January 19, 2020

Israeli TV Thriller ‘False Flag’ to Open This Year’s L.A. Jewish Film Festival

In Israel’s hit television series “False Flag,” a chemist named Benny wakes up one morning to find his face all over the TV news. Iranian’s defense minister had been drugged and kidnapped in Moscow, and Russian authorities had discovered that Benny’s passport was used by one of the Mossad agents allegedly responsible for the crime.

Benny protests his innocence, as four other Israelis are simultaneously connected with the kidnapping via their passports.  All have dual citizenship with another country:  Benny has a Greek passport; there’s a Russian-born kindergarten teacher; a French bride on her wedding day; a new immigrant from England; and an American-Israeli who had travelled to India after his army service. Turns out all five were out of the country at the time of the kidnapping.  Even as Israel denies any involvement with the abduction, these five characters are arrested and interrogated by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.  And all five soon seem far less innocent than they first appear.

“False Flag” was the highest-rated series on Israeli TV when it premiered last October.  It went on to screen at the Berlin International Film Festival; to share the Audience Award at the Series Mania Festival in Paris, along with the HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge”; and to be snapped up for an American version by Foz.  It’s the latest of myriad Israeli TV shows to be adapted for United States audiences, including “BeTipul,” a series about a psychologist and his patients that became the acclaimed HBO show “In Treatment.”

“False Flag” will get its North American premiere when the first two episodes screen during the opening night gala of the 11th annual Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on May 18.  Festival founder Hilary Helstein said she included the series to honor Israel’s Independence Day; the festival will also show other Israeli fare, such as the documentary “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” (see related story on page 50) and a 50th anniversary screening of the comedy classic “Shnei Kuni Lemel.”

“Our theme is ‘From Israel to Hollywood and everything in between,’ ” Helstein said of the 27 shorts, feature films and documentaries in this year’s festival. The Tinseltown offerings will include the documentary “Children of Giant,” as well as an opening night tribute to the Laemmle Theatres (see story on page 44).

“False Flag” was conceived around 2010, when Israeli producer Maria Feldman (“Fauda”) was musing about the buzz over the spy thriller “Hatufim,” a show about returning prisoners of war that was adapted into the American hit series “Homeland.”

“My husband and I were discussing why it had been so successful,” Feldman, 38, said in a telephone interview from her home in Tel Aviv. “We thought it was the combination of the security issues it explored, together with the fact that the heroes were just ordinary citizens.”

Feldman was reminded of an international scandal from 2009: Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a top Hamas military commander, was assassinated in Dubai, reportedly by spies who used the passports of innocent Israelis to complete their mission. The agents had placed their own photographs on the filched passports.

What if, Feldman wondered, the pictures of the innocent civilians had been released?  What if those people woke up one morning to see their photos on TV?  How would their lives be turned upside down?

“I decided there was an appeal to doing a show about security and espionage where the heroes, at least at first, look like regular people,” Feldman said. “We wanted this feeling like it could happen to you. … But we didn’t want the heroes to be Mossad agents, because there are already so many stories and TV shows about spies.  The Americans do it much better than us; they did James Bond, and you can’t beat James Bond.”

To write the series, Feldman teamed up with Amit Cohen, co-creator of another Israeli TV spy thriller, “The Gordin Cell.” Cohen was a natural fit for “False Flag” because he’d had 10 years of experience as the Palestinian and Arab correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Maariv.  During a recent interview at a Beverly Hills cafe, Cohen described covering everything from the Second Intifada, to the death of Yasser Arafat, to the Arab Spring.

Cohen, boyish at 42, had learned fluent Arabic from his father, an Iraqi Jew. “I was never afraid of the organizations like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, because they respected journalists,” he said of his job at Maariv from 2002 to 2012.  “It wasn’t like ISIS or Al Qaeda today.”

Cohen was well aware he risked being kidnapped, however, as he covered the first launching of mid-range rockets in Gaza.  In Ramallah, his car was once surrounded by a mob that might have killed him had they discovered he was Jewish.

But for the most part, Cohen felt relatively safe as he interviewed terrorists, Palestinian intelligence officials and mercenaries, among others.  “But I didn’t tell my wife a thing,” he admitted of his more dangerous work.

In 2009, a Palestinian intelligence officer told Cohen that Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh was responsible for kidnapping and killing two Israeli soldiers.  Mabhouh was also the head official behind the arms-smuggling operation into Gaza, Cohen discovered.  “So I wanted to write a profile about him,” Cohen said. But the Israeli military censorship bureau promptly nixed the piece. 

Not long thereafter, Cohen learned that Mabhouh had been abducted and assassinated in Dubai, and that Mossad agents were believed to be responsible. The agents had used the passports of ordinary Israeli citizens to accomplish their mission.

Because the agents had embedded their own photographs onto the stolen documents, the true Israeli owners of the passports were never revealed. Those Israelis gave a few telephone interviews to the media, and then disappeared from public view, Cohen said. “They went on with their lives.”

When Feldman contacted Cohen about using the Dubai incident as a jumping-off point for a new series, the former journalist was intrigued. He agreed with Feldman that the show should focus on what happens to ordinary citizens when their privacy is violated.

“We also wanted to talk, in the background, about some issues in Israeli society,” he added.

Cohen had previously co-created “The Gordin Cell,” an Israeli TV series about a Russian-Israeli family pressured to return to work for the KGB.  That show was adapted into the short-lived NBC series, “Allegiance.”  With “False Flag,” Cohen again sought to examine themes of national identity and loyalty.

“Through our British expatriate character of Emma, we wanted to talk about the difficulties of a European immigrant who makes aliyah,” Cohen said.  “Israeli society can be tough; it can just grind you down if you’re not used to it.  It can seem fast and rough, impolite and aggressive.  So with Emma, we wanted to create someone who is really fragile and doesn’t really fit in.

“We also wanted to explore the idea that everything can be taken away from you in a second,” Cohen added.  When the accused Israelis are taken in for questioning by the Shin Bet, for example, they learn that, by law, they cannot hire an attorney to represent them for at least 10 days.  

“Previously, the authorities did this mostly to Palestinians, but now that’s happening to Israelis, too,” Cohen said.  “I’m not saying they do this to innocent people, but they do it, which is problematic.”

Even before the first episode of “False Flag” aired in Israel, the program’s producer, Keshet International, had sold the project to Fox.  Cohen and Feldman are involved in the production as consultants, but they believe it will be set in the United States with an agency like the CIA in place of the Mossad and Shin Bet.

“The Israeli version was really Israeli,” said Cohen, who has relocated to Los Angeles to work in American television. “But you have brides everywhere, as well as married men like Benny, who are in the middle of a midlife crisis.  So I think these characters are really universal.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival runs from May 18-25.  For tickets and information, visit lajfilmfestival.org.