Gilad Shalit and Israeli TV’s Searing ‘Prisoners of War’ [UPDATE/SLIDE SHOW]
The hit Israeli TV drama “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War,” now available at mako.co.il) proved prescient—and controversial—recently as Gilad Shalit returned to Israel in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners after five years in a Hamas dungeon. “Hatufim,” which inspired Showtime’s popular thriller, “Homeland,” premiered last year with unprecedented ratings – and scenes that could have doubled for Shalit’s homecoming.
In “Hatufim’s” beautifully shot and directed pilot, POWs Uri and Nimrod look shell shocked as the media pounces and cheering crowds wave banners celebrating their return after a massive prisoner exchange. Created by Gideon Raff (who also is an executive producer on “Homeland”), the series goes on to document the former captives’ struggle to reintegrate into their families and into society while battling post traumatic stress disorder and other psychological trauma. “In one episode, our POWs walk in the street and suddenly see demonstrations against their release because the price is too high,” Raff said. “Right under the celebration of Gilad Shalit’s return, we [also] see the price.”
“Hatufim” has earned both praise and ire from reporters and ex-POWs, but has been an unabashed hit with Israeli audiences; some have regaled Raff for bringing to light a previously taboo subject, while others claim the show “scored ratings by taking advantage of the country’s anguish over captive soldier Gilad Shalit,” the Associated Press said in an article reprinted in The Guardian.
When I interviewed Raff several days before Shalit’s Oct. 18 release, the writer-director strongly denied accusations that the show in any way exploits real-life events. “The script was not based on Shalit or anyone else in particular; it is from my mind,” he said. “I never wanted the series to reflect Gilad Shalit, because he is not a fictionalized character. Gilad Shalit was certainly in our prayers, but not in our story.” “Hatufim,” he added, was informed by meticulous research on POWs in general, and “We very carefully dealt with the issue with the utmost sensitivity and respect.” When the show premiered, the Shalits issued a statement reminding people that Gilad is not a fictional character. “But I have never heard any objections from the Shalit family, and every POW who has gotten in touch with me loves the show and feels his story is finally being told,” Raff said.
The Israeli-born Raff, 39, got the idea for “Hatufim” a couple of years ago while he was living in Los Angeles, where he had attended the American Film Institute (in the directing program), worked for director Doug Liman and himself directed the English-language films “The Killing Floor” and “Train.” After nine years in L.A., Raff hoped to move back to Israel with a TV series, and came up with “Hatufim” when he realized “There had been no series that dealt with POWs, ever. Even when the subject arose in newspapers or books, it always focused on the trauma of captivity or the obsession with bringing our boys home, not how they [fare] the day after their return. There are about 1,500 POWs who did come back, but we know very little about their lives after captivity.”
As to criticisms that the timing was inappropriate, Raff said: “I don’t think there is a good time, ever, in Israel to deal with this subject. Before Gilad Shalit, there was Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and before that Ron Arad,” he said, referring to other searing POW cases. “It’s a pressing issue, and a national trauma, which is why it has to be discussed. In the United States, ‘The Hurt Locker’ won the Oscar with a very hard, emotional movie about the Iraq war, which was still happening. That’s why we have to keep talking about these things. It’s so weird an argument, to wait until something doesn’t happen anymore in order to deal with it.”
Anticipating flak for tackling such a taboo subject when soldiers, including Shalit, remained imprisoned, Raff intensely studied the psychological aftermath of captivity, which, he said, applies as much to POWs held in Vietnam as in the Gaza Strip. He read materials such as Zahava Stroud’s doctoral thesis from Tel Aviv University, which in the early 1980s “helped change how the IDF processes POWs,” Raff said.
He said he also interviewed 10 Israeli ex-prisoners, including Hezi Shai, who was imprisoned for three years after being captured in Lebanon by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Although Shai reportedly has not publicly revealed the extent of his ordeal, “he was very cooperative in our reseach and even came to the set,” Raff said.
Shai was on hand when Raff shot the excruciating scene in which Uri and Nimrod are finally reunited with their families at
Ben Gurion airport: Uri (Ishai Golan), the milder and meeker of the two, looks broken, anxious, like a hunted animal; while Nimrod (Yoram Toledano) stares with haunted, pained intensity at his relatives, who are now essentially a group of strangers. Rather than rushing to embrace each other, the POWs and their families simply stare at each other for what seems like an eternity – until Uri’s elderly father, now in a wheelchair, cries, “Why are you standing there like a nitwit? Come here!” “Aba,” Uri murmurs, as the father and son embrace.
“Hezi watched take after take of that scene and it was so emotional,” Raff recalled. “He said that was how it [really] was: the silence, the not knowing how to act, and not knowing who it is in front of you.”
The fictional Uri learns that his mother died while he was in captivity (“She waited as long as she could,” his father says) and confirms that his fiancée (played by Mili Avital) is now married to his brother. Nimrod, meanwhile, wants to drive home from the airport and ignores his wife when she chides that his driver’s license has expired. Nimrod soon chafes under the constrictions of family life and the watchful eyes of his wife, who in his absence has headed the family and become a media star in her own right—on behalf of POWs. The scene in which Nimrod attempts to fill out a job application is heartbreaking: College degrees? None. Work experience: None.
Both Uri and Nimrod bear horrific physical scars of torture, but their emotional scars become front and center in the show. Since captives have no control over their lives, Raff said, they can chafe under any kind of perceived constraint. “They tend to have trouble holding down jobs and marriages can collapse,” he said. “Moreover, they feel shame that terrorists who may kill again have been released on their [behalf]—and the media doesn’t let them forget it. It’s an intolerable burden. They don’t feel they are returning heroes, but instead feel broken and ashamed that they gave information under torture. There is also a survivor’s guilt that they made it while some of their buddies didn’t.”
The POWs in “Hatufim” flinch at sudden noises; they gain comfort from sleeping on the floor or sitting in the corner of a darkened room, against the wall, as they did in captivity. The flashback scenes of torture are even more brutal than those shown in “Homeland:” We see prisoners’ bloodied bodies hanging from the ceiling, screaming as they are beaten or contorting in response to electric shocks.
While “Homeland” is more of a thriller exploring the American psyche upon the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, “Hatufim” is more a domestic drama of life after captivity. (Even so, suspense does emerge when it turns out that a third soldier caught with Uri and Nimrod, who reportedly died in captivity, may not be dead after all.)
“Hatufim” is the latest and perhaps the most successful Israeli series to be adapted for American TV. Raff actually sold his idea to producers here even before he started writing “Hatufim;” in a way, this all worked through Jewish geography. Raff’s agent, Rick Rosen, also represents Howard Gordon, the executive producer of “24,” the thriller that starred Kiefer Sutherland as superpatriot counter terrorist maverick Jack Bauer. Gordon was so enthused by Raff’s idea that – the day “24” wrapped—he began working on “Homeland with his “24” colleague, Alex Gansa. Meanwhile, “Hatufim” was picked up by Keshet Broadcasting (also a client of Rosen’s), the company behind “BiTipul,” which became the acclaimed HBO series, “In Treatment,” starring Gabriel Byrne.
“Homeland,” which recently debuted to excellent reviews, stars Claire Danes as a rogue CIA officer with bipolar disorder who believes returning POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) may in fact have been “turned” into a terrorist during eights years in Afghanistan.
After viewing four episodes each of “Hatufim” and “Homeland” (which has also been picked up for a second season) I can say both are mesmerizing dramas exploring concerns unique to the countries in which they air. “Homeland” asks questions such as, whom do we really need to fear after the death of Osama bin Laden, and what is the price paid by those who continue to spy on our behalf?
“Hatufim” is high drama for a nation in which POWs are a continuing national tragedy; as an American Jew with many relatives in Israel, I can vouch that the beautifully scripted series resonates in an especially personal way. “When Israelis watch this show, it’s like a collective emotional experience,” Raff said. “It’s not an easy show for them to watch. Because Israel is such a small country, whenever soldiers are killed or fall captive, every Israeli feels that we’re all in mourning. The radio plays sad songs; nobody continues with mundane life.”
“Hatufim’s” second season will premiere on Israel’s Channel 2 in December; the first season is available in Hebrew online at mako.co.il, Raff said, adding that Kesehet is planning a DVD release of both seasons, with English subtitles, after season two completes its Israeli run.
Raff emphasized that Shalit will not become a character on the show; nor did he create the series for political reasons. “It would have been presumptuous to think that I’d do a series to help rescue Gilad Shalit,” he said. When I asked Raff if he was concerned about what Shalit might think of the series, he said, “That would be like asking a Holocaust survivor what they think of ‘The Pianist’…. I don’t know whether he will watch the show, but I do wish that one day it will be relevant for him, because it is about former POWs.”