Israeli filmmaker Rotem Shamir is the director of the popular Netflix series Fauda. He is also the writer of Hostages (on Disney+Hotstar) that has been adapted into Hindi. With a successful third season of Fauda behind him, Shamir spoke with this correspondent about his experiences helming “the Narcos of the Middle East” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which serves as the setting for the series. Edited excerpts:
How is Fauda different from standard Hollywood shows on counterterrorism, like 24 and Designated Survivor?
The first difference is the budget: Fauda is made at about 1/15th the cost of the American shows. The budget influences all our decision-making; we like to think its limitation is a curse but it’s also a blessing. It pushes everybody to think outside the box and invent new tricks to make the show look good.
The second difference is from the content point of view: Fauda has an unapologetic attitude. If it was an American show being broadcast on a network, one would have to stick to rules and see what you’re allowed to say. Fauda does not bend to such rules. It allows us to create this forward-moving world, no questions asked, and do things that give the show an edge everybody likes.
We are a small production company based in Israel and the networks here allow us the autonomy to do what we want. They hardly intervene and we have full freedom to [do our] work and that makes all the difference.
Fauda is about a no-frills, low-cost espionage operation. Is that what makes it unique?
That’s a good observation. It was created as such because the story is dealing with a small anti-terrorism squad that penetrates enemy territory. It’s a feet-on-the-ground show and not about the people behind the scene. There is an element of that too but mostly it about what we do on the ground with the forces, which creates more dynamic live action.
How did you get involved with the show?
Fauda’s first season was a surprise hit in Israel. It was directed by Assaf Bernstein, who later went to the US and made a movie. So he wasn’t available for the second season and somebody had to step in and fill those very big shoes.
At the time I was approached, I was doing Rescue Bus 300, which is also an anti-terrorism movie and it gave me insight in to the world of Fauda. When I met the creator and co-creator [Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff] of Fauda, we realised that all of us were raised in Jerusalem and all three of us went into combat during military service. This bonding was important.
How do you manage the politics of the show such that it doesn’t overpower the narrative or characters?
Fauda is not a political show, it doesn’t deal with politics. The [Israel-Palestine] conflict is the setting of the plot, but we don’t judge the conflict or air an opinion about it. We basically pick the characters and tell the story as it is. Consider it the Narcos of the Middle East.
This is a high octane thriller, set in this conflict that Israel is experiencing right now… Had we not been living in Israel, it wouldn’t have felt like that at all. It is like watching those movies in the ‘80s about the IRA [Irish Republican Army], like Brad Pitt [in The Devil’s Own]. People would say that the movie is not about the Irish conflict but it takes place in that setting.
These decisions influence a lot of moments that we have in the editing room. When we feel the show has become too political or if it feels like it is not the character but the creator who is speaking out his opinion about politics, then we cut it out. We try and maintain the storyline and that gives balance to the show.
Tell us a little about Doron’s emotional journey through seasons 1-3.
I would say that he is confused. Doron [Lior Raz] has this identity issue because he is a person who dresses up like somebody else to do his job. His job is 95 percent of his life.The fact that he has to change his identity repeatedly becomes an issue in his life. He is more comfortable and freer when he is on the Palestinian side. He feels more connected with the fake identities that he makes up. His relationship with Shirin [Laëtitia Eïdohas] has to be seen from that point of view as well. When, eventually, he does tell her the truth about himself, he is still very much an Arab Jew or a Jew Arab, as we get to know in the second season. Those two characters always live inside him.
The other aspect of his character is that he is a ‘no-questions asked’ kind of a warrior. He is very emotional and less tactical in the way he thinks about certain situations. That is also a part of his appeal. He would go through a wall head-on if he feels that is what needs to be done. The reason for this is that in Fauda, everything is personal. Everything that happens in the show happens to Doron personally. They come after his family, they go to his house, and they visit his children. Once things become personal for Doron, he moves without thinking and sometimes there are bad consequences for his actions. That combination of a confused identity with the emotional roller-coaster makes him a very human action hero. He is hurt and he is vulnerable but he is also merciless.
In fact some people have said that Doron should be the next James Bond because we need a human hero! Not only do we identify with him but we can look like him. He is a regular guy, not a handsome, tall, blonde guy.
What was the strategy behind the unique treatment of the female characters, like Shirin, Nurit and Gali?
It is interesting how you see the women characters in the show because in Israel, Fauda is portrayed as a “manly show”! But the women characters have a special role. They take the opposite side of violence, and don’t think of it as the only solution. It happens on the Palestinian side too. There also they [women] try to talk sense into the men. This gives them a unique sense in the show.
On the Israeli side we also try to talk about the collateral damage of anti-terrorism activities. When warriors bring back home their wounds, mental and physical, it influences their environment deeply. In the third season, we tried to make a deeper point on that aspect — that the warriors are always carrying their homes with them and the homes are always carrying the battlefields, and how they influence each other.
Also the reason to show the character of Nurit as the sole woman in an otherwise all-men’s team was to say that a woman in man’s world…needs to make sacrifices of different kinds in order to be recognised. For Nurit, in both the second and third seasons, it is about coming to terms with the fact that she can never give up combat. She is willing to give up her human aspect so that she can level the field with the men. It is like killing your emotions and becoming robotic. That’s a big price to pay.
A lot of fans have said they love Fauda’s realism. How do you make the show look so believable?
We try to give the show a documentary look with the handheld camera work. When it comes to covering the action, we have very tough camerapersons. The DoP of the last two seasons is an amazing guy who just dives into an action [sequence] and never gets out until everything is over. Those sweaty characters you see are a result of the Israeli summer where we have to go out and shoot in extreme heat. There was a big sequence in the third season where an Israeli guy accidently shoots somebody from own side. That was a day-long shoot with two camera crews, occupying a building where the SWAT and Fauda soldiers engage. This is like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) where the fighting scenes explode in your face.
There is also a ‘point of view’ of action. If you have large budgets, then you can show multiple points of views of an action sequence, from multiple angles. Here we are confined to the point of view of the one person within that action sequence. What he sees is what you see and you never cut away from him. That makes it very intense. I feel this is a big advantage, for the action director to get close-up views. It is not like a big, wide sequence, where you need to see things from the top of helicopter or a tower. That may give it a big screen look but it is less intense.
How would you say Israel’s mindset differs from that of other countries’ on counter-terrorism?
There is a difference between how the show portrays the mindset on anti-terrorism and how the Israeli state thinks about it. There is no similarity. The show simply portrays the circle of violence that never ends. Violence just leads to more violence, and this point comes out very strongly in the third season.
Hopefully we will find a way to end this circle of violence. When you look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you have to realise that it has been there for more than 50 years and it is now the third or fourth generation of people who have been affected by this violence. I think Israel is a lot less understanding in the sense that we don’t see the Palestinian view point. They are also victims of this conflict. When you see a terrorist, you immediately think of him as a bad guy and when you see the anti-terrorist teams, you see them as good guys. Of course this is not as black and white as is made out to be. There are a lot of grey areas. It is also about point of view, history and lot many things.
In Fauda when we see these people turning to terrorism, we see them coming from a violent and evil space but we [also] see the real origin behind it. You need to know — where did that evil come from? That makes them more interesting, appealing and three-dimensional.
I think our job sometimes is not only to state facts but also to raise questions. We are here to make people think differently from what they usually do. These days, social media is like an echo-chamber where everyone is hearing the same opinion, which they think is the right one. It is important to bring in a different point of view and raise questions. What you do with the questions and how you answer them is up to you.
What are the universal themes in the show which have resonated with the viewers?
There are some themes that are universal and they always connect with the viewer. It makes them think how they would act in the given situation or what kind of a price they pay because of that conflict. Unfortunately, the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the many in the world. I think that is the reason India is also planning to remake Fauda in its own language because it is not just an Israeli show, it portrays a universal theme.
The author acknowledges the contributions of Anshuman Jain towards this interview. Rahul Gupta is an entertainment journalist and blogger. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org