Israeli and American Creators Talk ‘Homeland,’ ‘Shtisel’ and More

May 15, 2019
From left: Nicole Yorkin, Alesia Weston, Gideon Raff, Ninet Tayeb and Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz; Photo courtesy of UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies

“What makes Israel a rich source of material and stories, and what happens to those stories and creators as they make their way to America?” moderator Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz, a professor of film at Tel Aviv University, asked in a panel during Israel in 3D, a community conference convened by the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA on May 5. 

The panel was one of three sessions featuring prominent Israeli and American speakers exploring “cross-border” connections between the two countries, sponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, the Jewish Journal, and community partners Sinai Temple, Westwood Village Synagogue and Sephardic Educational Center.

Writer-producer Gideon Raff (“Hatufim” “Homeland” “Dig” and “Tyrant”) and singer-actress Ninet Tayeb (“Kochav Nolad” and “When Heroes Fly”) headlined the entertainment panel, which also featured Alesia Weston, former executive director of the Jerusalem Film Festival, and writer-producer Nicole Yorkin (“Chicago Hope” “The Killing” and “The Education of Max Bickford”). 

“Israel is a fertile ground for formats,” Raff said, noting that Israeli series “BeTipul” was the first to make the crossover to the U.S. market, becoming “In Treatment” (2008) at HBO. 

“Israel is a very small country and has small budgets,” he said. “In trying to compete with international shows, we need to find very creative ways to compete. Sometimes it’s in formats and sometimes it’s telling very raw, almost taboo stories.” Raff named “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”), which became “Homeland” (2011), and the Netflix-distributed “When Heroes Fly” (2018) as examples.

Yorkin now works on “Hit and Run” for Netflix, with the creators of “Fauda,” Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz. The story’s protagonist is Segev, an Israeli tour guide who is trying to find the driver of a hit-and-run accident that killed his wife. 

“The macrocosm of the story is about U.S. and Israeli relations,” Yorkin said. “We’re the best of friends and allies but, like many family members, have disagreements, which can lead to feelings of betrayal and dissatisfaction.”

Yorkin said “Hit and Run’s” first-episode budget was equivalent to the budget for two seasons of the Israeli-produced “Fauda.” Low-budget productions “go to character because you can’t go to action,” Weston said. 

Tayeb, who got her start by winning “Kochav Nolad,” the Israeli version of “American Idol,” in 2003, spoke about playing Yaeli in “When Heroes Fly.”

“The series for me was so life-changing in every aspect,” she said. “To dive into this role, it took a lot from my soul to go all the way. I dived so deep that it took me a long time to snap out of it. I’m still recovering.” 

“The more local a story is, the more universal it is. The human condition applies to all of us. The most basic human emotions, helping your brothers, that’s something that rings [true] for everyone.” — Gideon Raff

Raff’s forthcoming film, “Red Sea Diving Resort” (from Netflix at a date to be determined), tells the story of how Mossad helped members of the Ethiopian community escape Sudan. 

“The more local a story is, the more universal it is,” Raff said. “The human condition applies to all of us. The most basic human emotions, helping your brothers, that’s something that rings [true] for everyone. It’s about how Mossad got Ethiopians out of Sudan but relates to a world where people are drowning in the Mediterranean looking for a better future, so it’s very relevant today.” 

Raff also reflected on adapting the uniquely Israeli and “extremely personal” “Prisoners of War” — which he said he wrote at the Starbucks at the Grove in 2007 — into “Homeland.” Raff wrote and directed every episode of the Israeli version after doing six months of research, including interviewing dozens of former Israeli POWs, their families and psychologists about what happens after POWs come home. 

“Israelis don’t talk about it,” he said. “They want the story to end with the return [of the prisoner]. They want the happy ending. But the story of POWs in Israel doesn’t end there. It is a long, very hard journey.” In the U.S., he noted, because army service isn’t required, he had to find another dramatic angle for an American audience. The concept of loyalty, and whether the prisoner had been turned, became the central idea of “Homeland.”

“Every one of my shows is an attempt to go back to Israel,” Raff said. In 2014, he was shooting “Dig” in the Kotel tunnels under the Old City in Jerusalem “with BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] demonstrations above us,” and building a soundstage for “Tyrant” in Kfar Saba when “rockets started flying. The actors wanted to stay, they loved Israel so much, but the insurance companies got involved and both shows had to leave,” he said. “Dig” moved production to Croatia and “Tyrant” moved to Budapest. 

Tayeb, who punctuated her remarks by performing some of her original songs, talked about leaving her Israeli fame for anonymity in the United States. “It’s so different here,” she said. “It’s scary every day because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but I guess that’s life when you get out of your comfort zone.” She added that living in America was an opportunity to “write from a different place in my heart and my soul.” 

One audience member asked the panel members what they would like American college students to know about Israel. 

“I don’t know how to start,” Raff said with a sigh. “I think, as Israelis, we’re all struggling with some of the political narratives that are being told. We try to open the dialogue by telling human stories, not necessarily ones that take one side or another. I think for most artists what’s important [is] for people to consume as many stories as possible and realize that’s how we solve the problem.” 

Between the first two seasons of “Hatufim,” actor Guy Selnik, who plays Hatzav, was drafted into the army and posted in the occupied territories, Raff said. At a roadblock, Palestinians recognized him and asked him when the second season was coming. “Art creates bridges,” Raff said.

A mention of “Shtisel,” the popular Israeli drama focusing on a Charedi community in the Jewish state, prompted applause. 

“On Facebook, everyone is saying, ‘Watch it,’ ” Yorkin said. “They all have crushes on Michael Aloni” (the “Shtisel” and “When Heroes Fly” star).

“Everyone has a crush on Michael Aloni!” Raff said.

“I’ll tell him,” Tayeb said.

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