The “You Stink” protest movement has been raging for the past several months in Lebanon, demanding that the government do something about the country’s massive rubbish problem – and calling for an end to the political dysfunction and corruption many say caused the trash crisis.
The movement has been energised by thousands of Lebanese, many of them young, who are hoping for a radical change in the country’s politics and an end to the constant dysfunction.
Interestingly, a Lebanese satire series called “Electrifying” has for the past three years been exploring this same possibility: What might happen if Lebanon suddenly changed for the better, and how would people react?
Lifelong friends Omar Ghosn and Khalil Bitar, the creators of the series, said they were inspired when they found themselves together during an electricity blackout – a daily occurrence in Lebanon.
When the power outage started and the generator stopped working, they said they strangely felt relieved: “Instead of being aggravated because we could not work, we were glad not to have the noise of the generator in the background. This got us thinking of how tense and conditioned our lives were by this basic utility,” Bitar told Al Jazeera.
During the first episode, Hasib, one of the main characters, is overcome with anxiety upon hearing the minister of energy announce that there will be electricity for 24 hours a day in Lebanon. After a lifetime of malfunctioning public utilities, how can he cope with things working?
“He feels he has lost all his reference points,” explained Bitar, the show’s director.
Hasib, with his quirks exaggerated for the sake of satire, shows how aspects of Lebanese society have developed coping mechanisms since the end of the civil war in 1990.
He suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and lives as a recluse in his apartment. He works from home as a programmer for the non-existent government-run railway.
Although Lebanon does not have working railroads, the government has been paying railway employees for more than 20 years.
According to an interview conducted by Lebanon’s The Daily Star with Ziad Nasr, director general of the Railways and Public Transport in Lebanon, the government spends nearly $8m per year to pay the salaries of 370 employees, despite the lack of an actual working railway system.
Off the set, Saad Botrous Kadiri, who plays Hasib, is actively involved with the “You Stink” movement: “We have to demand government accountability. We have rights and we have to stand up for them. When the riot police sprayed us with water cannons for hours, it was ironic: I cannot take a shower at home because I don’t have water.”
Underlying the humour, however, are tensions that have been shaking the country and its people to the core.
While Kadiri attends the protests, his brother is a high-ranking security officer working for the government. The two brothers find themselves on different sides. “My brother is doing his job. He worries for me,” Kadiri told Al Jazeera. “He calls me up asking me to leave the protests, but it is more out of concern than a difference in our views.”
The satire also exposes generational gaps in the mindset Lebanese have towards change. Lynn Eylat Knayze, the art director of “Electrifying”, said that although she is a strong believer in the need for change in Lebanon, her parents are unable to envision change. “They don’t understand why I bother,” she explained.
“They think it is useless and nothing will change in Lebanon. I love my country, and I want to do what I can to make it better,” Knayze added.
Actor Shant Kabakian plays Chafic, Hasib’s old friend who has immigrated to Canada, and who tries to get Hasib out of his comfort zone. Kabakian notes that there is no job security in Lebanon, and no prospects for him to build a family.
“What could I offer my children in the current society? I participated in the protests from the start, because we as youth must demand our rights.”
Those involved in making “Electrifying” range in age from 19 to 35. The cast cuts across confessional lines. Both age and the cross-confessional aspect are a defining element of the “You Stink” movement.
Filming from the house of Assaad Thebian, one of the “You Stink” organisers, can require some rapid adjustments in planning, mentioned the producer of “Electrifying”, Mohamad Ataya.
On one occasion, the film crew had to vacate the set to let “You Stink” activists hold an urgent meeting. There was no time to take down the set, and the activists ended up holding their meeting in “Hasib’s” living room.
The actors’ participation in the protests can also pose practical issues: “I worry that ‘Hasib’ could be detained or hurt,” Ataya told Al Jazeera. “What do we do then without our lead character?”
The satirical show is not aired on TV, highlighting another aspect of Lebanese society against which “You Stink” is protesting: government censorship.
Bitar, the director of the show, never pitched it to Lebanese television stations, convinced that it would never be allowed to air due to its content, which mocks the confessional system.
The satire, now in its second season, is showcased on an online platform, Mmedia.com, which is scheduled to start in the coming weeks, after originally being available on the Jordanian online platform Istikana.