If you contemplate how local creativity has fared in the past 20 to 30 years, and especially if you contrast Lebanese creative and cultural content productions with productivity and innovation in the real economy, content has traversed a very long road in a very short time indeed. There could hardly be greater diversity, for example, between a 2007 play on the glory and fall of heroic Queen Zenobia and a 2021 animation movie on the fictitious Arab dictatorship of Alephia, nor could their creative pathways be more constructively conflicting.
The first production, Zenobia, being a Mansour Rahbani tale set to music and dance, extols the near-mythical queen of the fleeting Palmyrene Empire of third century AD fame and her tragic desire to build an identity. The second, Alephia 2053, being an hour-long animation movie in the dystopian genre, advocates a very young-adult message of fighting corruption, martyrdom for the cause of freedom, and ridding the world of yet another hereditary, oppressive (and of course male) tyrant dynasty in the mid-term future.
Cashing in on creativity
The sole common touch point of these two content productions – diametrically opposite to each other in terms of artistic style, visual language and narrative, technology and target audience, and historical projection line of past and future – is their shared ingredient of Lebanese creativity. Both were concocted in the creative cauldron of overlapping, fragmented, contradictory, and complementary belongings that arguably distinguish this country and set it apart from much larger states in the Arab world and from your average small society anywhere.
Thus, in order to test the hypothesis that content creation is one of the economically potent sub-sectors of a media and communication industry that could help pull Lebanon out of its self-inflicted swamp of job insecurity and sub-standard productivity – the topic that was on the agenda of the third roundtable organized at the end of March 2021 by Executive Magazine and the United States Agency for International Development USAID) – Executive inquired about the economy of their latest content production with Spring Communications. This digital agency is the company whose unit Spring Entertainment launched Alephia 2053 online at the start of astronomical spring on March 21 and witnessed more than 8 million YouTube views of the feature by end of April. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/youtube-hit-alephia-2053-brings-182927216.html
At the start of his conversation with Executive, Rabi’ Sweidan, the head of Beirut-domiciled Spring Communications, creator and co-producer of Alephia 2053, is full of exultation over the achievements of his new production, which he dubs the ”first-ever dystopian entertainment in the Arab world.” According to him, the animated feature’s reception by audiences in Arab countries over its first month has not been varied in response to the dominant political ideologies of said countries but rather reflects national demographics and internet penetration. In other words, it is digital entertainment that, once released and having gained momentum, moves on its own trajectory.
However, while Arab and other viewers of Alephia 2053 would easily be reminded of fairly recent and even some ongoing totalitarian experiences (according to Sweidan, viewers from countries such as Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and others said that the story resonates with them as a home story with elements of their reality), the tale’s dystopian-totalitarian framing in the perspective of its creator also has elements of purposeful departure from content obsessing over a falsely glorified past into content that speculates to a more productive future.
“If you are always looking at the past, [you are] walking backwards and we believe that you will tumble in the present [time] and fall in the future,” Sweidan says, conceding that for him as content creator and producer this future also is one of hoped-for economic and commercial rewards. “We are basically a strategic content and communication agency [that is] driven by a purpose. Content is one way of what we believe is the future of communication. We are a content-driven agency and believe that we can make money out of it,” he tells Executive.
Sweidan fundamentally holds the view that conflict, meaning first of all the conflicts of competing ideas and the intensive discussions that are endemic to Lebanon, is a fount of creativity rather than an obstacle to it. Consequently, he has no problem at all in associating the Lebanese paradigm of abundant conflict with creativity and the potential for marketable content that to him seems to follow creativity as surely as the vernal equinox follows upon the winter solstice. He cautions, however, that this market potential for Lebanese content is not in Lebanon but from Lebanon, meaning directed at other markets. “The big question for me is not if there is potential. The big question is the challenge whether it can be monetized to benefit the creators of the material, and the creative community and industry in the wider sense. The potential is there for the Lebanese, the challenge is how you can monetize it,” he says.
In this regard, his recipe for finding acclaim and pulling viewers to the firm’s content has been to follow the circuit of international creative festivals around the – mostly developed – world that provide conventional or digital content of Lebanese origin with exposure which financially restrained content creators could never buy with their own means. According to Sweidan, Spring made its bet on the pull-potential of such exposure more than ten years ago and scored award nominations and awards for several productions.
This vision and the fast success of his latest production in terms of high viewership notwithstanding, Sweidan admits that the forward-going potential of Lebanon-based production houses is limited by the cowardice of capital in the face of uncertainty. “The more the situation is uncertain in Lebanon, the less people are willing to come and invest in this talent,” he says.
Drains on creativity
In the wider context of barriers faced by Lebanese communications and ideas-focused enterprises, Spring’s experiences as outlined by Sweidan show that content creation as industry in Lebanon today is in the same boat with journalistic media and marketing communications agencies. This entire industry is assailed by challenges of a small native market, difficulties in access to finance and risk capital, intense commercial competition from rivals with deeper pockets in regional and international markets, and uncertainty pressures that push creative talents into seeking refuges of stability, away from Lebanon – a burning problem in 2021 that is inadequately subsumed under the long-standing moniker of brain-drain.
Notably, although the latter point of the industry’s sensitivity to adverse developments in the country’s living environment must be assumed to be a universal deterrent to anyone’s will of accepting the laborious burden of rebuilding this country’s economy, the vulnerability of minds was during the Executive roundtable series of March 2021 highlighted more in the media and knowledge economy roundtable contexts than in the roundtables dedicated to real economy and hospitality sectors.
Acting as a content focused and purpose driven enterprise, the Spring Communication venture moreover shares another key denominator with the, by no means excessively large, realms of quality-oriented marketing communication and authoritative journalistic media in Lebanon: a fierce determination to be independent.
On the other hand, content creatives face a contradiction that is inescapable when local origin-content seeks to compete with others in a global or even Arab village of content consumption. This is the question of what actually is Lebanese content or Lebanese creativity. “I don’t know how one can identify Lebanese content per se in an era where identity is seen as a personal self-assessment or choice in a fluid universe of identity choices,” Sweidan notes.
In this sense, Alephia 2053 might be seen as neither fully Arab nor fully dystopian but as a work of anti-totalitarianism that draws inspirations from many diverse sources which are as far apart in time and space as 1917 Petrograd, 1934 Nuremberg, 2003 Baghdad, or 2021 Pyongyang. Thus the particular production value of Alephia 2053 is perhaps not that is part of a by now well-established and almost tired genre of dystopianism – after all, the last decade’s myriad dystopian fantasies in their end-of-world rationales did not anticipate the universal infodemic and overwhelming infections of social media as the most damaging and consequential geo-dystopian experience of this age. Rather, the appealing element from the regional cultural perspective might be that the production is not ignorant of the Arab experience and approach in seeking for a culturally acceptable solution to the universal problem of human tyranny.
Fuel for academic juices
However academic this discussion of Arab contributions to the dystopian genre could be, and how far or near a global content culture and such a culture’s aggregate wealth of diverse local inputs might reside in the future, the content entrepreneur Sweidan has experienced concrete disadvantages not because of global-local identity conundrums but because more powerful and organized states in the Arab sphere have entered the competition over influencing global perceptions of their societies – and thrown financial resources at the task. “Creativity for us is a form of soft power and a driver of social influence. Arab countries around Lebanon have realized the importance of creativity and are spending 100s of millions of dollars [on their creative industries]. What is very difficult is that I am competing with investments from countries that have a lot of money and have decided on policy level, government level, that this is very important for them,” Sweidan says.
On this uneven playing field of Arab content production, Spring largely auto-financed the production of Alephia 2053 by contributing to the venture an – undisclosed and even uncharted but very large – number of man-hours. Taking such efforts forward into a monetization model for a Lebanese content creation industry will require mobilization of investors into digital-era technology, prominently including artificial intelligence, Sweidan says. And it will not be something that any one niche content company should go alone. “There will now be a need to work in an ecosystem that can complement the work of the creatives while ensuring the most important aspect for creative companies, which is independence,” he emphasizes.
Creation of this ecosystem of content creation and communication-driven companies in Lebanon, however, requires something beyond private sector sharing of interests. Here, Sweidan is not bashful. He says, “Our homegrown talent, for whatever reason, is world class. Our digital content is world class. At the same time, the competition in the region is starting to copy us and move with great speed. In the short term, if you ask me, we need a bit of stability just to know where we are standing. This is not something that the private sector can do. This is something that the public sector can do. In the longer term, if there is one thing that I would love, it is for the government or the public sector to designate the content creation industry in Lebanon as a strategic pillar for the country.”