Sunday 3 March 2013

Israeli TV drama takes the world by storm

Over the last few years Israeli television has produced some of the world's most innovative and imaginative drama including the international hits - Hatufim and B'tipul (clip below), re-invented in the USA as Homeland and In Treatment respectively. It has also seen a string of other high production value and very well received drama and comedy series examining a range of Israeli experiences.

At Saturday night's Jewish Book Week "Israeli TV drama takes the world by storm" Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub, writer and producer Daphna Levin and Simon Schapps of ITV discussed the phenomenon and tried to identify the reason for the success. This was not the advertised panel which had included Sayed Kashua and Ron Leshem. However,  Taub who has produced a successful mini-series called "In the Rabbi's Court" and Levin who wrote several episodes of B'tipul and has a number of other series either in planning or already produced were excellent replacements and extremely engaging.

As ambassador Taub noted, Israel came late to television. Ben-Gurion wasn't keen, worrying that the Israelis might spend their time watching the box rather than building the nation and it wasn't until 1993 that commercial television began there. In just two decades a vibrant high quality home grown industry has developed with quality drama protected by government quotas of air time and requirements placed on the industry to reflect Israel's many communities and ways of life.

This commitment to reflecting Israel's diversity has resulted in the religious communities being sympathetically represented in series such as Srugim - (clip above) described by the panel as an Israeli version of Thirty Something or Cold Feet with religion whilst Taub described In the Rabbi's Court as Dallas in Stamford Hill or Dowton Abbey in Bnei Brak! Neither description does justice to these series. Srugim tackles serious issues about differences between religious and non-religious communities, the struggle of many modern Orthodox Jews to find a partner in what they call the Jerusalem dating "swamp" and the pain of trying to sustain friendships when the formerly religious leave the community. I was not familiar with "In The Rabbi's Court" but a clip was shown at the event which gave a flavour of what the series might offer - a very human look at Haredim facing the personal issues -  in this case loneliness - that everyone else faces. Shocking!

Of course the Haredi communities do not officially watch television so its hard to know their response to all of this, but Taub reported that it is widely known that these shows (and others) are watched secretly. One piece of evidence he quoted was a story about a Haredi woman who called the TV company to say she had stopped watching In The Rabbi's Court because on Yim Kippur in the synagogue, she had found herself davening (praying) for one of the characters  from the series!

Another successful series in Israel is Arab Labour - created by the laready mentioned successful Israeli Arab author Syed Kashua which follows the life of an Arab family with modern teenage children, the father of whom attempts to be more Israeli than the Israelis and which has proved hugely popular. Some episodes of these were shown at last year's London Jewish Film Festival and were well received.

The panel expressed concerns about the growing commercial success of game shows and reality TV in Israel but felt that the current safeguards in Israel would control this to some extent. Levin is at the more edgy end of the market having produced a series called Euphoria which followed a group of young people one year on from having witnessed a fatal gangland style shooting in a nightclub. The series dealt with some very sensitive issues - drugs, violence, trauma - and sparked a great deal of discussion and debate. Indeed, Levin reported that not only was the series screened only on cable TV but that it was shown at restricted times and at one point was threatened with complete withdrawal.

She has also produced a series called Bastards, based on a story by Yoram Kaniuk which features two old men, veterans of 1948 now old, ill and resentful of the modern world who hatch a plan to take revenge on the young people they so killing them. A little dark as Daphna said, but then it is Yoram Kaniuk. I loved the opening line of the clip we were shown - "It started right here at a coffee shop...". Doesn't everything?

The panel gave us a tip off for the next big Israeli TV success - Pillars of Smoke about a cult movement living in the Golan. Sounds interesting. My own recommendation to add to those above, is Ramzor (clip below) or "Traffic Light" - a situation comedy series and Emmy award winner, that includes Yael Sharoni of Srugim fame and film star Adi Miller. 

When asked why Israeli TV is so successful, the panel spoke about the high production values, the availability of great actors, great technical teams and the many stories Israel has to tell with its diverse population, unresolved conflicts and rapid development. I get the feeling there will be much more to come!

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