What would you do if your sister was in a cult, then tried to recruit you to join it?
That’s the premise of Harem, a new 8-episode Israeli drama series based on real-life cults that exist today in Israel and around the world.
Created by Anat Barzilai, Hadar Galron and Gadi Taub – who also directs alongside Marco Carmel – Harem focuses on self-proclaimed mystic healer Shabtai Zadik (Alon Aboutboul, The Dark Knight Rises) and his followers. As the leader of this cult – or as he calls it, family – he thrives on manipulating his more than 20 wives and 40 children.
Among them is aspiring wife Maya (Chen Amsalem), who decides to break her two-year silence from inside the cult and contact her frantic parents. But instead of pleading for a way out, she lures her schoolgirl sister, Hagar (Noam Lugasy) to join the fold.
Amid increasing media interest in Shabtai and what goes on behind the walls of the commune, the young women’s parents scream for help to rescue their daughters. But things take a very unexpected turn, and they can’t rely on the support they’d expected.
Aboutboul’s performance as a cult leader convinced of his own spiritual ascendancy makes for many skin-crawling moments. As Shabtai, he is far from threatened by the focus of the outside world, and instead, revels in his moment in the limelight. His calm, monotone professions of a life of harmony and bliss inside the commune contrast greatly with the daily lives of the women, who don’t exactly welcome Hagar with open arms.
The young women’s parents, in particular their father Yoel (Yoram Toledano), become increasingly desperate to get their daughters back. From simmering in the heat-soaked streets of Tel Aviv, tension escalates to boiling point as their plan quickly unravels with unforeseen, devastating consequences.
Harem bills itself as a depiction of the inner workings of a cult, but one that also explores family relationships and what it means to belong. Along the way, it provides plenty of intensity, as growing fury and desperation inspire the characters to take the law into their own hands. Will justice be served?
Harem starts streaming on Thursday, 28 February at SBS On Demand: