Into the Unknowns
Director Tawfik Abu-Wael takes DQ inside the making of raw and intense Israeli drama Unknowns, which follows a group of boys on the edge of society who become the prime suspects in a police investigation.
When he was making nine-part Israeli series Unknowns, filmmaker Tawfik Abu Wael could see a lot of himself in the characters he was watching on screen.
“For me, every character was inspired by a part of me, by my own life, by my childhood,” he tells DQ during French television festival Canneseries, where the series was screened in competition. “For every character, I knew people similar to them. I didn’t need to do a lot of research because it’s in my DNA. I was in this life.”
Set in a school for at-risk youths, the series follows a group of boys living on the edge of society who are trying to find their place in a world while being trapped in a cycle of violence that pushes away anyone who tries to support them. But when a local girl is raped, they immediately become suspects and their already unbalanced world becomes even more unsteady.
Produced by Rabel Films for broadcaster KAN and distributed by About Premium Content, Unknowns is a tough but absorbing watch, characterised by intimate camerawork and intense performances from a cast that includes Yehuda Levi, Shani Cohen, Yaniv Biton, Amir Tessler, Ofek Pesach, Ben Sultan and Yaniv Almench.
Wael is no stranger to this kind of material, having co-written and co-directed HBO’s Our Boys, which dramatised the murders of three Israeli teenagers and one Palestinian teen in 2014 that led to weeks of unrest. But while he had been looking to make a new feature film, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic forced him to turn his attention to television. He then found the story of Unknowns from Guy Sidis, who had previously worked in a school similar to the one featured in the series.
“I picked up this story because of the kids,” he says. “I came from a hard childhood, a broken family. I’m also a Palestinian Arab inside Israel, so I was away from the centre of opportunities. I was born in a very poor neighbourhood and I didn’t have many options, so I was similar to these kids. I could see myself, I could see my friends. That’s why I fell in love with the story at the beginning. After that, I needed to take the story to my soul and what I believe in. This was a process, to take all the elements of the story and rewrite it from my point of view.
“The other side is where it’s set, Beit Shemesh, which is an Israeli city near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It’s a poor city, religious and traditional, and mostly right-wing politically. There’s a lot of tension, violence and racism. I can understand the roots of this material and where it comes from.”
In Unknowns, Wael constructed a series he believes has no ‘bad’ characters. Even though the characters may do bad things, lie and are violent, the director wanted viewers to connect with the reasons they make the choices they do, in most cases as a means of survival.
As an example, Wael highlights Menachem (played by Pesach), one of the main characters, who in early episodes breaks into the school and carries out a destructive rampage after discovering hidden security cameras have been installed. “He’s a bad guy, he’s scary, but when I asked myself, ‘Why do I want to make this show?’ I thought because of people like Menachem,” he says. “They deserve mercy and empathy. It’s a big challenge for me, especially with all these kids, but the model is Menachem. How can I make a story where even this guy deserves mercy and empathy? Over the episodes, I can say his heart is in the right place. You will feel empathy for him and everyone.
“Osher [Tessler] is the positive hero – he wants to succeed because he has a passion to get out of this place, to clean his criminal record and join the army to start a new life. He has a girlfriend; he’s a poor guy who falls in love with a girl from a rich house. He already has one foot outside the place and he’s the kind of character you want to succeed. But he will have a very difficult time in the show. Then there’s Vasa [Almench], who comes from an Ethiopian background. We speak about kids who suffer from discrimination, but they themselves discriminate against Ethiopians or Arabs and that will also be part of the show.”
Taking existing material and outlines that had been written by Sidis and Kirit Yaron, Wael wrote the series knowing he would also direct it, having previously only directed films – such as Thirst and Last Days in Jerusalem – he had also written.
“Because I was going to direct it, I knew how to find the compromise between what you want and what you can do,” he says. “It was a great process. It’s not in every case that you can find harmony in working together, so they [Sidis and Yaron] brought the material and the characters and I took it and wrote it as I believed.
“In Our Boys, we had a writers room with three creators – Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and me – and we worked together with another two script writers. I specialised in the Palestinian storyline. That was an American way to do it but, in this case, it was different. I usually direct what I am writing. I don’t have experience directing something I didn’t write, so for me it was obvious to do that. I loved the material but thought I needed to do it by myself through my own prism of telling stories. That’s what happened in this case and I hope it will work with the audience.”
Then when it came to the drama’s intimate, moving camera style, “I wanted it to be filmed handheld because I wanted it to be realistic and alive,” continues Wael, who says it was important that the actors felt free on set.
“Usually, in films, they have marks on the floor, but I wanted the actors to lose their self-awareness and to choose their point of view in every scene. I didn’t want it to feel fake. I want viewers to feel like something is happening right in front of them. On the other hand, sometimes I needed to find very precise camera movements. There are moments when two characters meet for the first time, when there are two plots happening or when you want to tell the audience, ‘Pay attention – there is something happening here.’ I needed to choose [the style] instinctively by feeling for the right moments to put the camera on a tripod or dolly to make it more precise.”
While Wael says Unknowns is entirely different from Our Boys, he describes his latest work as a very modern thriller, inspired by his love of Nordic noir dramas and British and US series. “I loved I May Destroy You and Mare of Easttown,” he says. “I really love the new evolution of thrillers and I wanted to make this my own way. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. We’ll see. I tried.”