The media and artistic projects in the Arab world
Media coverage is essential to publicising an artistic project, obtaining additional funding or gaining credibility. Culture professionals must constantly communicate and keep in touch with the media - something that takes a lot of effort and changes from country to country across the Middle East and North Africa. This article explores the communication practices of The Caravan and Street Carnival, two street theatre projects supported by Drama Diversity Development (DDD), a regioanl project co-financed by the European Union within the framework of the Med Culture regional programme.
It's a theatre performance that almost 500,000 people have seen. The Caravan, a travelling theatre piece which depicts the life of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, could be seen (in part) by around one million internet users via a video from AJ+. Its journalists aren't the only people interested in the project. In fact, the list is long: Associated Press, Reuters and AFP shared the story, which was picked up The New York Times, France 24, La Libre Belgique, Le Point, ABC News, Yahoo News, The Washington Post, among others... The work by the team at the Beirut DC organisation is an example of successful media communication.
Lebanon: Networking as a state of mind
This success did not come overnight. Sabine Choucair, artistic director of Beirut DC, explained, "We first set up a communications campaign using social networks like Facebook. We uploaded videos on YouTube, and shared them extensively. Five months later, we had a press conference." Many journalists were present that day. Sabine Choucair drew upon a pre-existing address book of TV channels, local newspapers and correspondents for international press. For this, she scoured the database of Beirut DC and personal contacts.
In Lebanon, the country where it is customary to say that "everyone knows everyone" in the cultural community, networking is one of the foundations of the professional world. Sabine Choucair said, "from the moment you know someone who works at a television station, they can put you in touch with someone from another media field... therefore, all international journalists and expatriates know each other and are in regular contact, it facilitates the sharing of information."
Egypt: finding its place in the vast cultural scene
Another country, another challenge... In Alexandria in Egypt, Mohab Saber, executive director of ElMadina was not lucky enough to have an address book full of names when launching the travelling theatre project, Street Carnival. The play focuses on the Nubian community in Egypt. "At first, we didn't really have a communication strategy with the media. We had no fans and we were unknown," he claimed.
According to him, the omnipresence of the commercial cultural scene in the media was to blame. “In Egypt, there are many commercial productions, which have an influence throughout the Arab world. The media is interested in priorities. The independent scene is desolate. And, if the event does not take place in Cairo, it's even more difficult to get media coverage, because everything is centralised.” Lebanon is a small country where commercial production is lower, so this means there is more room for the independent scene.
This fact has not deterred Mohab Saber, who decided to embark on this project in media communication. First step, always the most important, is a presence on social media. With a team of six people, they filmed the performance and broadcast videos via YouTube. "It is important to upload videos of the project" added the Egyptian executive director. "That way, the media can have an overview of the project and judge the quality, even remotely." Patience and cautiousness from the team ultimately paid off: Street Carnival was covered by some 24 publications, mostly online, and artists were invited on three different TV channels. One regret for Mohab Saber: that the piece was not covered by the international media.
Address Books: the assets that aren't everything
In Alexandria, as in Beirut, both cultural professionals have not simply relied on their contacts, but they have also highlighted the themes they dealt with. Sabine Choucair said: "The crisis of Syrian refugees is one of the worst in the world; all the media want to talk about us, what we offered is a new approach to this crisis, a positive way of speaking about refugees... In a way, it's 'interesting' for the media." Mohab Saber recognised that one of the reasons for his media success at the national level is the development of themes such as the status of women or minorities in Egypt.
The executive director of ElMadina now wants to use this new media relationship to highlight other initiatives. The Lebanese artistic director wants to show The Caravan at festivals, especially in Europe, to show the culture of Syrian refugees to the host community. Press reports will help in applying for various artistic events. While the presence in the media, including international, might not appeal to a wider audience, it at least brings visibility and credibility.
Article produced in collaboration with Cineuropa