Heba Bsat – I had been waiting for a long time for a “Wa Achrakat Al Chamess” reunion. It was undoubtedly one of the greatest shows of the decade. And to be honest, it was the one show that got me back to writing about the Lebanese TV industry. It restored my faith in the Lebanese drama and reignited a passion that had lain dormant for a while. So when it was announced that Aimee Sayah, Youssef el Khal, Roula Hemadi, and Charles Chlela were teaming up for a new show, “Sawa,” I completely lost it. I waited impatiently for that “Wa Achrakat” reunion and I was not afraid to show it.
But a few minutes before it premiered, I was hit with a realization of sorts. This should not be “Wa Achrakat Al Chamess 2.0.” It’s not a revival. It’s not a reboot. It’s an entirely different series with entirely different variables and should be treated as such. It wouldn’t fair to it (or to all its constituents) otherwise.“Sawa” should not be treated as a revitalization of a show we once loved. So the moment the show started, I promised myself I won’t be making any comparisons. This has served as a disclaimer for the “review” and for others as “Sawa” progresses. Don’t expect me to construct a Venn Diagram of the two shows because that’s not what I will be doing.
The story written by Renee Frankoudis (who gave us “Yanabee”) is a truly intriguing one. For once in a couple of years, the focus of a Lebanese show (sweetened by a few Arab actors) is not adultery, pointless love-triangles, and superficiality (“Samra” wins in that category, too). There’s an actual plot. (Haven’t we missed that?) There’s mystery and scheming built like stepping stones to become the show we’re watching. There’s a gripping start, a journey of events, and hopefully a satisfying ending. There are a lot of questions and a lot of suspense – and those two factors are making us come back eagerly after each episode. Many people are going to comment and say, “but all shows have plots.” Truth be told, they don’t really. We’re taking the presence of plots for granted. Most of the shows airing on television today (in Lebanon, to be fair) basically star a woman searching for a love story, stuck in an unsatisfying love story, or torn between two love stories. The “woman in love” arc becomes what the show’s about instead of a natural result of the events in the series. It seems like “Sawa” will fall in the latter category and that automatically transcends it to a whole other level.
It’s obvious Tara and Imad (Aimee Sayah and Youssef el Khal, respectively) will fall in love. And that will create for a lot of controversy knowing that she’s his (allegedly) dead brother’s fiancée. However, it’s not what’s leading the show. It’s not the string pulling everything together. It’s a natural consequence of a bigger storyline – a bigger picture. And allowing a touching, gripping love story to walk in parallel to a real, concrete plot is how shows should be developed.
The point that I’m trying to emphasize is very apparent in one of the show’s MVP scenes. After Tara’s fiancé is murdered, she is kidnapped by Nadia’s (Roula Hmadi) men. Nadia suspects that Tara knows where the 10 million dollars stolen by Ziad are. She is subsequently tortured by these men. Her face is ducked in the water. She is beaten. The scene is intense. It’s mind-boggling. And it requires full and complete attention. It’s not a scene we see a lot on Lebanese television – at least never in such precision. There was a show this year that had a similar situation that honestly made me laugh because it was both executed and performed horridly and ridiculously. In “Sawa,” though, you’re forced to take a story spread as thinly as this one seriously.
But with a great story, comes a woody, bland dialogue that rarely satisfies the intensity of the deal-breaking scenes. It does not flow. I have heard a lot of commentary regarding the reactions of Tara, Imad, and others to the murder of Ziad (Tara’s finance and Imad’s brother). To those watching, it felt a lot like indifference from those involved and indifference is not the reaction you’d expect from a woman whose love is killed before her very eyes. Such coldness portrayed in those scenes is very reminiscent of that in“Yanabee.” It feels a lot like the result of an arctic screenplay that is more concerned with the flow of events than character study.
The actors, though, are taking control of their characters and transforming them into flawed human beings – rather than contrived fictional characters. Each actor is adding a touch of their personality to their roles allowing them to become agents of their stories.
This show marks the return of Aimee Sayah as an actress to television. She has been doing a great job as a TV presenter anchoring MBC’s “The Voice”/ “The Voice Kids.” But the small screen had definitely missed her as an actress and missed her childlike innocence – an innocence that engulfs her character, Tara, in “Sawa.” But that chastity that Sayah embellishes character with seems a lot like a character choice made by the actress herself and not the writer. And that’s because the writer has not entirely sketched out any of the characters for the viewers. They all seem to be disciplined by actions and not personality traits. And, yes, events in our lives tend to shape our personalities, but they don’t shape them from scratch. They build on already existing base. And that base is not present with “Sawa’s” characters. I don’t know anything about Tara, Imad (Youssef el Khal’s character), or the General beyond what things they’ve gone through recently. The most fleshed out character so far is Nadia (Roula Hmadi’s character). We’ve slightly learned who she is and why she’s the way she is because of commentaries made by her children about her and because of flashbacks to young Nadia. Had that been the case with the other characters, a lot of blurriness that’s surrounding these people would have been diminished.
The scenes I’m enjoying the most almost always feature Youssef el Khal and Aimee Sayah together. Chemistry between two individuals doesn’t always have to be romantic (even though, inevitably, that’s where their story is headed). In fact, chemistry is two actors’ ability to mesh so well together that scenes with the two of them are stronger, more riveting, and enthralling than if they were with anyone else. And that’s the case with el Khal and Sayah. So far, their characters are constantly bickering – arguing over ridiculous matters. But they’re so good together, that these very human, very natural moments end up making great, great TV moments. These two truly bring out the best in each other.
And that’s quite clear in the show’s second episode. All the emotions that were building up inside Tara basically explode across Youssef el Khal’s Imad – who ignites a fire that’s in turn fueled by Sayah. And it’s a scene that a) reaffirmed my faith in the show b) reminded me why I was such a huge fan of Aimee Sayah during her debut performance in “Wa Achrakat Al Chamess.” It’s one of the better written scenes in the series and a beautifully delivered monologue that plays out as a volatile rant. It’s intense and effective. And it makes the heart ache for Tara but also keeps you at the edge of your seat for more.
As always, the predominant factor in Youssef el Khal’s performances is his expressive eyes that could substitute for great actors. And they’re very, very present in “Sawa.” In the third episode, these eyes mesmerize us so effortlessly, I’m sure every girl either fell in love with Youssef el Khal for the first time – or all over again – because of them. It’s the moment Imad sees Tara as she walks into Ziad’s funeral – so much potency and so many emotions are displayed with literally no words at all. Lately, many Arab actors are given lead roles in shows they truly cannot fill. The result is a leading lady with a weak complimentary. Youssef el Khal, however, is one of the few working male actors today who have a leading man’s aura. Once he’s in a scene, he occupies it with his presence. El Khal is presenting of his most subtle performances to date, flavored by an assertiveness his characters are always stronger with.
The godfather of this duo is inarguably the great Charles Chlela who continues to make a case for himself as a visual genius. Chlela is also an established musician. And that allows for the flow of the scenes in his series to very much like melodies – especially his long shots. I was honestly entranced 30 seconds into the first episode by his imagery and I don’t think a lot of directors have that ability.
I have to admit, though, when the series started, I wasn’t very big on its theme song – performed by Carole Samaha. Don’t get me wrong, I squealed for hours when I learned that Samaha will be giving her voice to an Aimee/Youssef (love) story because that’s basically the epitome of perfection. However, when I heard the song, I couldn’t but sense a disparity between the series’ mood/tone and the song’s. The song is penned by Salim Assaf and is full of life, happiness, and hope emphasized by Samaha’s euphoric voice. That’s never apparent in the show itself, though. It’s anything but that – during its first few episodes at least. And that created for a sort of awkwardness. But the more I heard the song, the more it grew on me. And to be honest, you can’t asses a theme song/soundtrack’s effectiveness except with answering one question: does the song immediately signal you towards the show? Every time I hear it on Anghami, I honestly imagine Tara and Imad dancing. I flashback to “Sawa.” So I think its originality has allowed it to have a place in the heart of the viewers.
“Sawa” is not a perfect show. And to be quite frank, no show is after four episodes – especially if it’s as complicated as this show. There’s a lot at stake. There are so many questions. The story is still building with equal amount of mystery. Does the show require that you suspend your sense of disbelief? Of course, it does. But it does not do it in a way that challenges your intelligence – to a degree. There are moments that emphasize keen attention to detail and there are moments when the details just slide and I can’t but feel that it’s a conscious decision made by the director. There’s a lot that makes “Sawa” not only watchable but also great. It just has a lot of potential that it needs to tap into as it progresses with the story.