Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

An Egyptian Sherlock Holmes

As the holy month starts, Soha Hesham seeks out the creators of one of Ramadan TV’s most interesting highlights

estif1
estif1
Al-Ahram Weekly

With no end of shows competing for viewers’ attention in Ramadan, the need for originality is pressing. The word estifa is criminal and police jargon for both the mudhakirat istifaa’ or “memo of fulfilment” that is a necessary part of the prosecution routine in Egypt and the policeman who stamps it. Estifa is also a show that promises to be original and good. Its creator, film editor and now co-screenwriter Ahmed Abosaada, says the idea first occurred to him while he was in a taxi on his way to a production company to suggest TV show ideas.

“The taxi driver was listening to the old whodunit radio show Mann Al-Gani,” he recounts, “which I mistakenly thought had long stopped airing. Ironically I had an appointment to discuss ideas for TV shows on the same day, but I was hooked on the subject of crime and mystery almost instantly. So I started doing some research on criminology and the crime thriller genre, reading a lot of Agatha Christie again...”

Over 10 months, with the help of screenwriter Azza Shalabi, the head writer of Estifa, the idea gradually developed into a semi-fictional, informal series of 15 crimes, each taking up two episodes. Each time the fictional, scripted mystery is solved by a different guest star who knows nothing about the crime, working on gathering and deciphering clues with the help of a permanent investigator (played by Abbas Aboul-Hassan) and a team of assistants. The witnesses’ testimonies are deceitful, forensic evidence is not revealed until necessary and it is the guest star who plays the investigator. Recalling CSI without the science and any number of crime thrillers, this is nonetheless a purely Egyptian concept steeped in local culture and mores, and however subtly it benefits from improvisation.

“When I contacted screenwriter Azza Shalabi and presented the idea to her,” Abosaada goes on, “she was excited. We had long discussions of the form and how to fit it into a 30-minute episode. The pilot took over a month to complete, but when it was ready we started looking for a company that would produce it. Many balked because the idea is so unusual, until finally the Al-Qahera Wal Nas agreed to do it.”

“The main difficulty was to find a format built on flashbacks and flash-forwards and not simply a linear narrative, so that you have the story before and after the crime but not the crime itself. Writing this kind of series was a little like shuffling cards. Anyway, we arranged a workshop: Azza Shalabi, Hatem Hafez, Alaa Hassan, Ola Abdel-Rahman and myself. More discussions ensued, and the idea developed further with everyone’s input being added, until we started looking for crimes to work on. Real-life crimes tended to be too simple without an element of mystery. Foreign crimes – serial killer cases, for example – felt too removed from the Egyptian environment to be credible. So, in order to have a compelling mystery and many suspects in every case, we ended up creating crimes from scratch. Before we settled on Estifa,” Abosaada adds, “I also suggested the title El-Kaddabin [or ‘The Liars’], which also sums up the idea of trying to work out who is lying in each two-episode mind game.”

Abosaada, a graduate of both the set design department of Helwan University’s Faculty of Applied Arts and the Raafat Elmihi Academy, wrote two short films, one with a friend, before he started working as an editor in 2002. He had been disillusioned with “experimental” projects which end up being “art for art’s sake”, as he puts it, failing to truly communicate.

“I genuinely enjoyed the experience of the workshop,” he says, “though it took time for us to reach a common understanding as a group. Everyone had to reduce their ego in the greater interest in the project, and give up on the individual-track approach to creativity. This luckily did not take as long as it could have, and afterwards comments and criticism were treated lightly and understood as objective, not personal. What took time was the challenge of keeping the viewer in a state of suspense, which was tied up with choosing the right crimes, and making sure all the information was there. Another challenge was to find a different way of speaking for each character. That is why the initial plan of 30 crimes in 30 episodes was changed to 15 crimes. We finally ended up with two robberies and 13 murders.

“Murders are the most compelling because of psychological motives, and how given the right amount of pressure in the right context everyone is capable of it. We had to establish a strong basis for the viewer to work from given the limited time allowed in each pair of episodes. I have since developed a sense of familiarity with the characters but writing is a convoluted process. Some people can do it by themselves but I needed the workshop. It was Azza who had the most trouble coordinating all the input and staying abreast of all the details...”

***

For her part Shalabi says when she first heard of the idea she was elated: “It was this intriguing mixture of genres: drama, thriller and elements of non-fiction, a puzzling game in which the viewer and the guest star share the task of solving the mystery without the technical side of police and forensic investigation. The idea is attractive not because of the suspense or as a test of the viewer’s acumen but because of the human complexities involved in different kinds of crime. It is particularly original because the star is given the information at the same time as the viewer. At first the idea was to give the star nothing at all, which would have exposed layer’s of the star’s own character, but we were concerned that improvisation might not work as we imagined, so we decided to give the stars index cards with the basic information, leaving room for improvisation. But in the end we settled on a full script for the stars as well – though the solution is not revealed until the beginning of the next crime.”

“Classifying it as a non-fiction programme would have disturbed the directors, the producers and the actors, who all see it as a serial drama. That is partly way we did away with the improvisation. It is also why we eventually rejected the idea of organising an acting workshop with 50 actors in different age groups who would end up performing more than one part each. One very positive side of the final format in my view is that the audience will see entirely different characters in each episode, which generates credibility.”

“In the writing workshop we wanted strong drama with a variety of characters of all kinds, layering psychological traits and human nature to enhance the drama. In every episode there are five or six characters and the challenge is to keep a total of some 150 characters distinct from each other, with their own rich lives and details, while at the same time channelling it all into the mystery we’re presenting.”

“It was very difficult to select the crimes. When I started with the pilot episode, I began researching the Internet for relevant topics, I wanted to know about crime in Egypt, and there were many suggestions: we thought of making the crimes governorate-specific, giving each crime the trappings of a specific part of the country: a cultural identity, a tradition, a social-political situation. But this did not prove very successful in practise. There are types of crime that are not dramatically rich in any way, one-dimensional crimes. The only crime that refers to a real-life incident is the one entitled ‘Royal Water’. We made a whole other story out of it, but the original crime was intelligent too. Still, the murder weapon is the only thing in common between the real-life story and ours.”

“Of course we watched foreign reality crimes as well, but most were likewise too limited for our purposes. Sometimes we did find inspiration in the foreign crimes. It is well-known that part of the writer’s job is to watch, watching is part of your education. But, yes, murders were always the most interesting crimes. It’s inevitable. Based on one of the directors’ suggestion we did make an experimental episode based on the stealing of a diamond watch that takes place in the 1950s, and we set it in a traditional wedding night celebration.”

This is a new path for Shalabi but, with the emphasis on the human and dramatic side, she embarked on it comfortably. Her historical Ramadan series Napoleon Wal Mahrousa [“Napoleon and the Well Protected”] had given her experience of channelling drama into a genre with extra requirements. In Estifa, for the first time, she works with four directors: Mohamed Khalifa, Hossam Ali, Maryam Ahmadi and Sherif El-Bendary. As for co-writers, in the 2009 TV series Kalam Neswan (or “Women’s Talk”), she worked with Mariam Naoum and the late Nadine Shams, then joined forces with screenwriters Ahmed Mohsen and Mohamed Farid. This time there are five writers with five different backgrounds and, though she feels this has enriched the script, Shalabi is still waiting to see the result.

“I believe in workshops,” she says. “They can bring out the best in each writer to the benefit of the project. Some projects are very suitable for workshops, others less so, but in general I think they have an innovative impact. In Egypt workshops are more difficult because of society and politics, something that becomes clear in ego problems and the failure of people to listen to each other. Of course writing is a very sensitive process anyway. At the brainstorming stage everyone needs to participate even if their ideas are vague or naive, but it is always possible to build on them and end up with something brilliant if people can overcome their shyness. In every workshop I’ve been in I always hear the same sentence over and over: ‘I want to say something but it’s not complete’.”

“But ours is the work of instability. There are no set forms or reference points or rules, no fixed format. So the whole point is to come up with an idea, build on it and tear it down and keep going back and forth until you have something. I found Abosaada’s idea appealing for me and I spent two months writing the pilot episode, that’s how the form developed. Discussions with Abosaada proved that he has an obvious talent. I’d had experience working with Hassan and Hafez. This was my first time with Abdel-Rahman, but I had read her stories and I could see potential in her. The best thing about this project is how  we would discuss everyone’s crime till we felt comfortable about the idea, then everyone would help to write it later, and again everyone would suggest alterations and make comments...”

***

For Hafez, the workshop was a positive experience because of Shalabi’s democratic way of managing it. “Shalabi ran the workshop very effectively,” he testifies, “demolishing the obstacles preventing the screenwriter from creating. She knows how to deal with the ego of a writer and how sometimes that ego is overblown. The second factor that excited me about Estifa was how as time passed the idea developed, starting as a non-fiction programme and gradually growing into a drama, with just enough drama for the crime genre to handle. Suddenly we found ourselves writing a series of short films. Every story is an hour screened over two days.”

“Since the very beginning there was a huge emphasis on creating in-depth crimes stories, especially because this genre often has the obvious flaw of flattening out the crimes. Shalabi made sure that every crime had a strong and exciting plot, and we agreed from the beginning that each would be a social event and a psychological incident and so we had the urge to analyse every crime including all the characters. In many cases we did a lot of psychological and sociological research as well as reading up on criminology. At some point we really took on the character of the investigator and laughed about leaving our fingerprints during the workshop. I think most of the stars who participated in Estifa shared these same feelings, identifying with the investigator so that they would succeed in discovering the criminal at the end.”

***

Hassan, on the other hand, wrote last year’s TV series Shams, starring Laila Elwi. “Estifa is hard to classify,” he says. “The audience have the opportunity to participate, but the mystery is presented as a fully fledged drama full of in-depth characters, that’s its specialty. Of course the genre is one of the hardest to write, and collective work is the secret of the success of important television series like Friends and Breaking Bad. A workshop is an exchange of experiences, views and culture, which inevitably enriches the project.”

“Individual work has its own pros and cons and so does the workshop format. This is my second such experience with Shalabi, which I consider its greatest benefit. She is very keen on working in different genres. The film Asrar Al-Banat [“Girls’ Secrets”] was social drama, Ya Adawi Fi Qalb Al-Hadath [“Adawi Spot News”] was comedy and Napoleon Wal Mahrousa was historical drama. Now she invades the crime thriller. Every time I work with her I feel as if I’m changing my skin.”

***

For Abdel-Rahman, on the other hand, “Estifa was like a crash course of challenges and experiences. My primary challenge was to transform myself from an author to a screenwriter. Literature allows the author to dwell on descriptions and emotions, but screenwriting is the verbal picture, and a screenwriter must learn to avoid all that can cause boredom in the drama. This transformation was of course closely related to Shalabi who supported me with her immense experience. My second challenge was with the crime genre, since I have never written crime fiction. Again, it helped to be with other writers – which was the third challenge. Sharing your thoughts, ideas and emotions with other writers was not easy at the beginning. On many occasions it was even painful, but you have to accept criticism in an objective way and listen to what others are saying. Yet in spite of all this, the exhaustion it caused, I gained a lot of experience in the course of the workshop. I would like to express my gratitude to Shalabi for offering me the opportunity.”

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