It’s probably fair to say that there’s a lot riding on Jinn, the first Netflix original series coming out of the Middle East. Perhaps unnecessarily so, but then the trail blazers are generally always set for the toughest ride.
But regardless of the reception for Jinn – the story of a group of teenagers who encounter a mythical jinn while on a trip to Petra – the feeling in region is one of positivity. Namely because it’s just great to see Netflix making good on its promise to push original programming in the Middle East.
After Jinn comes Al Rawabi School for Girls, a drama set in Jordan with an all-female Arab cast and then, next, a series based on the bestselling Arabic horror books by late Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik called Paranormal.
The team behind Jinn are hoping that a big key to its success will lie in authenticity – and that’s despite the fact that this is a supernatural story.
“The freedom Netflix gives producers really allows us to delve deep into the nature of storytelling and bring Arabic stories to life,” says Elan Dassani co-executive producer with Rajeev Dassani and co-writer with Amin Matalqa.
“Arab youth are just like teens everywhere, trying to find the balance between embracing modern culture whilst keeping true to their rich history. We’re excited to be able to bring a show reflecting this to Netflix fans across the world”.
Part of the realism of the show is that, perhaps for the first time in an Arabic show about teenagers, the dialogue comes across as authentic and refreshingly, it's peppered with the occasional bit of strong language.
“It helped a lot that the script was in English and we got it translated in the way we would naturally say it,” says Salma Malhas, who plays Mira. “There’s big difference between ‘fus’ha' (classical Arabic) and spoken Arabic. If we had got a classical script it would have been far more difficult to portray truthfully because that’s not the way we speak.”
Aysha Shahalthough, who plays Vera, was also quick to praise the directors for allowing the actors to add their own input, based on their own experiences and backgrounds.
“They were very open to that,” she says. “We’d be shooting a scene and I’d come with an idea and we’d ask them if we can do it in certain way, and they’d be open to that, they’d let you explore and experiment. And then they’ll see what works best.”
How they cast the show
A one-month workshop introduced the largely first-time cast to several acting techniques, including method acting. But when they convened to start shooting in Petra, the truth of it was that most of them had never experienced a professional set-up before.
“The first 10 days off shooting were in Petra,” says Shahalthough. “We had to spend a lot of time together, when we weren’t shooting. We had nothing to do there except talk to each other. It was lots of fun and we got really close after that.”
And while Malhas credits the casting for developing genuine relationships off screen, the team soon became so engrossed in the filming that they quickly adopted the traits of their characters. Life began to imitate art.
“On set I’d become Mira unintentionally just because they’d call me by that name,” she says. “They [the producers] were really good at choosing the characters, and the casting was based on the chemistry between us all. The characters you see on the screen, they seem really close, and it’s kind of the same off screen.”
She wasn’t the only one disoriented by the experience. Hamzeh Okab, who plays Keras, recalls how irritated his mother would get when he would not answer to Hamzeh, and Shahalthough’s moods even began to reflect those of her alter-ego.
"On set, I tried to be in character, and they used to call us by our character names,” Aysha says. “I’d get hot-tempered easily, because that’s Vera, and I’d be annoyed and bothered about things that don’t actually annoy me as a person.”
Life after Jinn
Whether this is the beginning of a life in the industry or simply a once in a lifetime experience for the cast remains to be seen. For the moment they’re taking it all in their stride. They’ll spend the next few years at university, but the experience of filming Jinn has certainly left them craving more.
The series has already created a major buzz in Middle Eastern entertainment circles, and the cast members are still pinching themselves over just how much their lives have changed over the last year.
“It’s really, really exciting,” says Okab. “Before we began, I’d go home and dream that my place on the show was official. Now it’s like the dream came true for a lot of us, we all wanted this really badly, and now that we have it it’s kind of hard to believe that we’re almost done with it and that it’s going to be out and on TV.”
For Sultan Alkhail, who plays Yassin, it’s all about pride. “The idea that this is the first Arabic original series on Netflix,” he says finally, “…and that it’ll be available for global audience in over 190 countries and 130 million viewers around the world, it’s amazing.”
Jinn streams on Netflix from June 13