In the hours that followed the broadcast of Israeli documentary series “Shadow of Truth” on Channel 8 television last Saturday, a trickle began that soon became a flood. Shocked viewers posted comments on Facebook and a festering Israeli wound had been reopened: the 2006 murder of Tair Rada and subsequent conviction of Roman Zadorov. Many posters sought solace in the Facebook discourse after watching the harsh content presented by the series – one that Mika Timor, 31, Yotam Guendelman, 30, and Ari Pines, 28, had labored over for the past three years.
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There were two main reasons for the level of distress: First, the creators knew how to concoct a spellbinding piece of journalism that produced more question marks than exclamation points. Thus, they prevented the viewer from reaching the desired goal of finding the guilty person and instead left them disturbed and restless. Each time the viewer thought they were about to receive the solution, another testimony emerged to contradict the previous one.
Second, the documentary’s power was rooted in the testimony of A.H., which arrived in the fourth and final episode. This seemed to prove that the Israel Police engaged in especially problematic steps to defend themselves from external criticism – even if it would lead to the conviction of a potentially innocent man. This testimony, combined with an impressive cinematic aesthetic and chilling soundtrack, placed “Shadow of Truth” at the forefront of recent Israeli documentaries.
No fewer than 25 witnesses appear in the series. It starts with the representative of the prosecution, who justifies the court ruling; continues with the head of the pathological institute who casts doubt on the prosecution’s conclusions; and then Rada’s family and other characters, who all shed light, each in their own way, on this dark and complicated affair. Only one important voice is missing: that of the police.
“The policemen [involved in the case] wanted to be interviewed, the [police] spokeswoman wanted them to be interviewed, but the higher command prevented it,” says Guendelman. “Everyone understood that this should have happened, and it is only to their detriment that they were not interviewed.”
Pines: “The police didn’t want to let us interview the officers. We gave them a chance to tell their stories, but they didn’t feel they needed to be accountable to the public – with whose safety they are entrusted. One of the problems in this case is that there is no solid evidence. They found someone [Zadorov], they took testimony from him and a confession, and it could be that this confession is true or not. The moment you don’t have evidence to deal with, you rely on stories.”
Why do you think this story has endured in the public consciousness for so long?
“The fact that a girl [Rada, who was 13 and from the Golan Heights town of Katzrin] was murdered on a schoolday, within school, within a locked bathroom, is the nightmare of any parent,” says Timor. “Also, the fact that there [must be] some definitive truth. Everything here rests on stories.”
Zadorov was working at the school at the time and although he was ultimately convicted of Rada’s murder, much of the evidence used to convict him has been hotly disputed. “Zadorov’s conviction created a lack of trust among the public in the legal system,” notes Pines. “You can understand it from many perspectives. The public understood that there were failures in this investigation and the [police] efforts were not exhaustive; the public felt justice had not been served. Indeed, the police declared they had found the guilty person while Zadorov was still in the school in the middle of his reenactment [of the crime].”
“This specific story is so difficult because everyone comes with a formed opinion about who committed the murder and who didn’t,” adds Guendelman. “It was almost unimaginable that people have so many strong opinions. If there is something we can say with confidence, it’s that the judges and lawyers didn’t reach the level of investigation we did – not because they didn’t want to, but simply because they couldn’t. They didn’t have enough time. If we, who investigated it so thoroughly, couldn’t reach a definitive conclusion, we would also want the public to cast doubt” on the verdict.
The filmmakers’ biggest insight, Pines says, was that the public needs to be convinced of a story – and from the moment this happens, it stops seeing anything that doesn’t conform to that narrative. “We were careful to always remain skeptical, not to become devoted to one story,” he says. “We don’t follow one line, and we always doubt ourselves.”
“Shadow of Truth” joins the “true crime” genre that has flourished on American television recently, where filmmakers pick apart crime stories into tiny details, casting doubt on the reliability – as well as the moral and legal validity – of the legal system.
However, Pines, Guendelman and Timor started work on “Shadow of Truth” before “The Jinx” (the HBO miniseries about accused murderer Robert Durst) and “Making a Murderer” (Netflix’s 10-part series about the conviction of Steven Avery) were aired in the United States. They say they drew inspiration from Errol Morris’ classic documentary movie “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), about a prisoner wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer.
“I think lack of faith in the [legal] system has always existed,” says Guendelman. “Perhaps in contrast to the past, these works that are coming out now can offer both economic and cinematic value. If you make a documentary, you don’t have to go to festivals to succeed. You make a series and now it can reach millions of viewers.”
It was a deliberate decision not to mimic the style of American series. “It was very important for us not to use images that were too disturbing, but only what was necessary to more or less understand what happened [at the murder scene],” says Pines. “It was terribly important not to turn this murder into entertainment. A series like ‘The Jinx’ went in that direction. It’s still OK in America, but we really tried to avoid this.”
“Shadow of Truth” operates on that seam between horror and a gloomy yet accessible cinematic work. Its design is also very refreshing.
Where did you decide to move the line so it wouldn’t be seen as an ‘entertainment’ show?
Guendelman: “Even before we decided to go for it, we visited Tair’s family and spoke with her parents. At no stage were we interested in taking this story and adding an element of entertainment. It was clearly out of context.”
Pines: “The series has a relatively slow pace and avoids sensationalism. We really tried to distance ourselves and be as businesslike as possible – to be based on facts and stay sensitive to the family.”
Many who watched the series felt a deep sense of dread. How much was that your intention?
“The situation itself is really incomprehensible,” says Guendelman. “We maintained the dignity of Tair and the viewers by the way we depicted the murder – because on a visual level we really didn’t show anything. Relative to the size of the atrocity we were exposed to, we are talking about 2 percent. This was unprecedented violence, and anyone who witnessed it can’t shake it.”
“You watch this series and understand how the system works and how the police work, and what they do in order to silence any story they’re not comfortable with,” adds Pines. “There is something terrifying about that.”
“Ultimately,” adds Guendelman, “it is the individual against the system – and that is a stressful matter, be it Roman Zadorov against the prosecution, or the girls from Tair’s class who suffer a social system that blamed them for no fault of their own.”
What would you like to see happen with this investigation now? After all, the last Supreme Court ruling in December upheld Zadorov’s conviction.
“We raise a lot of doubts regarding the police investigation that were not properly examined, so we would be delighted if this investigation – which was conducted and then hushed up – is reopened and investigated as it should be. More generally, I want people to be challenged and ask questions about the system, too. We want this to shake up the system.”