Opinion

Time to Straighten Out the Israeli Police Docudrama's Lies

Samer Sleiman files a complaint against the Israel Police, Jerusalem, August 7, 2019.
Emil Salman

The devious and shameful deed committed by Kan public television’s hit docudrama “Jerusalem District” goes beyond Nir Hasson’s report that police officers planted an army rifle in the home of a Palestinian from Isawiyah in East Jerusalem so they could show themselves finding it. This reprehensible deed, with all its criminal and ethical aspects, had many accomplices – myself included.

I was an unwitting accomplice when I wrote a flattering review of the show after watching the first two episodes that were distributed early to critics. I wasn’t the only one who praised the brilliant production, the excellent editing, the suspense and the drama. Kan 11 wanted to quote my review in its promotional ads – and I gladly agreed.

I’d pointed out that a series like this couldn’t have been made without close cooperation with the Israel Police, on the backs of the Palestinians who live in the capital, ostensibly as residents but essentially as subject to the rule of occupation, which is completely overlooked by the show. I’d noted that I belong to the critical minority that cannot accept the show as “truth,” but even then I didn’t know that I – and all the other viewers – had been blatantly lied to.

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The editing of “reality,” i.e., clever and deliberate directing of situations so as to heighten the dramatic effect, is an accepted tool of docudrama and reality programming. Long before the cameras start rolling, there is the casting of the show: The choice of characters who will bring the idea to life is critical to the success of the finished product. The “testimonies” that are interwoven with the action segments are always scripted. In reality programming, the production team manipulates everything: whether it’s the wrong island on “Survivor,” psychiatric medication given to “Big Brother” participants behind the scenes, or just the portrayal of some well-planned event as an exciting, spontaneous occurrence on “Master Chef.” There is no drama in docudrama, and there probably isn’t much docu on the screen, either.

In a docudrama that relies on collaboration with the authorities, the latter must always give approval in order for the drama to reach the screen. If not, cooperation will be revoked and the investment will go down the drain – no broadcast, no money. Who knows better than Koda Communications and its chief executive Ram Landes, with shows like “The Interns” and “Blue” under his belt, that without compromises in the presentation of the reality, you don’t get successful television.

Several unusual things occur in Episode 9 of “Jerusalem District,” which aired on television in June and was removed from Kan’s YouTube channel following the report on the planted rifle. These things are particularly surprising considering that they are the result of a collaboration between the production company and the police. At the time of this writing, Landes would only say that the matter is under investigation and this will take a few days. Kan 11 and the police are also checking into things. In the meantime, I would like to examine the entire event as it was shown in the broadcast.

It starts with the “testimony” of intelligence officer Erez Hazan, one of the heroes of the series. He explains what we are about to see: “A 45-year-old male, a guy who’s basically into criminal activity. He made use of this weapon in a conflict he had in the village.” Hazan doesn’t tell the camera that some years ago, this man’s then 11-year-old son was shot in the eye by a police bullet and he is officially recognized as a victim of hostile action (entitling him to certain state benefits).

The viewers are asked to believe the sympathetic and authoritative figure on the screen, who is telling them about a dangerous potential criminal – just as they are asked to believe every bit of television they will see – but the production company doesn’t clarify the facts. He’s a Palestinian, who cares? Not Koda or Kan 11 or the legal advisers who approve episodes for broadcast. Viewers certainly don’t care. Anyone who watches TV portrayals of Palestinians on any channel already knows – they are terrorist enemies, and that’s that.

Then, armed with a sledgehammer and accompanied by dogs, they enter the house of Samer Sleiman and tell him, on behalf of the Israel Police: “We have a search warrant from a court here.” Did Koda’s field director, who surely would have been there, as on any complex day of filming, see a warrant? Was there a warrant? Did the police officers actually go to a judge? Or did they just make this up for the camera? There is no way for us to know.

The camera doesn’t show us the police officers actually presenting Sleiman with a warrant. In the brief unedited scene, all we see is a policeman talking about a warrant. Let’s say that the field director, if he was there, didn’t know anything more than what he saw with his own eyes. Did he not notice that no warrant was presented? Did this also pass unnoticed in the editing room, where every second of footage is scrutinized and selected for maximum effect? Was “we believe the police” a good enough excuse in 2018 (when the incident was filmed) for the broadcaster to evade all responsibility? Does the collaboration with the police mean that Koda, which is headed by a former television news editor, must believe everything?

“And then we are there, and we find what we were looking for,” Hazan continues in his testimony. Really? They didn’t arrest Sleiman when the search was completed, nor do they tell the viewers that he wasn’t arrested.

Didn’t anyone at Koda realize that something very strange was going on here, even if they didn’t know anything about the grotesque trick the police played on Sleiman in lying to him about why the search was being filmed?