Ramzi Salti Interviewed about Shankaboot Web Series

Click here to read my previous post about Shankaboot


I was delighted to be invited by several media outlets to speak about Shankaboot, the Emmy award winning Lebanese Web Series.  Below are two articles in which I was interviewed about the show--Ramzi Salti

1.  Article by Aline Sara, published in Now Lebanon

I was interviewed about the Shankaboot Web series by reporter Aline Sara for this piece which appeared in "Now Lebanon." --Ramzi Salti

Last winter, when Ahmed Zaki became the 20,000th fan of the Shankaboot’s official Facebook page, the cast and crew of the Arab world’s first web series rewarded him with some “shankin” paraphernalia. “We sent him a few t-shirts and USBs,” said Arek Dakessian, who manages all things related to Shankaboot’s online social media. “We make it a point to not only respond to our fans, but to also entertain them.”Shankaboot Producer Katia Saleh told NOW Extra during a phone interview that this type of entertainment is exactly the reason why the BBC World Service Trust and Batoota Films landed a nomination for the category of Best Fiction Program at the sixth International Digital Emmy Awards, which is taking place in Cannes on Monday. Shakaboot will be competing against three other productions from the Netherlands, the UK and Brazil.

“The nomination is for the project [as a whole]. [Shankaboot is] about interaction, about the online platform and the community management we are doing,” said Saleh. “It is more than just a series.”
Indeed, a glimpse of Shankaboot’s Facebook page confirms the show is more than a story about a young delivery boy.

“I will upload pictures soon [showing] my prizes… Thanks again,” read a recent post by Zaki on the program’s Facebook wall. The Shankaboot team responded enthusiastically, wishing Zaki luck with grabbing the prize reserved for the 100,000th fan.

Without a doubt, interaction between Shankaboot and its fan base is at the core of what makes the year-old series a success. “This whole online community management thing is a trend […] It’s all about getting in touch with fans,” Dakessian explained. Though the technology of online social media is already well-developed in Western societies, “Shankaboot might very well be setting the standard at the regional level,” he added.

But since the Emmy’s are an international event, Shankaboot must offer something more.
Dakessian explained that Shankaboot’s attempts to reach out to fans online might help the production stand out. It goes beyond responding to fans, he said, emphasizing the importance of engaging with the program’s supporters. To do so, Shankaboot scriptwriters touch on Lebanon’s controversial social issues, such as women’s rights as well as the rights of domestic workers. This added a new dimension to the web series. “People want to talk about these issues and need an outlet… So we encourage them to share their experiences [on our platform].”

In fact, a quintessential part of the project is the sections on the Shakaboot website dubbed “Shankactive,” where fans are welcome to post their Shankaboot-inspired multimedia ventures, and “Shankabotees,” which invites bloggers to share their posts that address themes similar to those shown on the program.

This encouraged blogger Anas al-Salah to share his caricature of children pretending to shoot guns under the title “[It’s] better without guns,” at a time when Shankaboot was addressing the topic of arms. “It’s a nice way of breeding interaction,” Salah said, who was also keen on upping his readership.
But what might surprise many Arabic speakers is that the web series have carved itself a niche among foreigners wanting to learn the language.

Juliette Bussy-Virat, a French woman working in Lebanon, said she uses the webisodes to help practice her Arabic. “A friend recommended I use the show to help practice my spoken skills. I watch it regularly, because I find the dialogue is clear and concise.”

In fact, using the series for learning purposes has gone transnational, with one Lebanese-American professor at California's prestigious Stanford University basing his lectures on the program.
“In teaching my courses, I always make sure to bring in a cultural element, [especially for] colloquial Arabic,” said Ramzi Salti, who has lectured in Arabic Language and Literature for over 12 years.

“I stumbled onto Shankaboot and was extremely impressed […] The story line is exciting, the acting is amazing, and most importantly, every webisode comes with English subtitles. My students at Stanford simply love the program,” added the professor.

“Loads of our fans are actually Lebanese [living abroad] who miss Lebanon,” confirmed Dakessian. “[The story is] about everyday problems… and I think that ideally, that’s what the Emmy people are interested in.”

According to Shankaboot Producer Saleh, viewership extends to the US, France and Canada. But the largest number of viewers is in Lebanon followed by Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This is particularly impressive considering Lebanon’s jurassic internet speed.

“It’s hard, but we manage,” Saleh admitted, “and we believe that if people want to follow us, they can still find the means to do it if they really, really love us.”

With more than 600,000 views of Shankaboot’s YouTube episodes, 23,000 Facebook fans and over 2,000 followers on Twitter, it is safe to say that the web series is rather well received.

Shankaboot has already taken home the award for the Best Web Series at Geneva’s 2010 Cinema Tout Ecrans Festival. Monday might very well be the next milestone for the flourishing project “from the streets of Beirut.”

2. Article by Zoi Constantine, published in The National

Title: Lebanon's online hit Shankaboot wins Digital Emmy Award

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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