A group of families stands huddled in an airport terminal, their faces a blend of joy and fear, staring as two emaciated men hesitantly walk toward them. For a moment, all are still and simply stare. It takes several moments before they can move or speak, before one, a man who has returned home after 17 years in captivity, can embrace his wife and daughter and introduce himself to the teenage son he has never met, and before the other can learn from his elderly father that his mother, after years of waiting for him to return home, passed away while he sat in a Syrian prison.
This is the climactic scene in the first episode of Hatufim (Prisoners), one of the most controversial series ever to air on Israel television, a show that sparked heated debate even before its premiere. The controversy had nothing to do with the program’s content; it was over whether it was appropriate to even offer a fictional take on the subject of POWs on television. Before it aired, the topic had been taboo for Israeli writers and filmmakers. It hadn’t even been treated superficially, let alone probed as deeply and intimately as Hatufim dares.
The fact that the POW experience was virgin territory is precisely what attracted series creator Gideon Raff, an Israeli writer/director who had been living and working in Hollywood, who chose to make Hatufim his first Hebrew-language project following his return to Israel. “There have been numerous journalistic accounts and film documentaries about prisoners of war, but they have all put the emphasis on their captivity and on ‘bringing the boys back home.’ ” he said. “But nobody has taken on the post-trauma experience when they return home, and that is what the series is about. In Israel, there are 1,500 men who have been in captivity and have come back. No one has talked about what their lives are like when they return. The more I researched it, the more I understood how rich it was in drama.”
The series has already piqued Hollywood’s interest—20th Century Fox recently acquired the rights to develop an American version of the show. At the project’s helm is Howard Gordon, the executive producer of the recently canceled 24. The American version is to tell the story of two U.S. soldiers captured in the early days of the war in Afghanistan.
Hollywood’s acquisition of Prisoners is but the latest property bought from Israel in recent years, its most notable precursor being HBO’s In Treatment. The purchases can be seen as a product of both the improving quality of Israeli film and TV and proliferation of Israeli actors, writers, and directors who work in both Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.
But Raff proudly points to one thing that makes Prisoners unique: The decision to buy and adapt In Treatment and other Israeli projects for American audiences took place after the shows were proven ratings hits in Israel. Prisoners is the first Israeli television series acquired solely on the basis of a script.
The plot of Hatufim juxtaposes the experiences of three soldiers captured during a botched mission in Lebanon and the experiences of their families when they return after 17 years in captivity. The story revolves around three pairings: the first, Nimrod and Talia Klein most closely resemble the classic POW story. After her husband’s capture, Talia makes her husband’s cause her life’s work, travelling the world, lobbying prime ministers and presidents, sacrificing her personal ambitions to dedicate her life to freeing her husband and raising their children. Nurit, by contrast, gets on with her life. After years of waiting for her imprisoned fiancé, Uri, and after believing him dead, she marries and has a child. The third story is that of Yael Ben Horin, whose brother Amiel was killed in captivity under circumstances Nimrod and Uri refuse to discuss.
At first, Raff conceived of the project as a feature film but quickly realized that it was too multifaceted for just 120 minutes. It may very well be that his time abroad gave him the courage to take on the topic and face the criticism that it unleashed. Israel is still very much gripped by the captivity of Gilad Shalit and torn over the question of just how many Palestinian prisoners his freedom is worth. When the series premiered, there were those who argued that Shalit’s plight was being exploited for commercial gain. The Shalit family released a statement reminding Israelis that their son is “not a fictional character.” Miriam Groff, the mother of a soldier who has been held captive for three years, told Army Radio, “The show is basically a promo for Hamas and a Shalit deal, and it will only encourage more kidnapping of soldiers.”
Anticipating how closely he would be scrutinized, Raff carefully researched the subject, interviewing former POWs, their families, and the psychologists who treat them. Two early episodes of the series are devoted to the facility where former prisoners are brought after they are released from captivity. But the true focus of the show is the interaction between the returning soldiers and their families as they attempt to rebuild lives together.
Raff concedes that bringing so Israeli a story to the United States will pose challenges, but, at the same time, he is confident in the story’s ability to resonate. “Look at the success of The Hurt Locker and the emotions of soldiers and their families,” he said. “Those are universal.”
Allison Kaplan Sommer is a writer based in Ra’anana, Israel. A former Jerusalem Post reporter, her work has appeared in publications including the Forward and Hadassah Magazine.