Tag Archives: Keren Margalit

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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Open secrets

Israeli writer/director Keren Margalit discusses the making of her latest drama Sleeping Bears, which tackles issues of trust, and opens up about the creative process behind her screen work.

Psychologists and therapists are privy to some of their clients’ deepest secrets – so what happens if those secrets are suddenly exposed? That’s the question at the heart of Israeli drama Sleeping Bears, which also asks whether we are able to truly trust the ones we love.

The 10-part series centres on Hadas, a teacher at a school for high-risk pupils, whose world collapses around her when she receives an envelope containing pages from her psychologist Ya’akov Eshel’s diary – papers documenting their private conversations. When Ya’akov is unexpectedly killed in a car crash, Hadas is forced into a desperate search to find the anonymous sender as she faces truths she has kept hidden from her loved ones.

Keren Margalit

Blending elements of family drama and captivating thriller, it’s the latest series from writer/director Keren Margalit, the award-winning creator of Yellow Peppers, which was adapted in the UK as The A Word. Produced by July August Productions for Keshet Broadcasting, it is distributed by Keshet International.

Margalit first conceived the idea behind Sleeping Bears while working on Yellow Peppers, but it wasn’t until she made the second season of that show that she sat down to work on her latest series. “The idea goes round and round for many years. This is the tendency of ideas,” she says. “You have one and then you go to sleep and it pops up again, and when it pops up for the sixth time, you think there’s probably something there. Even now, there are a million ideas spinning around but I don’t know if they will become something. I had to research it without knowing what it was.”

The idea for the series soon took shape, however, and was boosted by making the central character a teacher – a decision that was inspired by a programme Margalit saw about people who leave their careers to go and work with troubled kids. She subsequently spent time working at a school as a teaching assistant.

Her writing process is dictated by one essential element. “The trick of deadlines is amazing,” she jokes. “You have no money, it’s been too long since your last project, and how long can I run over The A Word, which isn’t mine really. So that was the moment I sat down and started doing this. I have a script editor who works very closely with me and she also shouts at me, and we did it!

“But it took a lot of time this time. I knew the idea, I knew who [sent the secret letter], but I needed to fix the story and this happens through writing. It started to awaken.”

Sleeping Bears stars Noa Koler as a teacher fighting to protect her darkest secrets

Margalit wrote all 10 episodes herself, an unusual step given the large episode order but one that was necessary, as when she started writing, she didn’t yet know what would happen before the story reached its conclusion.

“I just don’t know what’s going to happen so I don’t have anything to give anyone, so I have to do it myself,” she says. “I also hate conflicts, so with myself [directing] I can handle it.”

As for whether she prefers writing or directing, Margalit says: “If I had to choose something, I choose writing but I don’t think I could direct someone else’s script. It’s partly because I continue to write while directing. You bring this story to life and you do that though directing. And I’m making changes on set. On Yellow Peppers, some of the best scenes were created on set. You also need to find what is happening now, what’s happening at the same moment. That’s directing. If there’s another director, he can’t do it because he doesn’t have the freedom to change anything.”

The cast of Sleeping Bears is headed by Noa Koler, who plays Hadas, alongside Yossi Marshak as Hadas’s husband Dari, Ola Schur Selektar as her best friend Iris and Yaakov Zada Daniel as Shai Gabai, the principal of the school where Hadas works.

The series is produced by July August Productions for Keshet

“When I read the script, I felt many things,” Koler tells DQ. “One of them was fear; it was scary. Could I imagine myself doing these suspense scenes? I fell in love with Hadas – she’s going into a big war and she’s a strong and brave woman, and I don’t consider myself as one. I guess I am in some way, but not like Hadas. Hadas is a very strong woman and she’s at a point where she has to choose how she wants to live her life. I wanted to play that part very badly. I didn’t know if I could do it or do it as well as in the script.”

The actor describes Margalit as “unique, there’s no one like her,” and says she demands her cast give their all to their characters. “She knows what she wants and she can’t stand fakes or phonies or someone never giving themselves truly,” Kooler says. “She feels everything. There’s not a second in the series that is there by mistake. She’s amazing, she’s one of a kind.”

Getting the best performance from her actors is all about using what is happening in the real world to channel their emotions into their character, Margalit says. “You have to look at what’s happening in the moment all the time and not be automatic,” she explains. “There’s always some new condition under the surface. People are very difficult creatures, they’re so full of layers and you have to find the right layer for this approach and what feeling is going on in there. So that’s a nice game for me. Let’s see how we can translate that and make something interesting and different [on screen].”

Koler adds: “It’s an amazing opportunity for me as an actress to have this range of emotions. It’s funny when I have to run – I’m not that sporty, but [my character is] so afraid. And I love that there are some moments of humour in her life. It was very challenging, fun and tough.”

Margalit is best known for creating Autism drama Yellow Peppers

With a career spanning series including BeTipul (In Therapy), autism drama Yellow Peppers and now Sleeping Bears, Margalit tells stories about big things happening to regular people. “People can be larger than life, but these people are the exact same size as life,” she says. “They’re not expecting to do anything brave. Usually they’re very frightened people who prefer to not get into trouble. They hide at home and trouble comes to them and they have to deal with it. It’s their worst nightmare. But Hadas can’t sleep through life, she has to take a stand and fight – that’s what she’s going through.”

Israel, now a notable force on the international scripted scene, is known for creating big drama despite the relatively low budgets broadcasters and producers have to play with. It all means character and emotion are put front and centre of series that force ordinary people to deal with extraordinary circumstances.

“We’re not doing any genre series in Israel about hospitals or lawyers, we don’t have any of that,” observes Keshet Broadcasting’s Karni Ziv. “Part of it is budget but part of it is that the Israeli audience want a story they can connect with for a long time. The Israeli audience wants to fall in love – not watch a police officer solving a crime again and again.

“When you have small budgets, you can’t do big shows and it forces the writer and then the director to find a solution. People want to watch people like them, people they can relate to. Hadas is a teacher, she’s not a prime minister or a spy, and I think it makes it a series that a lot of our audience can relate to.”

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