Online drama Shankaboot: connecting young people in the Arab world

Watch: the story of Suleiman

The world’s first Arabic online drama, Lebanese series Shankaboot, engaged young audiences across the region as the Arab Spring of 2011 unfolded.

In five-minute episodes, the series told the story of Beirut street life through the eyes of 15-year-old delivery boy Suleiman. By depicting issues mainstream media wouldn’t touch – such as drug addiction, corruption and human trafficking - the series inspired discussion on Facebook and other forums.

Tackling taboo subjects

A plot about casual racism against domestic servants caused uproar and audience members expressed strong sympathy for the victims of abuse.

"I applaud Shankaboot for bringing this issue to light and sticking it right in our face! We Lebanese have some real issues to deal with," said one of 14,000 comments on its Facebook page. 

Being Shankactive

Shankaboot also ran video production workshops for young bloggers, filmmakers and activists, using tools that are readily available to them like mobile phone cameras.

Each workshop focused on a particular theme from the series and participants were invited to explore different angles to the theme and turn it into an engaging film.

One of the videos produced, 'Being a Domestic Worker: Sri Lankiete Libanieh' was viewed over 45,000 times online and screened at Lebanon’s 2011 Human Rights Film Festival. Other user-generated content inspired by Shankaboot is showcased on a section of the site called Shankactive. 

Engaging audiences

Most of the actors were first timers, like the lead Hassan Akil (Suleiman). By combining new acting talent with a tight – often funny – script, and a fast-paced, edgy shooting style, Shankaboot succeeded in engaging young people in the region.

The five-minute running time of each episode kept the storylines tight and speedily delivered but was also practical in an area where people had to deal with slow download speeds and frequent power cuts.

Although the drama is set and filmed in Lebanon, its popularity wasn’t limited to the country, with audiences in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the US. 

Award-winning approach

Shankaboot’s efforts in engaging its audiences through the web was recognised when it won a 2011 International Digital Emmy, against competition from productions from the UK, the Netherlands and Brazil.

In November 2010 Shankaboot won the Reflet d'Or for best web series at the Cinema Tous Ecrans festival in Geneva.

The production is a collaboration between BBC Media Action and Batoota Films. BBC Media Action supported Batoota in helping to develop the concept and the storytelling skills required to produce the drama.

"We realised the potential of online social media, but the content required us to find a dynamic local production house with the same innovative approach," said Project Director Michael Randall after the Emmy win.

Katia Saleh, producer of Shankaboot and director of Batoota Films, added, "Most people associate Lebanon with war and sectarian conflict, but Shankaboot has nothing to do with politics. It's about the spirit of Beirut and the love of its people."

Project information
Project name Socially Responsible Media Platforms
Funder The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office 
Dates 2008-2012
Themes Governance
Outputs Shankaboot
Partners Batoota Films