A Dystopian French Mini-series as a Metaphor for the Israeli Occupation

Trepalium, starring Israeli cinematic diva Ronit Elkabetz, offers a bleak view of the future and a reflection of our own Israeli present.

Israel’s cinematic diva Ronit Elkabetz, left, plays a French prime minister in 'Trepalium.'
Jean Claude Lother \ YES

In the normal order of things, most of our TV viewing diet – the main course, that is: series, sitcoms, soaps and such – comes from English-speaking countries: the U.S. with its networks, cable and streamcaping channels, the U.K. with its BBC trademark of quality, and even Australia and Canada. Some of it, in the telenovela department, comes from Spanish-speaking countries, and the rest of our TV meal – starters in the form of newscasts and desserts in the guise of quizzes and reality shows – is in Hebrew.

Things being how they are, such as they are (and becoming sucher and sucher), it seems that they are a-changing, albeit slowly, and the Israeli TV viewer’s ear will have to get used to a couple of other languages – besides English – emanating from the mouths of the actresses and actors on our small screens (the eye will still have to take in the view and read the Hebrew subtitles). There is the Italian in “Gomorrah” and the Swedish of “The Bridge,” and now, a premiere of a series – actually a mini-series, six episodes in all, no second season envisaged – in French: “Trepalium,” on Yes Oh Saturdays at 10 P.M. and on Yes VOD.

Unlike American series, which deal mainly with the present (mostly crime and police procedurals as well as dramas about politics and politicians), or the recent past (“Vinyl,” “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”) or the British menu of period dramas (“Downton Abbey,” “War and Peace”), the new French mini-series looks into the future, and takes place in the third decade of the 21st century. Based on the first two episodes I’ve seen, the mini-series belongs to a genre called “dystopia” – the opposite of “utopia” – which means that it is bleak, frightening and generally a “downer” as far as its influence on the quality of our leisure time (traditionally the aim of watching TV in the first place, besides the truism that it passes the time) is concerned.

Let’s start with the title: “Trepalium,” as a character in the first episode explains to other characters in the scene and to the viewers, was, according to the O.E.D., the Latin name of “a [Roman] instrument or engine of torture (probably from the Latin tres or tria, three, plus palus, stake, being so named from its structure). The etymological sense was thus ‘to put to torture, torment’, passing at an early stage into those of ‘afflict, vex, trouble, harass, weary’.” Besides providing the series with an odd-sounding title that sends the viewer to Google, it gives away the philosophical and political message of the series, as it is supposedly the etymological root of two verbs that are the main cogs of the plot: the French “travail,” which means “work” and the English “travel.”

The main resource, of which there is a scarce supply and a huge demand in the fictional world of the series, is work. Those who have it have a life, so to speak, and live in the city, mostly in “little boxes on a hillside,” with cars resembling those of the 1970s. They are closely monitored by CCTV cameras, obeying orders beamed to them on screens in their homes. Those who don’t have a job – and they constitute 80 percent of the population – live in “the Zone,” behind a wall. I’m sure the French series creators did not have this in mind, but an Israeli viewer can see in this series a metaphor of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, with part of a society – the Israel within what is called the Green Line – being relatively affluent and leading a “normal” life, with the “others” (i.e. the Palestinians) living beyond a separation fence, in poverty, without a shred of hope, and with an overdose of despair.

The first episode opens with the French Prime Minister, Nadia Passeron (played by the Israeli cinematic diva Ronit Elkabetz) initiating a dramatic step. With France on the verge of bankruptcy and in dire need of a bailout from the World Bank, Passeron has to give in to the Activists. Acting from within “the Zone” and aiming to destabilize the government and take it over, they had abducted her husband, the Minister of Work, and held him captive for more than a year. So she announces the creation of 10,000 “solidarity jobs” for zone inhabitants as a goodwill measure. That buys her some time – and the freedom of her husband – and provides a semblance of hope for zone inhabitants. On the other hand, the title of the series seems to stress the simple fact that work – however essential to the jobless characters in the series – is a form of torture.

As far as I can gather from the first two episodes, the main strand of the plot has to do with Izia, a woman who lives in “the Zone” with her teenage son, who is lucky enough to get one of the solidarity jobs with a family in the city. She dreams of earning enough money to escape with her son to “the South,” but is drawn, against her will, into the activists’ network, and forced by her employer – an obedient cog in the city’s bureaucracy – to impersonate his wife, who had disappeared. One actress – Leonie Simaga – plays both Izia and the missing wife.

The odd thing about a series written and produced in Europe while refugees from zones of conflict all over the world are fleeing to its shores, and with the specter of ominous and violent Islam hovering over it, is that “Trepalium” seems to be – based on two episodes – striving not to even mention words like “Islam” or even to hint at the ethnic origins of the various characters. It is all about the poor, jobless, menacing “them” vs. the relatively thriving, working and frightened (and therefore aggressive) “us.” An uprising, stemming from despair and poverty, is in the offing, and it is all in various shades of bleak gray.

What can I say? Enjoy your viewing and be happy that you still have a job. Work may be a form of torture, and it does not necessary set you free. But you can pass your free time watching how bad it can get.