AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Awalem Khafeya, or "Hidden Worlds," was one of the most popular shows in the Middle East this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AWALEM KHAFEYA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Arabic).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, speaking Arabic).
CORNISH: It's a drama which drew viewers in the evening during Ramadan. It's mass entertainment with soap opera-like plots. But the Mideast has its equivalent of indie filmmakers as well. NPR's Justin Richmond met them at the University of Southern California, where they've come to learn.
JUSTIN RICHMOND, BYLINE: Hisham Fageeh from Saudi Arabia became famous on YouTube five years ago for creating the caricature of a conservative Saudi man. His most popular video was a parody of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" called "No Woman, No Drive."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HISHAM FAGEEH: (Singing) Remember when you used to sit in the family car, but back seat.
RICHMOND: It was inspired by protests that eventually led to the government allowing women to drive just this year. Fageeh jokes that his YouTube success put him at the top of his game in Saudi Arabia.
FAGEEH: It became like, OK, well, now I'm an expert. So I - there are two things - I can't experiment, and I know everything (laughter).
RICHMOND: Of course, he knows it's not true. So he's at USC in Los Angeles for something called the Middle Eastern TV Initiative. It's a State Department-sponsored program bringing together writers from the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon. They're learning how TV is produced in Hollywood. Today, a group of them are in a classroom workshopping a potential time travel sci-fi show called "Repent." Saudi writer Maram Taibah's got some suggestions.
MARAM TAIBAH: It could start with him on a chair, and there's a spotlight.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yes.
TAIBAH: Everything is dark.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: That's exactly it, but that's...
TAIBAH: And then it - and then the spotlight turns off, and you - and he starts talking. And you can see some text being recorded in the back.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yeah, yeah. That's cool. I like that.
RICHMOND: A writer's room like this is common in Hollywood, but it's a new experience for Mohammed Adeeb of Egypt. He's the writer who created "Repent."
MOHAMMED ADEEB: I really hated the show. But you saw, by the end, I was, like, really focused on it because they found a way to, like, fix it, I guess.
RICHMOND: Network executives, show producers and writers are all stopping by. Today it was the showrunner for the HBO show "Insecure," Prentice Penny. First, he wants to know how it works in the Middle East.
PRENTICE PENNY: So how do you get found?
RICHMOND: Hisham Fageeh tells Penny how he became a YouTube star, but that it's tough to be ambitious because not many people know how to make a quality production.
FAGEEH: So if you're, like, driven, and you're trying to do something that's, like, premium standard, you have - there's, like, maybe - what? - 20 people in the whole region that, like, could do something like that.
RICHMOND: But Prentice Penny says he can use those small numbers to his advantage.
PENNY: When you're a big crew, it's like, oh, man, we - and to move from this location, that's - this is going to take three hours. But if it's just like - if we're running and gunning, I could shoot more faster because I'm smaller.
RICHMOND: That's production. When it comes to content, it's a little tougher. Here's a premise for "Insecure" Penny suggests to the group.
PENNY: Like, there was a episode last year where the Lawrence character finds himself in a threesome.
RICHMOND: That's clearly not getting on TV in Saudi Arabia, where the country just opened its first movie theater after a three-decade ban. But these Middle Eastern indie writers and producers are hoping their projects get picked up by places other than state-run TV, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime or the Middle Eastern Icflix. Justin Richmond, NPR News.
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