Melody TV has been producing, what are probably some of the funniest and most creative commercials I’ve ever seen aired in the Arab world. The irony here perhaps, is that these creative commercials are about creativity in the Arab world, or the lack there of. They depict an Egyptian film studio that is home to an eager filmmaker who is constantly coming to the studio’s head with new and original film ideas, all of which are, in fact, Hollywood productions, including Brave Heart, Titanic, Rocky and Seven. After pitching his idea, the filmmaker is constantly turned down by the studio head who is on the lookout for the conventional cliches that make Arab cinema “work”, such as the hero always winning, and a female character always being reduced to a sex object. The commercials tend to end with the studio head opening a desk drawer of scripts from actual Arab films and throwing one to the filmmaker. The viewer is then told what the “outcome” of that decision was, and it’s usually a disastrous, but realistic conclusion, and naturally, the original film goes to Hollywood. It’s a we-had-it-first tale gone wrong.
There’s a lot that one can read in to all this. The way we shun and kill any signs of creativity, constantly pursuing the formulaic, mostly because we believe that this is what our audiences demand. Thus we introduce nothing new, and everything is consistently recycled. There’s also the relationship between the mentor and the apprentice, one of the missing components in the Arab world. We are taught wrong, but generally worship those who teach or train us anyhow, because of their authoritative nature. After going to great lengths to impress his mentor, the filmmaker in these commercials will happily accept inexplicable rejection and admiringly accepts his new task – taking the studio head’s script while spurting out accolades like “ameer” (prince) and “professour” (professor).
Then there’s opportunity.
Watching these commercials reminded me of Gustave Eiffel who originally wanted to build his tower in Barcelona for the Universal Exposition of 1888, only to be turned down by city hall representatives who thought it to be too strange and expensive, and did not fit the design of the city. Eiffel took his design to Paris the following year and the rest is history. The Eiffel Tower is now an icon of Paris and France, and it is also the most visited paid monument in the entire world. One city lost an opportunity to make something great because it did not conform, and another took a chance on creativity and it proved fruitful. Think about the Arab world. How many of our creations in the past couple of decades were original and not western imitations?
The relationship between opportunity and risk is interesting. In the Arab world, creativity is often seen as being too “risky” to even consider. We are ingrained to believe, from an early stage in life, that anything creative is typically not worthwhile, and the best way to succeed is to follow in the same old footsteps. Think about the way we raise our kids to shun arts, music, even anything of a social science nature – and to pursue becoming doctors and engineers. And not great doctors and engineers, just mediocre doctors and engineers. Enough to make a decent living and to be socially considered as having a respectable profession. We have so many doctors and engineers in the Arab world that one would think we would be a region producing some of the most cutting edge breakthroughs in those fields. But we’re not. Not even close.
Our education system shuns creativity.
I would wager that very little is invested in the arts in our part of the world and I’ve been to schools who don’t even have art programs to begin with. We generally fail to see the connection the same way the bureaucrats in Barcelona’s city hall refused to see the connection. Creativity manifests itself in many ways, especially economically. Books, movies, music, architecture, design, marketing, etc. What do these fields and industries represent in financial terms for the western world? Billions upon billions of dollars?
Lest we forget that creativity also breed innovation. It takes real outside-the-box creative thinking to innovate. Interestingly, every so often you’ll read about someone in the Arab world having innovated something completely outside-the-box – the small doses of apparent creativity – and then they are never heard from again. If they’ve succeeded then they probably had to immigrate to a different environment that sees opportunity in what this person has created, and that is typically the west. Rarely will our governments or even our private sector invest in something outside-the-box and deemed “risky”. Even venture capitalists will tend to stick to the most conventional ideas out there.
Creativity is a natural resource that we have denied for so long that it has translated to large-scale missed golden opportunities. Social opportunities, cultural opportunities and economic opportunities. We are told to conform and to simply tread water. We are told to admiringly accept and welcome creativity only when it is produced by the western world, and it’s exactly what makes us surprisingly say “Is that Arab!?” when we see the rare glimpses of Arab creativity. Which is exactly what I said when I saw these commercials.
You can watch some of the Melody Aflam commercials here (subtitled in English):
Dances With Wolves: