When it premiered on Israeli TV in 2015, the drama series “Fauda” broke new ground for its portrayal of both Jews and Palestinians as fully-fledged, equally flawed human beings, and the complicated conflict between them in many shades of gray.
Amid praise and accolades, including six Israeli Academy of Film and Television (Ophir) awards, Netflix acquired the series and began streaming it in December 2016. The second season, which aired last year in Israel and earned 11 Ophirs, premieres May 24 on Netflix.
“Fauda,” which means chaos in Arabic, follows both an Israeli counter-terrorism unit operating in the West Bank and Hamas terrorists. The show is presented in Hebrew and Arabic. Tellingly, there are a lot of similarities between Israeli Doron Kavillio, played by series co-creator Lior Raz, and terrorist leader Nidal aka “Al Makdesi” (Firas Nassar). Both men are hotheaded, doggedly determined and defy authority. And just as the members of Doron’s unit pose as Arabs to gather intelligence, Nidal uses college students posing as Jews in his attacks.
“We always try to find the similarity on both sides, between the nemesis and the hero,” Raz said by telephone from Israel. “There are similarities in how they behave, but Nidal is a terrorist who kills innocent people and is motivated by revenge. Doron is motivated by the chase, the adrenaline and that someone is threatening his life and his family’s lives.”
Thematically, “this season is about the relationships between fathers and sons and it’s about revenge — how the circle of violence continues because of the need for revenge,” Raz said. “And about the price that both sides are paying for their actions.”
“I’m very connected to my heritage and my Judaism.” — Lior Raz
Raz, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in an undercover special ops unit, based a lot of “Fauda” on his experiences. “I took a lot of things from my experiences, not just in the military, but in life,” he said. “The relationship with my father in the show is very similar to my relationship with my father in real life. But there are other [fictional] things that are just good drama. We try to combine everything.”
When “Fauda” was first broadcast in Israel, “people didn’t know how to react,” Raz said. “There was a little bit of criticism, but as the season went on they loved it. I thought no one would watch, just my family. But it has become a big hit all over the world.” From Jews in particular, he noted, “I feel there is a pride about the show and I’m so glad to see it when I meet with people in Jewish communities all over the world.”
The fact that “Fauda” was embraced by a wide spectrum of people also took Raz by surprise. “We thought the Israeli right wingers would hate us because we are humanizing the Palestinian; the left wingers would hate us because we show Israeli soldiers doing bad things sometimes, and we thought the Arabs and Palestinians would hate us because we’re showing terrorists killing Israelis. But what happened is the right wingers think it’s a right-wing show, the left wingers think it’s a left-wing show and the Arabs love it because we’re honoring their language and their narrative, showing their side,” he said. “That’s the secret of the success of the show.”
Born in Israel to an Iraqi father and an Algerian mother, Raz grew up listening to Arabic music alongside Tchaikovsky and Mozart and speaking Arabic with his parents and grandmother. “We were culturally Jewish. We celebrated the holidays, we fasted on Yom Kippur and had Kiddush on Friday night, but that’s it,” he said.
Nonetheless, his Jewish identity is ironclad. “This is my heritage and why I live in Israel,” he said. “I’m very connected to my heritage and my Judaism. In Israel, it’s not a question at all. It’s something you’re born into when you live in the Jewish state. You fight for the Jewish state. You belong to the Jewish state. You cannot disconnect the two.”
After his IDF service, Raz moved to Los Angeles in 1993 and was hired by an Israeli-run personal security company as a bodyguard for Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It was nothing to write home about. I was in the home, with his family,” Raz said.
Working for the movie star had no influence on Raz’s eventual career choice.
“I didn’t want to be an actor at that time. I thought I’d be connected to security all my life,” he said. However, when he returned to Israel a year later, he looked into working at a tech company. “But I woke up one morning and realized I’m not living my dream. And I went to acting school when I was 24.”
After studying at the Nissan Nativ drama school in Tel Aviv, Raz began landing roles in theater and small parts in TV series, including “Srugim,” “Mesudarim,” “The Gordin Cell,” and “Prime Minister’s Children.” He has often played soldiers, policemen and undercover agents in projects with dramatic heft, but reveals that he “has done a lot of comedy in my life,” including improv. “I would love to do more,” he said.
His next film isn’t a comedy, but it’s a prestige project: “Operation Finale,” about Israel’s secret mission to capture Nazi Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann and bring him to justice. Raz plays Isser Harel, director of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad in the film, which will be released Sept. 21. He felt a sense of accountability to both the person and the history.
“It was a story that we grew up on in Israel, since I was a kid. The responsibility isn’t just to the character but to the story. We tried to be as authentic as we could,” he said. “It was a great experience working with actors like Ben Kingsley, Melanie Laurent [and] Oscar Isaac. I want to work more and more in the U.S. and internationally and I’m doing it. I have a lot of plans for that. There are a lot of options right now.”
These days, Raz lives in L.A. part time, but his home and family — actress Meital Barda and their three children, ages 3, 8 and 10—are in Ramat HaSharon, Israel.
He and co-creator Avi Issacharoff are now writing scripts for the third season of “Fauda,” and are developing two new series for Netflix. One is about a joint CIA-Mossad operation to capture and kill a terrorist leader, and the other is a thriller about a man whose wife is killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident.
“I want to do what we did in Israel, creating shows and acting in international shows, bringing my point of view and Avi’s point of view to people all over the world,” Raz said.
He hopes that viewers who tune in to the new episodes of “Fauda” will be entertained first, “and second, understand both sides of the conflict. I want them to understand that war is bad, no matter where you are — Afghanistan, Syria, Israel — and that there is a price for the actions that you take as a warrior.”
Raz doesn’t think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end anytime soon, but he remains hopeful. “I think extremists on both sides are leading the herd,” he said. “The hope will come from people who understand that we are quite alike. The first thing is for both sides to learn the language. This is how we can start the peace process.”
The second season of “Fauda” is streaming on Netflix.