Raising their voices

Raising their voices

By Michael Pickard
June 30, 2023


Israeli series Aleph (Unsilenced) dramatises true events surrounding allegations of sexual abuse against a high-ranking politician. Stars Avraham Shalom Levi and Nelly Mira Rubin tell DQ why they hope the show gets people talking.

Most of the time, a writer chooses their next project. But sometimes, that project might just choose them.

That’s certainly the belief of Avraham Shalom Levi, an actor and screenwriter who identifies a chance meeting with a novelist as the starting point for six-part Israeli drama Aleph (Unsilenced), which he created and also stars in.

Produced by Yes Studios (Fauda, Your Honour and Shtisel) and Great Productions for broadcaster Yes, the series is inspired by Odelia Karmon’s book The Confidante, which itself draws upon real-life examples of sexual assault in the country’s corridors of power.

The real case is not named here, however, and the events portrayed do not represent what might have actually happened. Instead, it shows the lengths to which one man – and his allies – will go to silence his victims, protect themselves and keep their crimes out of the public eye, and follows a group of women bound by their shared experiences coming together to seek justice.

Set in the early 2000s, before the #MeToo movement, the story begins when the recently elected president of Israel (played by Yaakov Zada Daniel) forces himself upon Oshrat (Nelly Mira Rubin), a new female member of his team. Desperate to keep her job, she asks the president’s chief of staff Avinoam (Levi) for help, but he becomes complicit by first ignoring Oshrat’s claims and then engineering a brutal campaign to discredit her and keep her quiet.

L-R: Avraham Shalom Levi, Yaakov Zada Daniel and Nelly Mira Rubin in Unsilenced

Refusing to be silenced, Oshrat bravely pursues her claims of abuse, and is eventually joined by other women that the president had attacked as he rose through the political ranks.

“It’s an amazing story,” says Levi, who created the series alongside Tamar Marom, Moish Goldberg and Einat Zilber Damari, with Odelia Karmon as co-creator, and wrote the scripts with Marom. But the story of how he came to work on the show is more down to serendipity than an active interest in the genre.

Levi, whose background is predominantly in theatre, saw Karmon when he visited his neighbourhood café one morning. He approached her and expressed his admiration for her work, before asking why nobody had adapted her book. Karmon revealed that while many people had tried, no one had yet been successful, and so Levi took up the challenge.

“We started meeting, and every meeting was scheduled for one hour but they became three and four hours,” he recalls. “I only knew how to write for the theatre, so I thought maybe it would be a play, but it didn’t become a play. I felt all the time that it had to be told in a way that all of Israel would get to see it – and this is the time for TV. So it pushed me to tell the story. It took a while.”

Penning the show over a three-year period, Levi says he feels like he wrote three different versions. The first iteration focused more on how the president rose to power, revealing that his history of harassment didn’t start once he was elected. Another version placed Avinoam, Levi’s character, in the middle of events, but that shifted the focus of the series away from the female characters and the president’s victims.

“It felt like in each version we were missing something,” Levi explains. The solution was found in a Rashomon structure, where the first five episodes are told from different perspectives, namely the first two victims and then the president’s chief of staff, the president’s wife and the president himself. The sixth episode then brings their stories together.

In the series, Rubin’s Oshrat is sexually assaulted by the president

“This format gave us two beautiful things – first is a woman who stood up and said, ‘Me too, me too,’ and it became a relay race,” the writer continues. “Secondly, the people around the candidate, like my character, know everything about him and silence the women. They knew but didn’t tell anyone what they knew about the candidate. The format gave us this opportunity to tell the story in this complicated way to say all these things together.”

Notably, Levi says the episode from the president’s perspective was the most difficult to write. “I taught acting for many years and you teach your students not to judge the character you are playing,” he says. “I feel the same about writing. You cannot judge the character, so you can imagine how it is to write the president’s perspective without judging him. It’s terrifying.”

Levi had long conversations with psychologists to get a better understanding of the character’s mindset and how he might try to explain his own behaviour. “We found out that people who do this don’t tell themselves bad things about themselves. They cannot meet this awful side of them,” he says. “They have only the good side. It’s like two characters living in the same person. It’s difficult to understand how he thinks, but when he says in the series, ‘I didn’t do that. Everyone behaves like that. I’m not so special, I just fall in love…’ he really believes that. It’s mind-blowing because you look at the person and he truly believes that.”

Complicating matters is the fact the character isn’t a one-sided villain. He climbed up the political ladder from his origins in a very small city with no connections to help him on his way, going to university, saving money and working hard. “It’s an inspiring story,” Levi says, “but on the other hand, he’s a criminal.”

Starring alongside Levi is Rubin (Fire Dance, Sad City Girls), who plays Oshrat, the first person to reveal the president’s abuse. When she first read the synopsis of the series before auditioning, Rubin says she couldn’t believe it could be based in reality. From that point on, there was no question of her signing on to the series, which debuted on Yes in May.

“Just being a woman, telling a story that a lot of women face today, I felt like I had to do it,” Rubin says. “I had to tell it. A lot of women now come to me and say ‘Wow, thank you for portraying me.’ Because it’s such a hard subject to talk about, I thought maybe people would not watch it or not talk about it, but the reaction has been amazing.”

Levi plays the president’s right-hand man, who seeks to shield his boss from the accusations

Rubin felt the role of Oshrat was bigger than her, and that the character represents many women who have been in her place. Oshrat’s experience is also the viewer’s entry point into the story, as the first episode is told from her perspective.

The character, she says, is extremely relatable because she is a young girl who wants to fulfil her dreams by working hard to escape her difficult upbringing. But when she gets the job of her dreams, the president seemingly falls in love with her and treats her very nicely – until all of a sudden, everything changes.

“For a lot of women who have been through sexual abuse, it takes a lot of time to understand what happened,” Rubin says. “Oshrat does not see herself as a victim. She fights. She’s the first girl to step up and say, ‘It happened to me and I need justice.’ For me to portray Oshrat was like playing a superhero – a tragic superhero.”

Beyond episode one, though the series follows other characters, “Oshrat is always leading the war” against the president, Rubin says. “Even though in some scenes you don’t see her, you hear how the president talks about her, and how the wife of the president talks about her; how the legal system calls her words such as whore or brat. But I think she’s pretty consistent and pretty powerful.”

When it came to casting Unsilenced, which is also distributed by Yes Studios, the production team shied away from particularly recognisable actors to better keep viewers engaged in the story. In Rubin, Levi instantly found Oshrat, but he didn’t always plan to be in the series himself.

In fact, it was during meetings with Yes that executives suggested Avinoam could have a bigger role in the drama than was initially conceived – and that Levi should be the actor to play him.

The story unfolds from a different perspective in each of its first five episodes

“I thought, ‘Yes, this will be great,’ but I didn’t know what it would become,” he admits. “One woman approached me in the street and said, ‘I hate you so much, you are such a bad person.’ But she didn’t laugh. It wasn’t a joke. She was really angry. But as an actor, it’s the best compliment.”

Levi and Rubin share one particularly notable scene together in which Avinoam clashes with Oshrat over her allegations against the president.

“It was a very difficult scene. The writing is brilliant, but the fact people can abuse their power in such a strong and immoral level is heartbreaking,” Rubin says.

“It’s classic gaslighting from the man who best knows how to get to people and change their minds,” adds Levi. “There’s a sentence he tells her – ‘I don’t know what happened between you and the president’ – where he’s saying, ‘I’m not sure what you’re telling me is true.’ It’s like, ‘What? You would know exactly what is going on.’”

But Avinoam’s stance is all part of his own efforts to rise to power as the man behind the president. “Avinoam wants more and more power. That’s his focus,” Levi says. “They have a long relationship that has taken him from one step to another. He’s the mind behind the candidate. It’s like, ‘I want you to be the president of Israel and I want to be the most powerful man behind the most powerful man.’”

Reactions to both Levi and Rubin in the street have made clear to both actors the impact the series has had on viewers in Israel. Rubin has even been asked if the closed-ended series will return for a second season, such is their engagement with the characters.

It’s a sign that the themes and issues at the heart of the story have become talking points in homes across the country, and Rubin hopes Unsilenced can go some way to changing the conversation around sexual abuse.

“It really gives a courageous look and voice to women who have been sexually abused by men of power or status,” she says. “But I feel like we have a long way to go, culturally and maybe legally, for things to change, for punishments to change and for how society looks at a victim. I’m very hopeful and optimistic but I think we have a long way to go.”

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