Beirut, Lebanon – A Syrian television star is sweating profusely below two large portraits of President Bashar al-Assad, but the actor has no time to change his shirt.
With generators purring and the cast and crew of 200 standing by, director Seif Sbei has to move quickly to the next scene.
“Work it into the role,” he tells the actor hurriedly from behind a monitor. “Your character is distraught.”
A native of Damascus, Sbei has directed or acted in over a dozen Syrian TV shows and soap operas, but something is very different this time.
Although the production is set on the streets of Syria, his latest series has been filmed entirely in Lebanon, using locations and props to mimic the suburbs and countryside of his homeland.
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Sbei is one of hundreds of Syrian film and TV professionals who have flocked across the border in the last year.
The focus in recent months has been to shoot productions for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Middle East’s prime television season.
“It’s very dangerous to make a series in Syria,” says scriptwriter Mohamed Abou Labban at a café in Beirut’s trendy Hamra district.
“All the stars are here,” he adds, listing prominent actors and directors and gesturing towards Hamra’s bustling strip. “If you walk from Dunkin’ Donuts to Costa Coffee, you’ll find half the Syrian industry.”
At least five major Syrian productions are being shot in Beirut, according to Abou Labban, but many steer clear of politics, such as We’ll Return Home Soon, which follows a Syrian family forced to move to Lebanon “for personal reasons”.
There are vague references to the violence, but Abu Labban says directors are avoiding scripts that discuss the reality of a country torn by civil war because big regional broadcasters are not interested in stories that could divide their audience.
“You can’t talk about Syrian problems without touching the violence,” he says. “And no one wants to buy it.”
While the show Wiladi Min Khasiri contains several explosions and kidnapping scenes, its first episode is cautiously vague when describing the combatants.
Scores of new programmes are screened every Ramadan and Syria was once an entertainment powerhouse on a par with Egypt, producing about 50 shows per season.
But competition from other countries in the region – and the conflict – has drastically reduced output to a dozen per season.
The move to Beirut may help those numbers rebound slightly, but Abou Labban wonders how long scriptwriters will be able to avoid discussing the war, and pretending that Lebanon is Syria.
The Syrian writer is learning about Lebanon ... When in exile, you change. The Syrian people are changing, and the Lebanese people will change too.
“Of course a lot of people are going to think it’s rubbish. The Syrian viewer opens a window and he can’t find the reality he sees in the series.”
Composer Munzer Kubbeh, who writes music for Syrian soap operas, suggests the conflict may be addressed in more subtle ways.
“Syrian writers are very clever. They know how to say things in indirect ways. They can use symbolism.”
Kubbeh moved to Beirut a year ago and estimates that about 80 percent of Syria’s actors are now in Lebanon as the war-torn country’s capital “is not livable any more”.
“I have more friends living here than in Damascus, which is really weird.”
Yet perceptions of the fighting vary as much on film sets as they do on the ground.
“When you watch Al Jazeera, you think it’s hell,” says Sbei, who insists he travels frequently to Damascus without incident.
“It’s just the sounds,” he explains, in reference to shelling that can be heard outside Damascus. “There is tension but people are carrying on with their lives.”
But down the hallway, past the cameras, some of his own actors waiting backstage quietly disagree. One says he was held for 24 hours when recently trying to get across the border.
“It’s a civil war,” an actor, who refused to give his name, says. “The roads are full of problems. The towns are empty.”
And Lebanon is not an entirely safe refuge. There have been reports of discrimination against Syrian labourers, and last month a bus carrying Syrian extras for a television production was attacked in East Beirut by men carrying knives.
Impact on Lebanon
Abou Labban says the influx of refugees – estimated at more than 500,000, an eighth of Lebanon’s population – is bound to have consequences.
Tents and ramshackle housing have appeared in cities and villages across the country, and Beirut’s streets are full of Syrian beggars, women carrying babies and men desperate to shine shoes.
“We are sitting on a volcano,” he says. “At any moment it can explode, socially, politically or economically.”
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Labban says he loves living in Beirut, but he is now considering leaving – because the city has become so expensive.
These experiences are, of course, likely to provide plenty of new material.
“The Syrian writer is learning about Lebanon,” Labban says. “When in exile, you change. The Syrian people are changing, and the Lebanese people will change too.”
The influx in talent is also likely to transform Lebanon’s small television industry, and broadcasters say a number of Lebanese-Syrian co-productions will be airing this Ramadan.
Kubbeh jokes that Lebanese producers, obsessed with “cigars or bikinis”, have a lot to learn.
“They are stuck with this idea of a 1940s movie – very detached from reality.”
Sbei even believes there is more creative freedom in Syria than in Lebanon.
“Would you dare talk about Mukhabarat?” he asks, in a reference to the secret police. Other Syrian directors say Lebanese taboos include the country’s civil war, sectarianism and Hezbollah.
But when asked how his script would characterise the uprising in his own country, Sbei remains tight-lipped.
The series will adopt “a third way – neither regime, nor opposition,” he says, adding with a wry smile: “You’ll have to wait and see.”