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Margaret Heffernan

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Reality Game Shows Hit Iraq

Posted: 05/07/11 07:29 PM ET

Finally reality TV game shows have found their mission. Not in the US. Not in Europe. But in Iraq the game show acquires dignity, mission and inspiration.

Three teams of three teenagers each have to make a one minute film. The first two are strangely poetic: one illustrates nation-building through assembling bricks that spell out their country's name. The second "about our nation's crying soul" portrays Iraq as buffeted by gales, stabilized only when everyone works together. The third film starts with a familiar scene: terrorists bundling a kidnap victim into a car. With disconcerting ease, the kids act both perpetrators and victims but go on to show how the bad guys are defeated only when different religions club together. Its conclusion: Our blood is your blood. More moving even than the films is the young studio audience: voting for the first time in their lives.

Sesame Street Meets Basra

Salam Shabab (which means Peace Youth) is a 9-part series in which 18 teams from different Iraqi provinces compete to become the peace ambassador representing Iraq's youth to parliament. "The path to peace," says the title sequence "is full of challenges." The show originated as an initiative from the United States Institute of Peace and was co-executive produced by Brett Pierce, formerly a producer with Sesame Workshop.

"All the data said that the youth in Iraq felt neglected and marginalized and not a part of the process," Pierce told me.

"They were invisible and disempowered. One youth advocate explained to us that Iraqi kids live as if a policeman is embedded in their soul, censoring what they say and do. Another Iraqi advisor pleaded that what he wanted more than anything was for these kids "to have their own dreams, instead of us dreaming for them." That really struck me and we decided to target that group, to see if we could find ways to boost their self-confidence and self-esteem."

He ruled out anything too preachy -- "the minute they sense didacticism, they tune out" -- and instead opted to use competition as a means of teaching collaboration. That girls and boys would work together was the first radical aspect of the kids' experience.

"Keep in mind: the idea of putting a girl next to a boy where their knees might touch -- it was mind blowing! We didn't know how the kids would respond. They had never experienced this freedom before! It was a big thing for them to experience so much freedom, to think freely and to find a voice."

The Prize is Pride

Building towers out of straws, running relay races with buckets of water, inventing and delivering performances and films all demanded high levels of creative thinking and independent thought. But these kids were far from the self-centred, media-savvy show-offs of American Idol. They were confused, shy and scared at first -- but also desperate not to fail.

"It was all about honor," says Pierce. "Each one felt: We have the opportunity to represent Basra (or Baghdad or Kirkuk) and we won't let it down. They felt there was a lot at stake there. That really flavored the tone of the show. To the kids the reward was not the issue; they were driven by the pride of being empowered to help Iraq."

The competitive desire not to let their province or their team members down quickly took over; watching each one blossom into highly collaborative energetic, eager team members is part of the show's magic.

"They were very spirited but not mean, there was no nastiness, no rivalry. Because they were all on such a unique trip. No other kids in Iraq were doing this!"

If boys and girls working freely together was a novel experience, the quarter-finals stretched the kids even further. To their surprise -- and, in some cases, horror -- the provincial teams were broken up. Now everyone had to work with new colleagues from different parts of the country.

"When we switched the teams, half were shocked and angry and the others had acclimated enough to our process that they smiled and took it in their stride," Pierce recalled. "But at the end of it, there was no issue of being from Basra or Kirkuk, from the north or the south, the city or the country. It was just: this is my team."

The Final Challenge

There's a central irony at the heart of this series.

"The teams are competing -- for peace and those are supposed to be opposites!" Pierce laughs. "But competition did bring out behavior and capabilities and motivation that a non-competitive environment would never have evoked. That tension is what made the competition work for us: No matter who won, someone would win and do good for everyone. "

I watched the series with my 13-year-old daughter, who was as engrossed as I was, learning more about Iraq than any geography lessons ever taught her. It made us both wish that a lot more money had gone on projects like this, and a lot less on armies. All we can hope for now is that the series finally gets to air.

"Trying to get this on air is, unfortunately, more of a political transaction than a typical commercial transaction. So we are running into a few walls." Pierce says, "But the series is totally locked and ready to roll and from what I hear they're getting close to having a deal. But this is Iraq. We're hoping to be on air as soon as we can...."

It wouldn't hurt for Americans to see it too.