Culture Matters

Spherex's weekly insights into the globalization of entertainment.

Understanding international cultural trends and narratives is critical to the media and entertainment industry’s ability to adapt, evolve and innovate.


Iran’s supreme leader says women in cartoons must wear hijabs

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently declared that women depicted in cartoons or animated films must wear the hijab head covering. According to the country’s Tasnim news agency, when asked on Saturday whether it is necessary for animated female characters to be portrayed with their hair covered, Khamenei answered that “observing hijab in animation is required due to the consequences of not wearing hijab.” It was unclear whether the declaration would be enforced in any way. Due to Teheran’s strict censorship laws, scenes deemed immoral or offensive are often censored, while films considered hostile to Islamic values are banned. [Iran]


Films From the Middle East and North Africa Often Struggle to Reach Viewers in the Region. A New Streaming Service Aims to Bring Them Home

You might describe Mary Jirmanus Saba’s first feature film, A Feeling Greater Than Love, as the perfect movie to spur discussion as hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Lebanon in the fall of 2019 to demand political change in the face of economic crisis. And the movie—an essayistic film that highlights the role of women’s political labor and organizing emanating from factories in Lebanon in the 1970s, in parallel with events from the recent past—did just that, in small sessions run by community groups. “I couldn’t have imagined a better setting or a better use for the film,” Saba says. The movie had screened and won awards at festivals around the world. But beyond those community meetings, and a one-month theatrical run in 2017, the movie hasn’t been widely available to watch in its home country and around the region. “It’s not the kind of film that Netflix is going to pick up, but it’s not that these films aren’t relevant to bigger audiences,” says Saba, who independently produced and distributed the film. “Of course they are, and maybe in some cases, they’re more relevant than what would end up on these bigger streaming platforms. But because of the way the industry is, there’s not a space for them.” But all that could change now, with the launch of Shasha, a new streaming service that marks the world’s first platform showcasing films from the Middle East and North Africa to a global audience. When it launches on March 1, Shasha, which means “screen” in Arabic, will give films like A Feeling Greater Than Love a chance to reach viewers worldwide—as well as presenting them to audiences in the region who otherwise would not have the opportunity to see them. The platform will host 20 carefully curated films from the region each month, screening them in their original language (predominantly Arabic, with some Farsi, Turkish and Kurdish films) with English subtitles. [Middle East/North Africa]


NFVCB vows to sanitise system as hate speech comes to fore

Rising from its one day meeting with the 13 registered professional associations/guilds in the film and video industry, the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) has said that the issue of hate speech should be domesticated and be examined from a cultural perspective. While reacting at the interactive session on Safer Internet Dialog On Hate Speeches, Executive Director (ED), NFVCB, Adedayo Thomas, said, “when a child is being brought up, there are things we ask the child not to say; so, the issue of hate speech is part and parcel of our moral development on a daily basis. Part of our media literacy programmes is to enlighten the people, and when it concerns NFVCB, it’s because of the kind of things we see on a daily basis as it affects the society. In our work, we should be wary of what we project especially as it concerns the creative industry so that we are not being seen as contributing to negativity in the society. So, we need to address ourselves about that.” [Nigeria]


Government unveils new guidelines for OTT platforms; Launches new classification ratings, grievance redressal

The Government of India, on Thursday, has unveiled new guidelines for social media and OTT platforms. These guidelines will come into effect in three months. The new sets of rules have been made to regulate the content on OTT platforms. The government has launched new classification ratings, grievance redressal framework for the online streaming platforms. According to the new Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the Adult category will be suitable only for 18-year-old and above. This comes during a time when OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime have faced criticisms and complaints in India for allegedly showing “obscene content.” As per new guidelines, the OTT platforms are supposed to self-classify the content into five categories – U (universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (adult). Platforms would also be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as ‘A’. [India]


The r/evolution of OTT platforms in Bangladesh

The OTT platform is now the global “new normal” for the media and entertainment industry. The pandemic propelled the growth of the system which has been in its embryonic stage in Bangladesh. Within a short span of time, a number of platforms have emerged and re-appeared creating an ever-evolving dynamic scenario of OTT in the local market. Bangla holding the 7th position among 100 most spoken languages across the world, the market seems to have the potential to travel beyond borders. In an attempt to comprehend the ground forecast, representatives of different OTT platforms have spoken to Dhaka Tribune. It is quite straight-forward. The audiences want more videos, more viral moments and more hours of entertainment. Besides food and shelter, entertainment hit the ‘need’ curve during the pandemic. The homebound hungry audiences are on the rise globally. With over 4.3 million subscribers and an array of movies, telefilms, drama series, music videos and more, Bongo BD was awarded the Most Popular Streaming Platform in Bangladesh by the CJFB Performance Award last year. In 2020 alone, they licensed and produced 221 hours of content for their platform. They also offer the largest Bangla entertainment library. Chief Content Officer of Bongo, Mushfiqur Rahman informs that they made their entire entertainment library on Bongobd.com free for all users in Bangladesh to help people stay entertained while in self-quarantine and isolation. Bioscope too demonstrated their social responsibility during the primary months of corona. Their live TV and the paid contents were made free for its users not only to help them keep up with breaking news but also to remain entertained during the stressful time. They experienced record growth in usage and data consumption. Launching in May last year Binge brought a whole range of technology to cover users from different walks of life. From small screen, big screens to android approved devices that offer HD channels, Binge network cover it all. Ahmed Armaan Siddiqui, Director, Red.Digital believes the opportunity is immense. “OTT as a fraternity will evolve, and our vision is to be the leaders of the Bangla linguistics zone. With a whole range of talented creators, we would want to go international.” [Bangledesh]


China Both Celebrates and Slams Chloe Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ Golden Globe Glory

After Chloe Zhao became the first Asian woman to ever win the Golden Globe for best director, Chinese social media was abuzz about everything related to Zhao—except the film itself. Although most Chinese viewers have yet to see the film, many cheered the Golden Globe win. Scores of posts praised Zhao’s heartfelt acceptance speech about compassion and described her as an inspiration to women in the arts. The hashtag “Chloe Zhao Wins Golden Globe for Best Director” has been viewed more than 280 million times on Weibo as of Tuesday morning local time. Many lamented that Zhao likely could never make such a powerful film about China given the mainland’s current censorship environment. “You don’t actually think realistic stories about China could pass censorship, do you?” one commenter chided another. Another rejoiced: “So it turns out Chinese directors outside the control of [the top censorship body] are still very good!” [China]


‘Minari’ wins best foreign film at Golden Globes

Following the epic win of “Parasite” last year, “Minari,” a film by a Korean American director, won for best foreign-language film at the Golden Globe Awards on Monday. A semi-autobiographical story by auteur Lee Isaac Chung, the film tells the story of a Korean American family seeking the American dream in rural Arkansas in the 1980s, featuring actors Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-Jung and more. In a virtual ceremony held in Los Angeles and New York on Sunday evening there, “Minari” was named best motion picture in a foreign language. Other contenders were “Another Round” from Denmark, “La Llorona” from Guatemala, “The Life Ahead” from Italy and “Two of Us” from France. “‘Minari’ is about a family. It is a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own,” director Lee, who is a second-generation Korean American himself, said in his acceptance speech. “It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language; it is a language of the heart.” Chung’s acceptance speech was an apparent reference to the controversy over the film being nominated for the foreign-language film award because it does not meet the Golden Globes’ 50 percent English-language requirement. Hollywood celebrities and film figures, including Korean Americans and others of Asian ethnicity, criticized the Golden Globes and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for the decision, labeling it racism. They say that “Minari” is a US film, made by a US director, shot in the US and financed by US firms. [Korea]


Australian films nab top three box office slots locally for the first time

Australian films are the top three earners at the local box office for the first time in cinema history, according to Screen Australia. Robert Connolly’s The Dry, starring Eric Bana, has taken more than $17m at the box office since it opened on 1 January. The film is the number one box office earner for 2021 in Australia to date, beating the DreamWorks family animation The Croods: A New Age and the latest Hollywood blockbuster in the DC extended universe, Wonder Woman 1984.nGlendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom, starring Naomi Watts, sat in the second spot last week, and is the fourth highest earner of the year so far, having taken $5.83m since it opened three weeks ago. The meat pie western High Ground, starring Jacob Junior Nayinggul and Simon Baker, has taken $1.93m in just over two weeks and nudged into third spot last Friday. As previously reported in the Guardian, the unprecedented popularity of Australian films so far this year can at least be partly attributed to Covid-19 and its march across the US, the UK and Europe. The Screen Australia CEO, Graeme Mason, told Guardian Australia that although it was not possible to say definitively that it is the first time such a hat trick had been scored, due to the way data is collected and filtered, the achievement was nevertheless a “huge moment” for the film industry. “I can’t remember a time where we have had three films take the top spots like this,” Mason said. [Australia]


There are nearly a million Arab Canadians. How can film and TV represent them more thoughtfully?

Majid Koudmani, a Canadian writer/director of Syrian origin, went coast to coast hoping to find a Canadian Arab man who could play the role of Ahmed in his new short film, What Colour is the Sky Where You Are. Ahmed is meant to be a gentle, loving Syrian father who moved to Canada with his son, Shadi. The Calgary short film, now in its post-production phase, explores the nuances of the father-son relationship as they adapt to being in a new country. They each adjust differently, and the gap between them starts to widen when their definition of which country to call home changes. This is a situation that many Canadian Arabs and immigrants identify with — yet it is seldom seen in film and TV. Despite strides for greater representation in recent years, the range of Arab stories seen in Canadian film and TV remains narrow. The systemic discrimination endured by Arabs in Canada is particularly evident in the limited stories we see in mainstream media — and those who are making efforts to change this have many obstacles to overcome. [Canada]


Disney adds warning to Muppet Show over ‘mistreatment of people or cultures’ - including the Irish

Anyone watching the iconic Jim Henson series on Disney+ will now be required to navigate a warning, which precedes each episode of the puppet-based comedy show. Disney made all five series of the show available to watch on its streaming service last Friday. However, anyone accessing the The Muppet Show would have been greeted with the disclaimer. It reads: “This programme includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.” At present, The Muppet Show can only be viewed from an adult account on Disney+. The warning is thought to relate to the design of several characters of Native American, Arab and East Asian origin. In each instance, there was apparent concern that the show was endorsing negative stereotypes for each ethnicity. Disney has refused to confirm what the warning specifically refers to. However, some could argue it also extends to the show’s depiction of Irish culture. [Ireland]


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