“It was a bit like a boxing ring, where he would coach his Palestinian actors in one corner, I would coach my Israeli actors on the other, and then they’d meet in front of the camera. And nothing would work,” says Joseph Cedar.
The director is talking about the making of Our Boys, the docu-dramatisation of a series of tragic events that unfolded in Israel in 2014. Eventually, Cedar and his co-creators did make it work – the 10-part series is compelling viewing. But it took years of effort to bring to the screen.
Basing a television series on a particularly painful period in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was always going to be a challenge.
Our Boys goes back to the summer of 2014, when tension in Israel boiled over. Three Jewish teenagers are kidnapped; after three anxious weeks, their bodies are found. In retaliation for the murders, blamed on Hamas militants, a Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, is killed.
The 10-part series is based on that series of true-life events. And yet, there is not one story here. There are three – the two sides to the tragic series of murders, and the backstory of how three strong creative talents managed to work together to bring this series to the screen.
It took years, and, it seems, a lot of bravery and compromise.
Turning this explosive series of events, and the police hunt for the killers of Abu Khdeir, into a television series was controversial – one review called the show a “punch to Israel’s gut” and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labelled it anti-Semitic.
But listen to the three men who made the series and you hear the same word again and again: responsibility.
Three creatives who had never worked together before brought Our Boys to the screen: Hagai Levi, an Israeli director who won a Golden Globe for The Affair; Palestinian filmmaker Tawfik Abu Wael; and Cedar, a US-Israeli writer and director.
Cedar says in an interview with The New York Times, “It’s the hardest thing all of us have done”.
It was a tough decision for Abu Wael to take part in the project, as he explains in a fascinating panel discussion about the series hosted by Jodi Rudoren, who was the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief at the time of the murders. Abu Wael says he faced a lot of pressure to say no to the project, but in the end, he felt it was a story he had to tell.
“As a Palestinian living in Israel, a Palestinian director, filmmaker, I used to have calls from Israeli creators or producers when they have something about Arabs, so all the time I say no. … When Joseph called me – I love him, he’s a good friend – and I asked myself… what’s going on? So I went to meet him, and I found myself travelling with him and Hagai to… East Jerusalem to visit [the] Abu Khdeir family… and I felt that tension, that they are sitting with Israelis and they want to make their [the family’s] story, their own tragedy, and suddenly when they understand, they realise that I am going to tell their story, I felt the relief on their faces and suddenly they looked at me like, you know, giving me the most important thing in their life.
“I felt a huge responsibility, and this was the moment… I felt, somebody decided for me, because… Mohammed was a symbol, [his death] changed Jerusalem. You can speak of Jerusalem before the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and after. It’s so emotional.
“I had a lot of pressure not to do the show… and I really hesitated, I thought not to do it.” But eventually he says, he felt he had to “take this responsibility and not to miss the chance to tell first of all, Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s story on a world platform, stage, and also the first time to tell Palestinian pain on such a stage… So, I took it, despite the fact that it’s difficult, people will not like it.”
Levi, who as well as writing and directing served as the series’ show-runner, points out in that same interview that he, Cedar and Abu Wael were very aware of the responsibility involved in dramatising the story.
“It was very, very important and crucial for us... not to use the conflict for entertainment… and it was very, very important for us to be very responsible, you know, not to use people that are still living the tragedy, very fresh, five years ago, not to use that to make kind of a thriller, or fun, or whatever.”
Three strong personalities meant robust debate during the writing and filming. “This wasn’t a smooth collaboration. It was a collaboration of very strong-minded people about something that’s extremely important to each one of us separately,” says Cedar in an interview with Vanity Fair that digs into the challenges of filming the series.
A co-production of Israel’s Keshet studios and the US’s HBO, Our Boys is a docu-drama: part of what makes it so compelling to watch is the use of actual footage and images from 2014.
Equally key is the strong acting, especially Johnny Arbid and Ruba Blal Asfour in their roles as Hussein Abu Khdeir and Suha Abu Khdeir, Mohammed’s parents (roles for which they won Best Actor in a Drama and Best Actress in a Drama awards at the 2019 Israeli Academy Awards) and Shlomi Elkabetz as Shimon (Simon) Cohen, the head of the Jewish Investigation Unit at the Shin-Bet, the Israeli Security Agency.
While most characters in the series are real people, Cohen is a composite, a combination of several people involved in the chase to find the missing Jewish teenagers and then the hunt to find the killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.
Elkabetz is excellent in the role of Cohen, perhaps surprisingly so given he’s normally behind the camera, not in front of it. He’s mostly worked as a filmmaker, and it’s fascinating to hear his perspective on how Levi, Cedar and Abu Wael managed to work together.
“Looking at them throughout the work, hearing the conversation… listening to the arguments, the disagreements, the fights… and the way the solutions are coming up eventually, knowing the process and looking at the screen later on, even though… there is a unity of work, I can see how those conflicts contributed to the way the series is today,” he has said of working on the show.
He too, talks of responsibility. In an honest and extensive interview with Israeli news outlet Haaretz, he says: “You have a responsibility. You want to make [things] that make people feel good? OK, that’s also important… [but] There is a right and a duty to make this show. There’s a right and a duty to watch it, in my opinion. There’s a right and duty to agree with it or object to it and hold this debate.”
There is no one true story in Our Boys. Everyone will bring something different to watching it, just as Levi, Cedar and Abu Wael did to making it.
“Tawfik had this huge responsibility of representing the Palestinian narrative, and a personal responsibility towards the parents of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Hagai and I felt that, even though we were focussed on just making this good TV, we did feel a responsibility to represent a narrative that we believed is true. And these two narratives are not the same. They’re just not,” Cedar says during the HBO-New York Times panel discussion.
In that discussion, Jodi Rudoren – an excellent moderator – asks a key question about the series: why does it focus mostly on the hunt for the killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and not equally on the murder of the three Jewish boys?
There’s a lot to unpick in the answers the panel give to that; along with Levi, Abu Wael, Cedar and Elkabetz, there’s also Keshet’s CEO Avi Nir, and it’s worth watching the full discussion to see how each of them feels about this and other aspects of the show. But two points by Cedar and Nir stand out.
“We’re on this wheel, where one act causes another. There’s a violent act that creates a victim, that victim deals with his pain, turns it into rage that ends up being an act that affects the other side who goes through the same process, and this has been going on for about 90 years… and this is our life… You could just stop this wheel anywhere and it’s pretty much the same story, it’s a story of pain turning into revenge. We felt a responsibility towards ourselves and towards this cycle. Focussing on the victimhood creates acts of revenge. Focussing on the aggression, at least as I see it, speaks to trying to stop the wheel,” says Cedar.
Avi Nir says he sees a note of hope:
“There is another layer to the story when you follow it, and this layer is the possibility of co-operating and of trust. Through the story some people from both sides look at the humanity of each other and not only at the aggressor. This is also part of the show… it was born in co-operation.”
One story, two sides, three creatives, 10 episodes: but in the end Our Boys isn’t about numbers. It’s about people.
All 10 episodes of Our Boys are now available at SBS On Demand: