Tag Archives: Danna Stern

Chaos rules

Now in its third season, Fauda has pushed Israeli drama into a new direction by exploring both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, presenting an action thriller tinged with emotion and compassion. DQ chats to the show’s creative team.

While there’s no disputing that Israel has become an influential and celebrated hotbed of acclaimed TV drama, it’s notable that many of its series have had to wait until being adapted overseas before breaking out internationally.

Prisoners of War famously became Homeland on US premium cablenet Showtime, while BeTipul has been remade more than a dozen times around the world, most prominently as In Treatment on HBO. Other US translations include Hostages (CBS) and Euphoria (HBO), while BBC drama The A Word is based on Yellow Peppers, Netflix’s The Good Cop comes from an Israeli show of the same name and Showtime is currently producing Your Honor, a new take on Israel’s Kvodo.

One Israeli show that hasn’t been remade – yet – but has earned rave reviews worldwide is Fauda (Arabic for ‘chaos’), which entered its third season at the end of 2019.

The action thriller, based on the experiences of creators Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, follows a team of elite Israeli undercover agents as they work to apprehend Hamas activists in the West Bank. Uniquely, however, the series dramatises the complex Palestinian-Israeli conflict from both sides to provide a new perspective on life in the Middle East.

Lior Raz as Doron in Fauda, which he co-created

Seasons one and two introduced Doron, the commander of an army unit chasing terrorist Taufiq Hammed, known as The Panther. In the third season, Doron is deep undercover in the West Bank, posing as an Israeli Arab boxing instructor at a sports club belonging to a low-level Hamas member. But following the kidnapping of two teenagers, he and his team find themselves in unfamiliar territory – Gaza.

The new season has already proven a hit locally on Yes TV, while it will air internationally on Netflix. The co-creators say they were caught off guard by Fauda’s success overseas, just as they had been when Yes originally gave them a chance to tell the story. “At first, we didn’t think people in Israel would like the show, because we went to all the broadcasters and nobody wanted it,” says Raz, who also stars as Doron.

“Yes was the only broadcaster that actually wanted to invest in us. We are two guys from Jerusalem who hadn’t written any scripts in our life. It was quite a gamble for everyone.

Avi Issacharoff

“Neither of us thought people would watch a show in Arabic and Hebrew if they were not Israelis or Palestinians and didn’t know about the situation here in Israel. So it caught us by surprise. People just connect to the story and the characters, and that’s what’s amazing.”

The pair have known each other since they were teenagers. Having served together in the Israel Defense Forces, they were reunited at a military event eight years ago. When actor Raz revealed his ambition to write a series about life in army units and the mental price soldiers pay for their actions, he discovered his goal was shared by Issacharoff, who was then working as a journalist across the Middle East.

“The magic between us is that both of us bring something to the table,” Raz says. “Both of us were also in the army and participated in a lot of operations, so both of us know the action. I’m an actor so I’m connected to more of the emotional journey of the characters.

“Now, in the third season, everything is mixed. I learned about the politics and Avi learned about emotion and story. Now we’re working together very well because of it. We’ve learned a lot from each other.”

Many of the stories featured in the show are based in reality, through either the writers’ experiences or stories they have heard as they try to blend action with emotional drama. “There are so many stories we’ve taken from reality and fictionalised and made them bigger or made them smaller,” Issacharoff explains.

“You play with a lot of material and you try to make it as realistic as possible to give the audience a sense of, ‘Wow, is this real?’ Many people ask us the same questions: ‘Did this happen for real? Is Fauda real?’ Of course it’s not real, it’s a drama, but we try to give the sense that maybe it did happen.”

Laëtitia Eïdo also stars in the action-packed drama

Supporting Raz and Issacharoff in the writers room for season three was head writer Noah Stollman (Our Boys), with a new scribe assisting the duo each season. “Lior will yell, I yell back, Noah is also trying to yell but he cannot compete,” Issacharoff jokes of the writing process. “We fight and we argue and something good comes out of that.

“But we’re not fighting all the time – we’re also having fun. We encourage mistakes and saying whatever you want. We say don’t be scared or intimidated by anyone. We’ll choose if it’s good; everyone makes that decision. It’s quite like a Kibbutz, a community, not like someone is running the room. We all are.”

The decision to switch the action in Fauda from the West Bank to the Palestinian territory of Gaza in season three came out of a desire to change the direction of the series, though the creators say that, rather than being at the heart of the story, the new location simply serves as a fresh arena for the characters.

Danna Stern

“It’s really different compared with what we know from the West Bank, and the whole experience from the Israeli audience is that Gaza is a black hole,” Raz notes. “We don’t know what’s happening over there. We only hear about it when rockets have been shot from Gaza. Just like the journey where we took the Israeli audience into the West Bank, we have tried to have a look into Gaza and what’s happening there.”

Behind each season of Fauda is an aim to send Doron to places that push him to his emotional and physical extremes, until he a reaches a point where he understands something new about himself and the world around him. “It’s not easy. Everything is very extreme with Fauda so you have to be more extreme in a way,” Issacharoff says. “We just wanted to go deep into the characters themselves, their lives and the people in his crew and the Palestinians. There are a lot of challenges writing a third season because you don’t want to repeat yourself.”

One of the biggest tasks was recreating Gaza, with filming restricted in the territory. The solution was to transform an Israeli military training base. “Where to shoot was a real issue because we couldn’t film in Gaza. We had to recreate Gaza,” says Danna Stern, MD of Fauda producer/distributor Yes Studios. “Even when we shot season one and two in the West Bank, we shot Arab villages in Israel. There are Arab Israelis and villages within our borders.

“For this season, we went to an army base where they use sets to replicate Gaza for training purposes, so we got to use those. They built a set of houses, alleys and shops to imitate Gaza. But getting sets and finding locations to film is always something you can manufacture, especially in television. It’s really about getting the story right. You then work backwards and look at how you’re going to film and what you’re going to need to make it happen.”

A military base was transformed in order to film scenes set in Gaza

As Doron, Raz leads the cast. Initially, however, he was more interested in playing the show’s main antagonist, Taufid Hammed, in season one. “But then I fell in love with this character and we started to write Doron for me,” Raz says.

“But I still had to audition for this role along with other Israeli actors because, after Yes invested so much money, they wanted to know we were in good hands with the lead actor. I’m happy I did it because it took away the pressure I probably would have had if I was just coming there as the writer who wrote a role for himself.”

With a much more emotional storyline featuring in season three, Raz and Issacharoff say that while the show might not strictly reflect their own experiences, everything continues to be rooted in the reality of their lives and society around them. “Some of the scenes I watched, you feel like someone has punched you in the stomach,” Issacharoff asserts.

“You feel the pain and the way the characters are going through the journey – on both sides, not only the Israeli side. The way you can empathise with the Palestinian side is even bigger in the third season, but the drama is so tragic; it’s a very tragic journey the audience is going through.”

With Stollman breaking the mould by returning for the fourth season, which is already in development, Raz and Issacharoff are now also producing an original series for Netflix and exploring other projects for TV and film. Meanwhile, Fauda will soon have its first remake, with an Indian version set to air later this year that explores the India-Pakistan conflict.

Stern believes Fauda’s international success comes down to the humanity behind the thriller. “Action is almost universal and that always plays well,” she says, “but the surprising element is the story isn’t one-sided. You have characters that are multi-faceted, who you love and hate at the same time. They really are equally sympathetic and violent on both sides.”

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Beyond borders

Israeli television rose to global prominence on the back of scripted series such as Hatufim (Prisoners of War) and Be Tipul (In Treatment). DQ explores what comes next from a country where big budgets are rare but no expense is spared on storytelling.

Locally made Israeli drama might only date back a couple of decades, but the country is recognised as one of the most respected producers of high-end TV series in the world.

The industry came to the world’s attention in 2011 when Showtime struck an instant hit with Homeland, which was in fact a remake of Israeli series Hatufim (albeit a heavily reworked one). But even before Homeland, another Israeli series, Be Tipul (2008), had been turned into HBO’s glossy therapy drama In Treatment, starring Gabriel Byrne. As a testament to Be Tipul’s quality, it was eventually remade into more than a dozen other versions.

Today, now that watching subtitled drama is as normal to many viewers as watching in their native tongue, Israeli productions are experiencing a second wave of interest – but this time in their original form. Hostages, False Flag (pictured above) and Fauda mean the ‘Israeli thriller’ is on par with Nordic noir.

But despite the industry’s success, it is facing challenging market conditions. Like everywhere else in the world, series in Israel are made for one of two reasons: first, by commercial or advertising-led channels that create ‘event TV’ to bring viewers to their brand; or, second, by subscription channels that want to add depth to their schedule alongside their usual roster of programming, such as sports, reality, children’s, factual and movies.

Fauda is available on Netflix around the world

In a country with a population of only around nine million, there are limited subscribers to fight over and advertising on TV is being hit hard as content gravitates online. Meanwhile, one of Israel’s main networks, Channel 2 was recently split into two (Keshet 12 and Reshet 13), so now each channel has less money from advertisers to fund these so-called ‘high-end’ productions.

Illegal downloads are also a particular problem in Israel, a result of loose intellectual property law and an entrenched cultural attitude that simply means the public do not take the matter too seriously. These challenges all manifest in the budgets allocated to Israeli series being startlingly low, particularly in contrast to their international peers; the pilot of Homeland cost the equivalent of two seasons of Hatufim. Similarly, the first episode of BBC1’s The A-word, a series about a young boy with autism (starring Christopher Eccleston), cost three-quarters of the price of the first season of the original Israeli series on which it was based, Yellow Peppers. Hatufim, Yellow Peppers and The A Word all come from Keshet International.

So how does Israel manage to make TV drama that is so good in this environment? Producers have very little money so they force production values where they can – and the cheapest place to do this is in the writing.

“With money you can make your show appear magical, you can hide your faults. But when you’re naked, you can’t. So it makes you work much harder, you can’t leave little holes,” says Keren Margalit, who created and directed Yellow Peppers (which has also been adapted for the Greek market, with talk of a German version too). Margalit also wrote season two of Be Tipul, a show that consists literally of two people talking in a room and embodies the Israeli spirit of good writing over lavish production values.

“We know what we don’t do,” says Danna Stern, MD of Yes Studios, the distribution and sales arm of Yes TV, which is the producer and broadcaster of Fauda. “We don’t have lots of money for special effects, nothing’s set in space and we don’t make lavish period pieces.”

Sleeping Bears launched on Keshet earlier this year

Budget restraints contribute directly to the aesthetic of realism in Fauda, which was shot very quickly, on location. “It’s an advantage in a way because it forces you to reinvent the profession, not only for me personally but for everyone on the team,” says Rotem Shamir, who directed season two of the series. “If everything was given the right amount of budget, I’m sure everyone would doze off, we would lose that kind of energy.”

Shamir also co-created Hostages, a series about a home invasion set in a single house. Speaking at the Fipa festival in Biarritz, which this year had a focus on the Israeli industry, he said of the show: “We achieved our dream of creating a thriller that could work on a tight Israeli budget.”

The US remake was cancelled after one season, perhaps because in that version the characters leave the house early on in the series – doing away with an essential element of the original.

Budgets aside, the other issue that cannot be ignored is that Israel is a country at war. Such a situation lends itself to highly compelling and globally significant stories – and it’s not just the conflict with Palestine that affects the country. There are also conflicts within Israel, between the Arabs and Jews who live there, between the religious and non-religious groups and so on. There is also a large immigrant community with stories to tell. The creative people living in Israel need to express themselves, and many do so by writing scripts.

A series like Fauda – a political thriller that airs on Netflix around the world – gives viewers a fascinating glimpse into one of the defining conflicts of our times and one which may have ramifications where those viewers live. The show has made a particular impact as the creators went to great lengths to portray characters from both sides of the divide.

Mama’s Angel was picked up by Walter Presents last September

“You can connect with the characters and see yourself in them, bad or good,” says Laëtitia Eïdo, one of the stars of Fauda, who was also speaking in Biarritz. “Of course, for some people it won’t be balanced enough. But you can discover the life and culture of both sides, which invades the other side’s subconscious.” At Fipa, which hosted the European premiere of Fauda season two, star and creator Lior Raz introduced the show as “a conversation about peace.”

However, Stern believes that while the ‘Israeli thriller’ may seem to epitomise the country’s drama output to the outside world, this is simply an accident of setting. “There’s just so much conflict in the news that people don’t want it for entertainment,” she says. “It’s not that we want to keep on talking about it – we really don’t.”

One merely has to scratch the surface of Israeli drama to see the rich tapestry of themes, ideas and issues that are being explored beyond thrillers. Sleeping Bears, the new series from Margalit, launched on Keshet earlier this year and was also among the official screenings at Berlinale in February. The show follows the fallout when a teacher finds an anonymous letter that contains summaries of her therapy sessions. The show explores the theme of trust and the myths surrounding what we think privately and what society allows us to say publicly.

Likewise, Endemol Shine comedy Nevsu, “the story of an Ethiopian and Israeli intermix family that deals with daily cultural clashes,” as described by Gal Zaid, head of scripted drama at Endemol Shine, “could be relevant anywhere.” It’s a point reinforced by the fact that a pilot for an adaptation was recently commissioned by Fox in the US.

Mama’s Angel, produced by Black Sheep Film Productions for YES TV and distributed by Wild Bunch TV, will be added to the UK edition of foreign-language drama streamer Walter Presents this summer. Set in a wealthy Tel Aviv neighbourhood, it explores the nature of prejudice when a community turns its anger towards a black graffiti artist who is the main suspect in a serious crime.

Israeli dramas and their overseas remakes (inset). From left are Hatufim and Homeland (US), the original Hostages and the US version, and Yellow Peppers and The A Word (UK)

Walter Iuzzolino underlines the attraction of Israeli content to the service he co-founded and curates: “Its culture is ingrained in a sense of family, values and religion, which is a powerful cocktail. The moment you talk about a conflict within a family, you have the most universal theme of them all. Your parents shout at you, repress you and make you slightly neurotic but then you rebel, fall in love, shout back and the cycle continues. The Israelis have a visceral way of exploring these issues – they’re very courageous.”

The list of unconventional shows Israel is making at the moment is so long it’s easier to say which genres aren’t on it, which tend to be traditional formats such as medical, cop or lawyer series. “And God bless them for it,” says Iuzzolino. The fact that all the major international distribution companies such as FremantleMedia, Red Arrow and Endemol Shine have set up offices in Tel Aviv underlines the value they attach to Israeli content.

Because of the average timescale of five years, it takes to get an Israeli series to screen and the relatively low pay local scriptwriters receive, they must have a strong sense of vocation. This desire to tell their story often manifests as a “burning look in their eyes,” says Stern, frequently coming from a real-life trauma or experience. Fauda creator Raz, for example, was part of the same special operations unit as the one the show depicts.

Producers in Israel also have a strong desire to make more drama despite the financial constraints on their industry, and they are looking to find foreign partners to help them do so. “There are more opportunities for international coproductions,” says Amir Ganor, CEO of Endemol Shine Israel. “Israel is a region that holds many burning issues that could be relevant worldwide. Most projects up until today were local; the future is focused on breaking these borders.”

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