This Israeli TV Miniseries Awakens Ghosts From the Yom Kippur War, Dead and Alive

‘Valley of Tears,’ now in production, revisits one of the most traumatic battles of the 1973 war

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
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A shot from the set of the miniseries “Valley of Tears"
A shot from the set of the miniseries “Valley of Tears"Credit: Vered Adir
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

On the road up to Ma’aleh Gamla in the Golan Heights, heading to a filming location of the miniseries “Valley of Tears,” a wisp of curling smoke is visible in the distance. Is it possible that the most expensive Israeli production to be shot in Israel by an Israeli broadcaster is willing to accept the risk of a fire on location? Only when we reach the site, where there are dozens of crew members and actors in army uniforms, do we learn that the brush fire at the foot of the hill has nothing to do with the shoot.

The conditions on the shoot of “Valley of Tears,” which is set during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, are harsh. It is exceedingly hot, the hours are long and the crew is visibly fatigued. By noon the actors, covered in fake blood and silicone scars, already look as if they’d be happy to crawl into the giant tanks parked to the side for a nap. Nevertheless, the director, Yaron Zilberman, has them redo the scene over and over. Time after time they carry stretchers with the “bodies” of their comrades, wrapped in army blankets.

>> Read more: 'All the Arabs will pounce on us': Newly released protocols from Yom Kippur War reveal Moshe Dayan feared massive Israeli loss

Noah Faran, a former battalion commander in the Armored Corps, who currently sports graying hair and a muscular physique, watches from the side and gives instructions to Zilberman. He’s here as a military advisor. “There’s no way to fire an Uzi without your arm shaking and moving,” he tells the director. The scene is based on the battle of containment waged by the 82nd Battalion of the 7th Brigade, in its attempt to hold back the Syrians until reserve forces could arrive. The surviving soldiers were nearly out of food and water. Their deep distress is laced with a sense of double hopelessness: They are sitting among their dead comrades and the terror of the Syrians, along with the question of whether a rescue is even possible.

“Valley of Tears,” which was created by Amit Cohen and Ron Leshem, is evidently the most ambitious television series to be filmed here about that war. It’s not only the heavy emotional baggage of the Yom Kippur War and the national trauma it caused, but the desire to tease apart the components of Israeli society at the time and compare them with today.

A shot from the set of the miniseries “Valley of Tears"Credit: Vered Adir

“The series chose to show the simple people who experienced that war,” says actor Imri Biton. He plays Jackie Alush, a member of the Israeli Black Panthers, a Mizrahi protest movement. “To show the breadth of Israeli society of the time, they chose to focus on a few points that characterize the period, be they the kibbutzniks versus the Panthers or the Tel Aviv bohemian scene. Ron and Amit threw all of these factors into a melting pot that was the war, and wanted to show how our society operated and how it acted in those critical moments. This may be an action series with lots of explosions, but I find the beauty in the relationships that happen on-screen. In the end, relationships are at the heart of the series.”

Lior Ashkenazi plays a Tel Aviv journalist (“a sort of cross between Dahn Ben-Amotz, Uri Avnery and Amos Kenan,” he says). He has come to search for his son (Lee Biran), who went directly from France to the battlefield. Ashkenazi’s character carries with him an 8 mm movie camera, and he films the faces of the soldiers making their way to the Valley of Tears.

“I sat and watched a lot of archival material from the time, not the news reportage sort, but more that of home movies, without sound even,” says Ashkenazi. “It left a strong impression on me. You see there the empty stares of soldiers, the shock on their faces. They are kind of ghosts, people stricken by defeat. There is no happiness or sadness, only an empty stare. It is something that happened recurrently. Conversely, when you see the newsreels, you understand that it’s often propaganda. But in the real footage that was left out, you can see the wound itself.”

Terrible isolation

A shot from the set of the miniseries “Valley of Tears"Credit: Vered Adir

The wound is evidently what engaged Cohen and Leshem above all. They created the series together with Daniel Amsel (their co-writer on the Israeli TV series “Euphoria”). “The Yom Kippur War has always remained an open wound — ‘the’ wound,” says Cohen. “Every year all the newspapers and news programs come out with special editions, complete with historic revelations and new stories, with yet more transcripts of military radio communications or of sessions of the inner cabinet. At the historic-documentary level, we never stop dealing with [the war], but in terms of dramatic work — both TV and movies — the war has barely been touched. In contrast to Vietnam, which shaped American cinema and in the past few years is also reaching TV, the Yom Kippur War remained on the sidelines. We’re trying to provide a glimpse into that war, part of it, and to reflect what the soldiers went through,” Cohen says.

When asked if he was apprehensive about dealing with a still-bleeding wound that left thousands of bereaved families, he replies: “In the initial stages of our work, even before we began writing the series, we carried out in-depth, comprehensive research. Books, articles, photographs and memorial books, as well as meetings with veterans and their families. From all of that we got the same sense: It’s not a fear of engaging with trauma or revisiting the wounds, but rather of forgetting and ignoring. Many veterans still live with a sense of terrible isolation, which stems from a fear that no one can understand what happened, what they experienced and what they saw, and what they were compelled to do. Repression of the trauma — which in the wake of the war was done on an institutional basis, never admitting to weaknesses, never confessing to being in pain — is a difficult thing, that delays or prevents healing,” Cohen says.

How relevant are the materials of [the Yom Kippur War] relevant to Israel today? Does the ethnic issue of the Black Panthers versus the kibbutzniks and the new immigrants play a significant role in the plot?

“This is a series about Israeliness, which is put to the test in one of its greatest moments of crisis. Dramatically speaking, we used this crisis to test the Israeli glue. What it held together then, as opposed to what it holds together today, which parts of Israeli society. I think there is a kind of nostalgic longing for that period, which is perhaps seen as being more innocent, a society that was seemingly better and more united. The war is seen as a fault line that shifted the Israeli reality, but in many respects the cracks began before. The trauma of Kippur may have accelerated the processes, but it didn’t create them. In 1973 we also saw polarization and discrimination and favoring certain groups, and already then they were the first buds of the tribalism and ethnic divisions that we have now in Israel. And of course, alongside that there was also the true deep friendship and personal bravery of fighters, who endangered and sacrificed everything just to save their comrades or even people they didn’t know. We address all these issues, including ethnic tensions and discrimination, but the relevance of the series is directed to the here and now. To a large extent, the power of the war stories comes from the mirror image that they provide, for better or for worse, of today’s Israel.”

A shot from the set of the miniseries “Valley of Tears"Credit: Vered Adir

Anyone who dared complain

“Valley of Tears” begins with three Black Panthers from Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood. When the war breaks out they find themselves with a commander who loses his judgment, are sent into a lost-cause battle and debate whether to rebel or fight. Another narrative arc, no less emotionally charged, unfolds in the Mount Hermon position of the army’s Intelligence Corps, in which Cohen and Leshem served. The bunker that the army considered the most secure site in the country was conquered by Syrian commandos. Thirteen combat soldiers and dozens of members of the Intelligence Corps are taken captive. A small group manages to escape. Will the rest spill secrets to the enemy or will they sacrifice their own lives?

Work on the series began back in 2010. Yossi Warshavsky, then the CEO of Channel 10 (now Channel 13), approved the production and also brought in France’s Canal+ and producer Moshe Edery. But Channel 10 ran into financial trouble, the creative team discovered that using IDF tanks was prohibitively expensive and the project was suspended. Leshem and Cohen didn’t give up. They brought in the U.K.-based company WestEnd Films, Endemol Shine Israel and eventually also Israel’s Kan public broadcaster. Two years ago, Cohen and Leshem fielded an offer from an American studio to make the series in English. Edery refused. He said it wasn’t right to do a series on the Yom Kippur War with Israeli soldiers speaking English.

“Valley of Tears” also takes up the subject of combat fatigue. Omer Perlman, who plays Nimrod Caspi, a member of Kibbutz Afikim whose life implodes following the battle, met with Yom Kippur War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as people his own age with emotional trauma.

A shot from the set of the miniseries “Valley of Tears"Credit: Vered Adir

“This has become my own personal war, because I realized the extent how much PTSD isn’t talked about, it carries shame and stigma. People walk around with it, and it disrupts their lives forever. They’re treated like pariahs, crybabies. My goal with my character is to give them a voice and to put them in the center. If there’s anyone who did the army and was affected and can’t understand why he can’t get back to the routine of his life, he should know that it’s exactly like a soldier who lost an arm, and he’s entitled to get the care he deserves,” Perlman says.

PTSD has been represented on TV in the Israeli context in recent years. In the Israeli series “When Heroes Fly,” Aviv Danino (Tomer Capon) has PTSD from the Second Lebanon War. This summer, veterans with PTSD demonstrated in Tel Aviv to demand government aid.

“Yom Kippur was a war of epic scale. The biggest tank battle since World War II was fought in the Golan Heights. There was no way to take part in it without being emotionally scarred,” says Cohen. “Today there’s more openness and understanding surrounding PTSD, but when we started working on the series the thing that really struck me was the unwillingness of the military establishment at the time, and for many years afterward, to deal with the phenomenon, which didn’t even have a name back then. This message also filtered down to the soldiers. Anyone who dared complain was seen as weak or a coward. So people suppressed it, for years. Combat soldiers who were injured in the first days of the war and who lost dozens of their fellow soldiers were sent back to the front soon afterward, and they went with a smile on the face, because it was forbidden to say a single word. And they continued to do reserve duty, and fought in subsequent wars, until they ultimately broke down,” Cohen said.

A shot from the set of the miniseries “Valley of Tears"Credit: Vered Adir

Both you and Ron [Leshem] have been living in the U.S. for a long time and continue to deal with Israeli subject matter. To what extent does the distance make it harder or easier to tell these stories?

“When we started working on the series, we lived in Israel and we were rooted deep in Israeliness. For the past few years we’ve been writing and producing in the U.S. and in Europe, so returning now to work in Israel is a special emotional journey. It’s a great privilege to film the series with international production standards, with a budget that allows us to reconstruct the period and the war. The geographic distance, as well as the time that has passed, evidently provides additional perspective. They enable us to cast doubt and to ask questions. The bottom line is that it’s always right to go back to writing in Hebrew, about Israelis and about Israeliness.”

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