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Lebanon's online hit Shankaboot wins Digital Emmy Award

I was interviewed in this article for The National by reporter Zoi Constatine (see last 3 paragraphs).

Lebanon's online hit Shankaboot wins Digital Emmy Award
Zoi Constantine

BEIRUT // When Katia Saleh was brainstorming for an interactive web series aimed at depicting life in Lebanon, she had a wish list of topics to explore.

As the Middle East's first web drama started to take shape in 2009, Ms Saleh, the producer, wanted to be able to tackle controversial issues, such as sexuality, corruption, drugs and violence against domestic workers.

"We wanted to target the internet-addicted youth in the Arab world in general and talk about things they've not seen anywhere else," she said.

Now, less than two years on, 600,000 views on YouTube and 22,000 Facebook fans later, the Shankaboot web series has grown into something far bigger than even the show's creators could have imagined.

On Monday night Shankaboot won an International Digital Emmy Award for best digital fiction programme , at an event in Cannes, France, beating web series from the Netherlands, the UK and Brazil.

Amin Dora, the director of Shankaboot, said yesterday: "It is so rewarding, especially because it's the first time Lebanon got such an award. It shows that all our efforts to do something different and tackle social subjects meant we were fighting for a good cause."

The Shankaboot story traces the exploits of Suleiman, a Lebanese teenager who struggles to overcome the difficulties of going through life without a family. The show follows the industrious character as he weaves across the bustling city on his moped - nicknamed Shankaboot - working as one of Beirut's ubiquitous delivery guys.

"Suleiman is from the streets," Mr Dora said. "He represents the young, working Lebanese generation, trying to improve their lives. Everyone can find something about Suleiman in themselves. He's a young, conscious Arab guy, who wants things to go the right way."

The concept for an interactive Lebanese web-series was first floated by the BBC World Service Trust, who started working on the idea with Ms Saleh and her Batoota Films production company in 2009. Ms Saleh said she wanted to create something different for viewers: an online series that focused on Lebanese life and human-rights issues common across the Arab world, and not on politics, religion or the country's civil war.

"We are talking about the impact of war - the war gave birth to these problems," she said shortly before leaving for Cannes, where she was on hand to accept the Emmy award. "The purpose was to ignite debate, not to preach."

The show depicts life in Lebanon, with all its complexity and contradictions. While the writers have tried to steer clear of overtly political or religious storylines, those are topics that are hard to avoid entirely. In one episode, when Suleiman is asked what religion he is, he replies simply: "I'm Shankabootee."

"We definitely encourage a secular and nonsectarian Lebanon," Ms Saleh said. "We want the audience to take away this side of the Arab world that is not shown in the mainstream. We are trying to raise awareness and raise up the level of Arab drama."

Episodes appear every Tuesday on YouTube, but Shankaboot has a life far beyond each seven-minute episode.

It is the show's online presence in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well its interactive website, that have generated much of the interest.

On the website, Arek Dakessian, the online content and community manager, posts videos of interviews with the characters. There is also a forum where viewers discuss the show and vote on which topics they would like to see covered. The "Shankactive" section allows fans to post their own work inspired by Shankaboot - a made-up word, chosen because it had a "certain ring" to it, according to Ms Saleh.

Last Saturday, the show's cast and crew were milling around a house on Monot Street in central Beirut, where scenes were being shot for the fifth season, which is due to be aired in the next couple of months.

Hasan Akil, with his head of curly, unkempt hair, was clearly identifiable among the group as the actor who plays Suleiman, the main character.

The 18-year-old had not acted before Shankaboot, but tried out after his father told him about an open audition. Mr Akil said his character represents "Arab youth".

"Those who are struggling to live and learn and be happy: Suleiman is a symbol of that," he said.

One of the topics that resonated most with Mr Akil was a storyline on the mistreatment of domestic workers in Lebanon.

"I want to see justice in the world. On many occasions I've seen domestic workers treated badly and I hate to see that," he said.

Ramzi Salti, a fan of the show and a professor of Arabic language and literature at Stanford University, has used the series as a teaching tool for his students.

"The point, of course, is that Shankaboot presents this ugly reality in a way that both jars and awakens the viewer to issues that are often left undiscussed," said Dr Salti, who was born in Lebanon. 

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