The Israeli TV industry has taught its creative artists to be massively patient. Series such as “Shababnikim” (about young people in the ultra-Orthodox community) or “Metumtemet” (about a struggling actress who goes undercover for the police) have sometimes needed up to five years to go from idea to screen. But now there's the miniseries “Douze Points” (which means 12 points).
The setting is the Eurovision song contest, which is being held in Tel Aviv this year after Netta Barzilai's famous victory in Lisbon last May. In "Douze Points," the Islamic State plans for a French contestant to carry out a spectacular terror attack on the air. Mossad agents do their best to foil it.
Asaf Zelicovitch and Yoav Hebel started working on the series right after Barzilai's triumph. They wondered, what if there were a terror attack at Eurovision? The two, who once worked together at the McCann advertising agency, decided on a three-part comedy thriller.
Last week, filming started at a hotel in central Tel Aviv, where the fictional French delegation to Eurovision, including the planted Islamic State terrorist, is welcomed. Of course the suits in the closets are sequins galore, not your typical Parisian elegance. Eurovision has its own fashion rules.
The series’ creators surely couldn't imagine how much their screenplay would imitate life. France is sending Bilal Hassani to Tel Aviv. The 19-year-old Muslim, who came out as queer in 2017, has infuriated orthodox Muslims who can't seem to relate to his wigs and makeup.
"Douze Points" is directed by Daniel Syrkin, whose timetable is almost impossible. Eurovision takes place in less than four months; in the remaining time he must finish the filming in Israel – and three days in Paris – while hoping the editors can stitch the three episodes together before the deadline: one week before the broadcasting of Eurovision in mid-May.
It takes all sorts
In the miniseries, Shani Klein plays Tzionit, the patriotic Israeli accompanying the European delegations including the two French singers. The two grew up together but took different paths: One is a gay man who came out of the closet, while the other is an Islamist who has lost it. Meir Suissa, Mali Levi and Roy Miller play the Mossad agents.
A key goal of Zelicovitch and Hebel is to make fun of the serious facade of Israeli security agents, as well as the Islamic State's intimidation tactics.
“For a long time Mossad agents have appeared in all kinds of series like 'Kfulim' ['False Flag'] and 'Hamidrasha' ['Mossad 101'], in which the Mossad and other agencies are taken very seriously," Hebel says. "We said 'enough’ – we have to have some fun with this.”
“They’re people too and they’re also screwed up in some ways. These characters have two kids at home and a wife who reminds them to pick up some diapers on the way home. We’ve put them in comic situations that bring out the human being inside them.”
Zelicovitch adds, “There’s also the fact that having Eurovision in Israel rubs ISIS’ face in it. It’s being hosted by Israel, it’s full of gay people and the whole world is interested. From a comical standpoint, there's a lot of material to play with, because suddenly these tough Mossad agents find themselves at Eurovision with cruel ISIS operatives also having to blend in.”
Did you do research on the Islamic State before writing the script?
Hebel: “There was documentary footage of things ISIS filmed that was dropped in the editing. These are terrible people, but they're people. There’s someone telling his friend not to film him because his underwear is showing. In another part you see someone who realizes that he’s about to be blown up, and he starts crying and calling for his mother.”
Zelicovitch: “There's also that thing where they give monologues before going on a suicide mission, with someone doing it in 10 takes because in all the other ones he bursts out laughing. So everything there is for real. There's a whole world there with an unexploited comic potential.”
Making fun of the Mossad
It sounds like you don’t have too many sacred cows.
Hebel: “This series laughs hardest at homophobia. ISIS members are the biggest homophobes in the world, hating gay people more than anyone does, which shows their stupidity.”
Zelicovitch: “There are also the Mossad agents, who on the one hand are entirely professional, while on the other their Israeli characteristics always find a way to express themselves. For example, they can be planting something in a store in Paris, but then they start haggling over prices. Every person has a thousand aspects. There's an opportunity here to laugh at issues of national allegiance, on both sides, or at machismo. This is a mirror of comedy placed in front of everything.”
On the one hand, Eurovision is an international contest, but on the other it’s a country-based competition that often takes on nationalist features.
Zelicovitch: “Eurovision is completely an event of countries, but if someone told you that kippa-wearing people would suddenly be rooting for Netta Barzilai, no one would have believed it. That’s why it’s so cool a topic.”
Hebel: “There's something in Israel that, when competing with Europe – and it doesn’t matter if it’s soccer or Eurovision – brings up an element of ‘let’s get back at them for what they did to us.’ Ultimately some poor singer gets up to represent his country and the whole burden of the past is on his or her shoulders.”
How can you make a TV series in just two months?
Zelicovitch: “The day Eurovision ended we started playing around with the idea. A week later there was a basic concept .... A month later we received a budget for writing it and two months later there was a series, with rewriting already taking place. Then Danny Syrkin came in as director, also working as a screenplay editor."
Hebel and Zelicovitch say talks are underway with French broadcasters about the series. They say producer Adar Shafran was crazy about the project, doing everything he could to make it happen.
When I ask them if their script isn’t a recipe for invoking the evil eye at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, where Eurovision will take place, Zelicovitch says, “We hear that all the time, but I think that when you think about the script and its funny aspects, it was the best thing to do. Obviously we're crossing our fingers."
Hebel adds: “I’d like to believe that the real security forces are more professional than the characters in the series. I trust them more.”