Tag Archives: Mama’s Angel

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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Mipcom showcases global writing talent

Malin Lagerlof
Malin Lagerlof

Mipcom, which takes place in Cannes between October 17 and 20, is not just a great platform for international drama – it’s also a useful showcase for writers from around the world.

At a time when the key players in the scripted TV business are increasingly willing to employ writers from beyond their home territory, it’s worth exploring the people behind the market’s headline dramas.

French distributor Wild Bunch TV, for example, will be in Cannes with three dramas including Israeli production Mama’s Angel. A 10-episode psychological drama that explores the dark underbelly of life in a wealthy Tel Aviv suburb after a child is murdered, it was screened in competition at Series Mania 2016 and was created by rising star Keren Weissman.

Called Malach Shel Ima in Hebrew, the show was produced by Black Sheep Productions and aired on Yes TV. Weissman’s first TV drama series, it has scored a decent 8.2 rating on IMDb. Speaking at Series Mania, Weissman said the show took four years to write and places a strong emphasis on emotive themes such as motherhood.

Also on the Wild Bunch slate a road trip-cum-love story Tytgat Chocolate, about a man and his mentally challenged co-workers at a chocolate factory. The seven-part Flemish series was written and directed by Marc Bryssinck and Filip Lenaerts and produced by deMENSEN for VRT. Of the two writers, Lenaerts has the longer track record in TV, having created 2011 documentary The Colony (about life in an isolated prison). Interestingly, Bryssinck is artistic director at Theatre Stap, a professional theatre company that works with people who have mental disabilities. Clearly this experience will have helped inform the VRT show.

Jesse McKeown
Jesse McKeown

Red Arrow International’s slate features a diverse range of drama titles including Farang, a Nordic drama made by Warner Bros for C More and TV4 in Sweden. This one tells the story of a former criminal eking out a shabby existence in Thailand having testified against some old friends in his home country, Sweden. An eight-part series starring Ola Rapace, this one is written by Malin Lagerlof, Veronica Zacco, Anders Sparring and Niklas Rockstrom.

Lagerlof is a well-established writer whose recent credits include SVT miniseries Bibliotekstjuven and Wallander – Saknaden, a 2013 production from Yellow Bird. Prior to her success in TV, she made a name for herself in theatre and film production. Zacco is a more recent addition to the industry but has several episodes of Thicker than Water under her belt. Rockstrom, who also worked on Thicker than Water, is now involved with a new SVT project called Before We Die. Sparring’s most recent major credit, meanwhile, was the kids animation series Rita & Krokodille.

Red Arrow is also at the market with The Romeo Section: Assassins, a Vancouver-set espionage thriller that aired on CBC. The blurb says: “To his university, Professor Wolfgang McGee is a gifted academic. To his country, he is the spymaster behind the Romeo Section, a secret ring of intelligence operatives that infiltrate some of the world’s deadliest criminal networks.”

Chris Haddock
Chris Haddock

This one is written by a trio that includes Jesse McKeown, Chris Haddock and Stephen E. Miller. McKeown is a well-established writer whose recent credits include 19-2, Rogue, Republic of Doyle and Da Vinci’s City Hall. Larger-than-life figure Haddock was the creator and showrunner of the latter show and also showruns the new title being marketed by Red Arrow. In fact, he has previously been profiled by DQ – click here to check it out. Interestingly, Miller is better known as an actor (with a long string of credits). This is his first outing as a writer, except for a single episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest, a precursor to Da Vinci’s City Hall that was also created and written by Haddock.

StudioCanal’s big push at the market is Midnight Sun, a Canal+/SVT coproduction. Created by Måns Mårlind and Bjorn Stein, StudioCanal calls it “a high-concept thriller set in a small mining community in remote northern Sweden where a series of brutal murders conceal a secret conspiracy.” Due to air later this year, the series received the Audience Award at SeriesMania in April.

Mårlind and Stein, of course, are best known for crime series Bron, which has aired in 160 countries and has been remade in the US as The Bridge and the UK  as The Tunnel. They started working together at Stockholm-based production company Camp David where they directed commercials for major brands including Nike, UNICEF, Toyota, Reebok, Scandinavian Airlines, and IKEA. After this they began alternating between commercials and feature films, helming Underworld: Awakening, starring Kate Beckinsale. In more recent times their focus has been on high-end TV drama.

Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind
Bjorn Stein (left) and Måns Marlind

Sticking with the Scandinavians, StudioCanal will also present Below the Surface, a crime thriller for Denmark’s Kanal 5 from SAM Productions. In this story, 15 people on a subway train beneath Copenhagen are taken hostage by three armed men. A terror taskforce is dispatched to rescue them and a reporter acts as go-between with the police as the captors bait the press with information about each hostage’s past.

Kasper Barfoed is creator, head writer and concept director of the show. Until now, Barfoed had been best known as a director, having previously been a child actor. His previous directorial credits include Dicte and Those Who Kill. His only previous writing credit is 2015 movie Sommeren ’92, set against the Danish football team’s successful campaign in the 1992 European Championships.

From the UK, StudioCanal has Crazyhead, a new comedy-horror series from Bafta winner Howard Overman (Misfits). The six-part series is produced by Urban Myth Films for Channel 4 in association with Netflix. It follows “Amy and Raquel as they navigate their way through the choppy waters of their early 20s while kicking the ass of some seriously gnarly demons.”

Ortega
Sebastian Ortega

RAI Com, the sales arm of Italian pubcaster RAI, is also heading to Cannes with a strong slate of dramas. One key title is crime series Non Uccidere (Close Murders), which is entering its second season. The story focuses on a female crime fighter, Valeria Ferro of the Turin Homicide Squad, and her battle against domestic and community-based violence. It was directed by Giuseppe Gagliardi and created by Claudio Corbucci, whose previous TV series credits include La Squadra. For the last few years, he has been more focused on movies and TV movies.

Dori Media Group, meanwhile, has high hopes for crime drama El Marginal, a 2016 Grand Prix winner at Séries Mania. El Marginal is a coproduction from Underground Producciones and TV Publica Argentina and was created by Sebastian Ortega.

It tells the story of Miguel Dimarco, “an ex-cop who enters prison under a false identity as a convict. His mission is to infiltrate a gang of prisoners who have kidnapped the daughter of a prominent judge. Miguel must discover the whereabouts of the girl and help set her free. He meets the objective but someone betrays him, leaving him behind bars with no witnesses who know his true identity.”

Ortega is a well-established writer/producer on the Argentinian scene and has been closely associated with commercial channel Telefe since 2008 (though this title is for TPA, not Telefe). Big hits during his career have included Lalola, Los Exitosos Pells and Graduates. Ortega’s shows generally score well with international buyers, so El Marginal is also likely to attract a lot of attention.

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