Podcasts, nonfiction books, documentaries, magazine features, news stories – heck, even tweets in the case of the new film “Zola” – are a regular source of inspiration in Hollywood as studios and producers look for their next big project.
Things are a little different in Israeli television, though. Or at least, they used to be.
The well-established Israeli TV model has always been to take a real-life incident and use that as a springboard into another creative space, one that places the project squarely in the realms of fiction rather than being a slavish dramatization of actual events.
The two most famous examples are “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”), which was loosely inspired by Hamas’ kidnapping in 2006 of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the public response to his long years of captivity, and “False Flag,” which took a high-profile Mossad operation – in which the spy agency fraudulently used real people’s identities in order to gain entry into Dubai in 2010 and kill a Hamas operative – and turned it into a slick thriller.
And that model is still going strong. Last year’s HBO Max-Israeli coproduction “Valley of Tears” played fast and loose with historical events surrounding the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The Kan-Apple TV+ thriller “Tehran” riffed on Israeli attempts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program in a way that is far more entertaining than any show about existential threats has any right to be. And, inspired by a geological phenomenon – and it’s not often anyone gets to write that sentence – director Eran Kolirin (“The Band’s Visit”) is currently working on a series in which a group of German tourists suddenly find their tour bus swallowed whole by a sinkhole during a visit to the Dead Sea (I should clarify that this is intended to be a quirky mystery and not a feel-good comedy).
Until now, Israeli television has largely avoided the “based on a true story” approach with its most high-profile shows, with the notable exception of 2019’s “Our Boys” – which took the tragic 2014 killings of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank and one Arab boy in East Jerusalem, but then added a fictional layer about a Mizrahi investigator in the Shin Bet secret service’s Jewish division for (very) dramatic effect.
The heated local response in some quarters to “Our Boys” – decrying the move to turn tragedy into “entertainment,” even though it’s unlikely many of the people making the complaints (including Israel’s then-prime minister) actually bothered to watch the show – provides us with our biggest clue as to why Israeli dramas have largely avoided using readily identifiable real-life events and characters at all.
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It’s a minefield out there, and producers have to be ultra-careful where they tread for fear of causing offense among specific communities or, equally likely, becoming a target for government threats of sanctions.
Yet despite these hazards, Israeli television is slowly showing signs of drawing more closely on actual events and turning them into drama – particularly if there’s a criminal angle.
It’s what the rest of the world has been doing for years, of course, so Israel is very late to this particular party. A casual glimpse of upcoming U.S. shows immediately reveals high-profile ones based on real people and events: Season 3 of “American Crime Story” focuses on Bill Clinton’s impeachment; Hulu’s “The Dropout” sees Amanda Seyfried play Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes; and “The Shrink Next Door” (Apple TV+) casts Paul Rudd as disgraced U.S. psychiatrist Isaac Herschkopf.
It’s the “Truth is stranger than fiction” genre – and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Interestingly, two of the year’s biggest Israeli hits – Keshet’s crime drama “Line in the Sand” and Yes Studios’ “Pushers” – are both inspired by true events in outlying parts of the country in the early 2000s. And the just-launched Yes series “Embezzlement” also revisits that same time period with its retelling of the Eti Alon affair. (Is the early 2000s theme a coincidence, or is there some inverse statute of limitation around here that no one told me about?)
“Embezzlement” (“Me’ila” in Hebrew) really could be a game-changer for Israeli TV, being that rarest of local beasts: a faithful recreation of an actual story in which the actors are playing real-life characters – something that normally only happens in shows or films that feature local politicians (two such shows currently in the works, lord help us, are on Benjamin Netanyahu and Golda Meir).
The great thing about “Embezzlement” is that you really couldn’t make this stuff up. Yotam Guendelman and Shira Porat’s seven-part series recounts the crazy story of Eti, a trusted and admired bank employee whose criminal activities on behalf of her inveterate-gambler brother Ofer Maximov (Yehuda Levi) ended up costing the state half a billion shekels (some $150 million) and wiping out the small, family-run Trade Bank where she worked as the deputy head of investments.
I’ve only seen the first episode so don’t want to rush to judgment, but as its matter-of-fact title suggests, the show really doesn’t beat around the bush. Initially at least, it’s all about the facts, ma’am, diving straight into that fateful day in April 2002 when Eti Alon walked into the police fraud squad headquarters in Tel Aviv and confessed to stealing some $250 million from her customers over a five-year period – much to the officers’ disbelief. In fact, she had to stick around all day until somebody would finally take her claims seriously.
There’s an amazing Haaretz photo, taken by Nir Keidar in the corridor of a courthouse, that features a strung-out Eti and her no-goodnik brother during their trial. (She was eventually sentenced to 17 years in jail and he to 15, for their respective crimes.)
It’s an iconic shot that hints at precisely why this story needed retelling: the wastrel brother and the good sister who was dragged down by the family ties that bind. And you can add to that shadowy underworld figures operating with impunity in the burgeoning “gray market” and inept banking practices that allowed the fraud to continue unchecked for so long.
In the first episode, “Embezzlement” is laser-focused on Eti and her family – a patriarchal Bukharian-Jewish clan where the son was placed on a pedestal and the daughter expected to be subordinate to him – even though, unlike her brother, Eti had a promising career.
As Eti, Dana Ivgy – whose own actor-father, Moshe, recently received an 11-month prison sentence for sex crimes against women – has a pained, haunted expression. The increasingly prominent roots in her peroxide hair act as a metaphor for her mental state, as she struggles to maintain the appearance of normality after reluctantly embarking on a life of crime.
I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the series to see if Eli’s dissolute brother (played beautifully by Levi) ever takes responsibility for his actions – I think I can guess – and what untangles first: Eti’s hairstyle or her mental well-being.
If “Our Boys” was the cause célèbre of 2019, “Pushers” – known in Israel as “Bnei Or” – is the most controversial Israeli show since. It’s a heavily autobiographical tale, “inspired by actual events in Be’er Sheva in 2001,” where a bunch of teenage boys from the hardscrabble neighborhood of Shchuna Beit (literally, Neighborhood B) – and the titular Bnei Or Street (spelled “Bnei Or Street” and “Benei Or” on various signposts in the actual street, because no two English spellings of an Israeli address are ever the same) – established an illicit trade selling drugs to well-to-do students attending the nearby Ben-Gurion University of the Desert.
Created by Guy Balila and Elad Biton – Balila’s own experiences appear to be the driving force behind the show, and its main protagonist (played by the charismatic Maor Levi) is based on him – “Pushers” was reportedly the second-most common search on Israeli Google in June after “Naftali Bennett.” (In yet more bad news for the former prime minister, “Benjamin Netanyahu” was behind both Bennett and “Pushers.”)
And it’s not hard to see why. I’ve seen a couple of the eight episodes and they present a compelling story about a gang of underprivileged kids (to put it mildly) who come into possession of a kilogram of weed and decide not to do what most of their peers would do (smoke it). Instead, they launch their own little startup, getting college students to come to their ’hood and pay over the odds for their gear. You will not be surprised to learn that in this dog-eat-dog world, the scrappy kids’ high life does not last for long. You will, however, be surprised by the world’s most violent “Seinfeld” anecdote.
Shot on the actual Bnei Or Street – which doesn’t appear to have needed much dressing to make it look almost as bedraggled as Eti Alon’s hair – and featuring thoroughly believable performances from a young cast seemingly playing characters not a million miles from their own milieu, “Pushers” feels like the next Israeli show that’s going to be snapped up by someone like HBO and turned into the next “Euphoria.”
It’s gritty, it’s violent, it features lots of drug-taking and has caused several Israeli journalists to warn parents against letting their kids watch the show – which is always a sure sign that you should probably tune in, if only to see if you can hear the dialogue above the sound of all that pearl-clutching.
It’s not subtle and it’s rarely pleasant to watch. But “Pushers” feels like a very believable slice of life from the wrong side of the tracks, about the haves and have-nots, and one that could just as easily have taken place yesterday rather than 20 years ago.
A second season has already been commissioned – which is also the case with the police thriller “Line in the Sand.” This is another show set in a rarely glimpsed city in the Israeli periphery, this time Nahariya in the north. “Line” is definitely more fictional than “Embezzlement” or “Pushers,” seemingly inspired by the actions of a group of renegade cops in the mid-2000s who literally took the law into their own hands when more conventional efforts failed to rein in local crime lord Michael Mor.
I guess the simplest way of knowing how close a story hews to the truth is whether recognizable, real-life characters appear – and that’s where “Embezzlement” stands alone (the mob boss in “Line” is called Maor Ezra, while the character based on Guy Balila’s early life is called Eli Ben David). I wonder if that’s what makes “Embezzlement” feel like a really Israeli story, while “Pushers” and “Line” more readily lend themselves to overseas adaptations due to their slightly more generic natures.
Regardless of overseas sales potential, I’m rooting for “Embezzlement” to succeed – because if it’s a hit on Yes, the sky really is the limit for Israeli TV to dive into real-life stories and characters.
Who wouldn’t want to see, say, “Israeli Crime Story,” offering season after season of high-profile local malfeasance (season 1 could be about the Bar Refaeli tax scandal, for instance, while season 2 could either be about a sleazebag politician – we’re spoilt for choice – or a sleazebag tycoon – ditto)?
Or how about a show based on a whistleblower like Mordechai Vanunu – suggested title, “Vanu-nu-nu” – or, more recently, Anat Kamm? Or an Aaron Sorkin-esque drama about Lotan Fisher, the Israeli bridge player whose fall from grace has already been the subject of a documentary (“Dirty Tricks”), but whose crazy story is definitely worthy of a wider audience.
One series now in development that seems destined to draw a wide audience – and much controversy – is the Israeli-Australian coproduction “Prisoner X.” That show, currently still at the writing stage, is about the Melbourne-born Mossad recruit Ben Zygier, who died in peculiar circumstances in a Ramle prison – found hanging in a cell that was designed to be suicide-proof – in December 2010.
And if that already sounds dramatic, just wait till we hear about the screenwriter’s battles with the Israeli military censor over what they can and cannot say on screen about this most mysterious of cases.
New episodes of “Embezzlement” are on Yes Action every Thursday at 10 P.M. and drop at the same time on Yes VOD and Sting TV (Hebrew subtitles only). “Pushers” is still available on Yes VOD and Sting TV.