The co-creators, writers and directors behind HBO’s Israeli drama Our Boys talk about the complex and delicate journey they undertook to dramatise and examine the tragic real-life events that led to war in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
In the summer of 2014, three Israeli teenagers – Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frankel – were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas militants, sending shockwaves across Israel. The burned body of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem, was later found in a forest, leading to weeks of riots in the city.
These events, which left Jewish and Arab communities alike shaken and furious and led to the outbreak of war in Gaza, have now been dramatised in HBO limited series Our Boys. The 10-part drama follows the investigation into Khdeir’s murder, led by Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz), an agent from the internal terror division of Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Agency), while the parents of the slain teenager begin their long and anguished journey toward justice and consolation.
A coproduction between HBO and Keshet Studios, Our Boys is produced by Movie Plus and distributed globally by Keshet International. It was created by Hagai Levi (The Affair, In Treatment), Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) and Tawfik Abu Wael (Thirst), who all also write and direct.
Apart from Simon, all the characters featured in the series are based on real people involved in the events.
Here, Levi, Cedar, Wael and lead actor Elkabetz take DQ into the development, writing and production of the series, detailing how they pulled the story together for television and the challenges they faced along the way.
Why was this a story that you wanted to tell on television?
Hagai Levi: I remember the summer of 2014 very well. It was a historic summer. For two-and-a-half weeks, I, like everyone, believed that perhaps the boys would be found alive. I remember where I was when their bodies were found. On July 2, the morning of my birthday (which, as usual, I try to ignore), word quickly spread about an Arab teenager from Shoafat whose body was found burnt in the Jerusalem forest. Moments after the shock, another rumour spreads: the boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was murdered by his family because he was a homosexual. The force of my repression arises again: I am amazed at how readily I accept this theory, the extent to which I refuse to believe that the murder could be at the hands of Jews.
From here on, everything happened so fast: sweeping Palestinian riots in Jerusalem and the rest of the country, rockets fired at southern Israel, the bombing of Gaza. Within a week, all the boys were almost forgotten because the war began. I felt that what happened that summer was a story that had to be told. We are artists who make artistic choices but, in this specific case, I found it far more interesting to delve into my own self and not what had been done to me; to dig deep inside in hopes of finding answers that were not too upsetting.
How was the series developed with HBO?
Joseph Cedar: In the spring of 2016, Hagai invited me to join him on this show he had already begun developing with Noah Stollman. The mandate from HBO was to find a story that captures the essence of what had happened in Israel in the dramatic and violent summer of 2014.
Tell us how you developed the story.
Cedar: After months of research, we finally agreed on the story we felt had the potential to touch – if not fully capture – the endlessly complicated chain of events that led to a full-blown war in the Gaza Strip, one that still reverberates today on many levels in Israeli and Palestinian society. The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, told from the separate perspectives of all the key real-life characters involved, was that story.
Shlomi Elkabetz: While Hagai, Joseph and Tawfik were writing Simon, we were talking about him on a daily basis for a few months before we shot the series. What really struck me was that this guy is hunting for the truth. He knows that what he’s looking for is something he will not like, and I was fascinated by this conflict – of somebody who knows that what he finds will designate his own end. In that sense, he is looking for his own death. The reality of the story and the truth he is going to find is something that is going to define him as a murderer, in a way. Because finding the people who killed Muhammad Abu Khdeir means to find the murderer within yourself, and that is something very challenging in acting and storytelling. The process was absolutely fascinating.
How did you represent both sides?
Cedar: It quickly became evident we needed a Palestinian partner to tell the Palestinian side of the story. Both Hagai and I are acutely sensitive to external storytelling that tends to become culturally exotic or sensational. Tawfik Abu Wael was the first and only Palestinian partner we considered. Ever since his first film, Atash (Thirst), I have felt Tawfik’s work combines a rare poetic sensibility with an unflinching look at harsh realities. This precise blend also defines our ambition for this show.
Tawfik Abu Wael: Joseph and Hagai wanted to give a significant voice to the Palestinian story so reached out to me to write and direct the Palestinian part of the series. Working with them was fascinating and challenging. They’re like two scientists, brilliant and thorough. As an artist from the margins of society, I had to re-invent myself within the demands of the job. It was a profound and infinite creative process, diving into all the layers of the story, with all the tension and difficulty it creates, where they ‘represent’ the Israeli side of the story and I represent the Palestinian side. Eventually, our loyalties were always towards what was more human and towards the artistic truth of the story. That was the common basis of our work.
Why did you choose to mix documentary and dramatisation?
Levi: It was very clear from the beginning this was going to be our style. The idea was to create a unifying world where you don’t reveal what is documentary and what isn’t. It was also important for us that the abducted kids and their families would not be characters in the series. That was a decision we made, perhaps because we were too close to them and I didn’t feel comfortable with it.
Cedar: We are reminding the audience that this is all real. In that sense, Our Boys is not at all like other Israeli shows, such as Fauda. When the riots broke out in Jerusalem after the bodies of the three Jewish teenagers were found, there were tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrating on the streets, but there was no way for us to put this on the screen without using this kind of documentary footage that says, ‘This is real.’ We had some obligation to put that on screen.
Episode one begins with the three Israeli teenagers being kidnapped, but the rest of the series focuses on the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir and subsequent investigation and trial. Why did you make that decision?
Levi: This is a big issue and we discussed it at length. We were drawn to understanding the perpetrators of this murder more than we were interested in understanding the victimhood of our side, and there are two reasons for this. One is that we are on this wheel, where one act causes another. This has been going for years; this is our life. You can stop this wheel anywhere and it’s pretty much the same story. It’s a story of pain turning into revenge.
For us, both dramatically and politically, understanding the aggression is crucial. Understanding the victimhood is not uninteresting, but it’s easier to automatically sympathise with characters who are feeling pain. Focusing on the victimhood creates more acts of revenge. Focusing on the aggression, at least as I see it, speaks to trying to stop it. If you watch further into the series, you’ll find out the perpetrators of this horrible act are so far from anything that anyone would expect.
Cedar: It’s easy to say they were extremists, but they’re not. They are just like us. So we tried to understand how this could happen – could it be us? Could it be our children? This is what interests us.
How would you describe the writing and directing process?
Levi: I have been a showrunner for many years, so I’m used to cooperating and collaborating with others and then taking the best you can get, and dealing with all of the fights. For [Cedar and Wael], this was their first television experience.
Cedar: We argued out every tiny detail as if it were the heart of the show and as if our entire personal and professional identities were resting on the outcome of every argument. Nothing was too small to fight over. But by fighting over ideas, abstract notions and vague opinions tend to crystallise and become distinct.
Wael: I reinvented myself into this different process of working, of working with other people. I needed to argue all the time to defend and fight for things I believed. The good thing is that we all had the patience to listen to each other, to fight but not to hit each other. And, like they say in football, everything stayed on the field.
Cedar: Tawfik wrote and directed the Palestinian line of this series. I directed the Jewish line of this series. Some scenes had both Palestinian and Jewish characters on set, so it was a bit like a boxing ring – I would coach my Jewish actors on one side of the ring, he would coach his actors on his side. Then they would meet in the middle, and nothing would work!
What were the key elements of the story you wanted to include?
Levi: It was very important to us to not make this conflict entertainment. It was also important to us to be responsible and not to use people who are still living with this tragedy – it’s still very fresh, it was only five years ago – to make something fun. The main facts around the crime itself are always true. We invented some personal stories, but not the main story.
Wael: It’s a true story; we did a lot of research, but it is a personal interpretation of that truth. Yes, I invented a few things for the drama. The main conflict is that you want to write a good story for all the world to enjoy but, on the other hand, you want to retain the dignity of the people concerned.
How did you overcome challenges in production?
Wael: What made it all possible was those people behind the series – its creators who knew how to contain the story’s complexity; the producer who knew how to run everything smoothly, professionally and with endless humanity; the actors who played complex roles and who each gave their time and talent to the series; the cinematographer and two editors who knew how to maintain a distilled form of art while working with three different directors in a charged political story; and all the chiefs and technical crew who worked very hard to make this series what it turned out to be.
What are your ambitions for the series and what do you hope viewers take away from the story?
Levi: As a writer, I want to deal with issues that are close to me – issues of introspection. That summer was very shocking to me personally. Something about that time had a great effect on me; it broke and disturbed me. As a former Orthodox Jew, I think that doing soul-searching is something that is really typical of us, and when I write and create a story, there is a certain ethic to which I am committed. I hope the series sparks the right kind of debate.