared, to turn up two days later, apparently unharmed, but somehow different.

Miara is a historical fantasy drama set against the backdrop of 7th Century North Africa revolving around a young Amazigh woman who discovers her father was a Viking king following his brutal murder and that she has inherited his special powers.

The project reunites Chraibi with Talal Selhami and Jawad Lahlou, director and co-writer of hit horror Achoura respectively. The pair attended Series Mania’s UGC Writers Campus in 2021 with the project when it was in an embryonic stage of development.

Chraibi arrives in Lille from Qatar and the Doha Film Institute’s annual Qumra incubator event for its grantee projects, which she attended with Miara alongside Selhami and Lahlou.

The project also participated in the DFI’s fledgeling Series Lab consisting of three five-day development workshops spread out across a six-month period. It is the only lab focused solely on independently developed series in the MENA region.

At Qumra, the participants further hot-housed the projects with the mentors, looking at proofs of concept and presentations and also pitched to potential partners, including companies such as Image Nation, Rise Studios. Starzplay, Shahid and TRT.

Veteran producer Neerja Narayanan who is a mentor on the program agrees with Chraibi on MENA’s untapped series potential but says it will take time for the market to take off.

“It’s an organic process and the market is just starting to open up right now,” she says.

Narayanan points to the Kuwaiti series The Exchange which launched as an Original on Netflix in February.

The 1980s-set tale of two women who take on the boy’s club of the Kuwaiti stock exchange was developed first by talk show personality and lead creator Nadia Ahmad, with co-writers Anne Sobel and Adam Sobel and producer Abdullah Boushahri, prior to Netflix boarding the project.

“It’s a sign that things are opening up in terms of local commissions. It’s going to take a while but there is interest there and it’s growing,” continues Narayanan.

“Very sophisticated local markets like South Korea, India, other parts of South Asia, Brazil, and Mexico took a few years to get going in terms of interesting, original content that pushed the envelope, with different genres, that were both a combination of a co-production sort of a model and a sole commission by one streamer or one platform.”

Narayanan connected with the DFI Series Lab through her work as Lab Leader for The Gotham Series Labs, which acted as a model for the DFI.

Her career includes senior roles for content development and production at 21st Century Fox, Sony Pictures, and what is now Disney Studios India for global content as well as stints with Channel Four UK, the UK Film Council and sales agency Capitol Films. She currently has a producing deal at Sony Pictures International Productions.

“The goal is to give creators, producers, writers in the region and people in different facets of the entertainment industry, the information, tools and contacts necessary both from a creative perspective, but also a business perspective that will actually allow them to develop original projects and be able to work with a studio when they come in.”

Other MENA drama series at Qumra included Gilbert Karam‘s Beirut-set political thriller Status Quo, which Lebanese producer Pierre Saraf of Beyrouth Films has also taken to Series Mania; Faisal Attrache’s From The Mountain, about the historic figure of Syrian nationalist Sultan Basha Al Atrash and Alyaa Musa’s The House That My Mother Built following eight women’s experiences during the 2019-2022 Sudanese revolution.

Fresh from her Special Jury Award for Creative Vision for Animalia, French-Moroccan director Sofia Alaoui also participated remotely with Let The Earth Burn, a police procedural revolving around the case of missing children in the Atlas mountains.

“She has a unique vision. It’s True Detective in the Atlas Mountains. That’s how I see it,” says Narayanan

There were also two shows from outside the region, Armenian sci-fi, eco-thriller Land Of Nairi and Democratic Republic of the Congo-set adventure Nguya, about an aspiring female engineer who is befriended by a robot with superhero powers hailing from the coltan mines of Eastern Congo.

Narayanan says the lab is not purely focused on individual projects.

“What we always tell them is do a short-term strategy and a long-term strategy. The long-term strategy is we want them to succeed as a brand, as an artist and as a creator, whether it’s with this project or not,” she says.

“There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip, even with the best-packaged projects. However, if it can even be used as a calling card for them, to get representation, get exposure, to get hired to build a sustainable career within this region, that’s already a success in our book.”

Sometimes the Lab may encourage the creators to opt for a different format for the story they are trying to tell, as was the case with Sudanese director Musa’s The House That My Mother Built.

“It started out as a fiction series and then morphed into a non-fiction series and is now multimedia project with a web series, installation art pieces and a website. She’s got a platform and as a black, Muslim Sudanese woman, it’s so gratifying for us to see her empowered in terms of telling the stories,” said Narayanan

A handful of the participants are also mulling a podcast based on their material as a first step.

“In terms of production capabilities, it’s low-hanging fruit. They’ll get the project out there,  generate interest and create some underlying material, and it’s a proof of concept,” explains Narayanan.

Talking about the support for Miara by the lab and Qumra, Chraibi said the experience had been invaluable for the whole team.

“We’ve been working on the project alone and thanks to Qumra we have another family. They really looked after it with a lot of interest as if it were their own project,” she says.

Chraibi said the meetings were useful in that they were with people genuinely interested and focused on the MENA region as well as players outside the usual cohort of global platforms such as Netflix and Amazon.

“Qumra casts the net a bit wider. We met Turkish professionals, for example, which was great because Turkey has already proved itself and we can learn from their experiences.”

For now, the lab and Qumra showcase focus purely on projects in development but both Narayanan and Chraibi believe there is scope for it to expand to become a key jump-off point for indie series out of MENA.

“It could definitely become a platform for the region,” says Chraibi.

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