“Suleiman is young and ignorant, but cheerful… he resembles me,” said 17-year-old Hassan Akil of the character he portrays in Shankaboot, the Middle East’s first professionally-produced web drama.

Created by Batoota Films in association with the BBC World Service Trust and with support from Zico House and the Welded Tandem Picture Company, Shankaboot released its first episode, or “webisode”, Friday to a well-attended reception at Art Lounge in Karantina. Many of the project’s actors, technical staff and director, Amin Dora, were on hand at the event to answer questions and discuss their experiences.

The first installment of the series consists of 30 five-minute episodes that follow Suleiman, a lighthearted Beirut youth who launches a one-man delivery service with his beloved moped, Shankaboot. As the story unravels, Suleiman meets Ruweida, a beautiful girl with a dark past whose singing aspirations place her in the company of some sinister individuals.  Other central characters include Chadi, Suleiman’s friend and confidant, and Fadi, Ruweida’s dubious talent manager.

The majority of the cast consists of amateur actors, selected by creators to give the film a genuine feel.  “It was the first time I was in front of the lens, not behind the lens,” said 22-year-old Samira Kawass, who plays Ruweida and also works as a segment producer for Future TV. 

Likewise, her on-screen counterpart, Akil, had only a handful of UNESCO commercials, shot while he was still a baby, in his portfolio before taking on the role of Suleiman.

Each Shankaboot episode is accompanied by a “Waheed El Booz” short. Featuring comedian Hisham Jaber, these humorous mini-shows track the trials and tribulations of Booz, an electrician in Beirut.

Geared toward Lebanon’s youth culture, Shankaboot and Waheed El Booz are supported by a number of interactive features, available in both English and Arabic, on the website – a formidable endeavor considering the country’s shaky internet connections.  In addition to “point and click” games and other common multimedia elements, visitors are encouraged to give advice to characters and even propose plots for future episodes. 

As the project develops further series (a second season is currently in the works), the audience will gain an increasing say on how the story plays out.

“The medium [the internet] has no boundaries, you can do whatever you like, especially in a country like this that has censorship,” says Shankaboot producer and member of Batoota Films Katiah Saleh. “We even developed our own style manifesto [for the series].”

Shankaboot is just one of a variety of projects initiated and funded the world over by The BBC World Service Trust, which, among other goals, aims to “promote human rights” according to its homepage. The web was chosen by the Trust as the ideal forum for the Shankaboot series as it would best appeal to their target audience, Lebanese youth.

Though the launch has passed, the festivities of Shankaboot are only just beginning. Creators are planning a concert on April 24 (at a location yet to be announced) that is expected to include a variety of local musical staples including Rayess Bek, Tania Saleh and Mashrou3 Leila.

To see the first episode of Shankaboot, click here.