Rahul Gupta talks to Rotem Shamir, filmmaker from Israel and director of 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 counter terrorism ?
The first difference is the budget itself. It is made at about 1/15 th the cost of the American shows. Budget influences every decision making on the way. We like to think that the budget
limitation is a curse but it’s also a blessing. It pushes everybody to think outside the box and invent new tricks possible to make the show look good. The second difference is from the content point of view. Fauda has a non-apologetic attitude behind its making. If it was an American show being broadcast on a network, one would have to stick to rules and see what is allowed to be said and not allowed to be said. Fauda does not bend to such rules. It allows us to create this forward moving world with no questions asked and do things in the show that gives it an edge which everybody likes. We are a small production company based in Israel and even the networks here allow us the autonomy to do what we want. They hardly intervene and we have full freedom to work and that makes all the difference.
FAUDA is all about a low frills, low cost espionage operation, which makes it quite unique.
That’s a good observation. Of course it was created such because of the fact that we are dealing with a small team of 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 FAUDA?
Fauda was a surprise hit in Israel in the first season which was directed by Assaf Bernstein who later went to the US and made a movie. So he was not available for the second season. So somebody had to step in to those very big shoes. At the time I was approached, I was oing a movie RESCUE BUS 300 which is also an anti-terrorism movie and it gave me a good insight in to the world of Fauda and then I met the creator and co-creator of Fauda. We learnt about each other and realized that all of us were raised in Jerusalem and all three of us went into combat during military service. So this bonding was important and it kicked off a healthy relationship between us.
How do you manage the politics of the show so that it does not overpower the narrative of its characters and the story?
Fauda is not a political show. It doesn’t deal with politics. The conflict (Israel-Palestine) is the
setting of the plot. But we don’t judge the conflict or make an opinion about it. We basically
pick out the characters and tell the story as it is. Consider it as the Narcos in the Middle East. It is a high octane thriller driven by people who have blood in their eye. It’s all set in this conflict that we are experiencing in Israel 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) where someone like Brad Pitt acts as a bomber of the IRA and comes to US for some action. People would say that the movie is not about the Irish conflict but it takes place in that setting. That’s the very big difference in the approach.
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 that 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.
Kindly throw some light on Doron’s emotional journey through the seasons. How do you explain his relationship with Shirin and his broken marriage? What is it that keeps him going?
I would say that he is confused. Doron has this identity issue because he is a person who dresses up like somebody else to do his job. His job is 95 % of his life. The fact that he has to
change his identity repeatedly becomes an issue in his life. He is more comfortable and free when he is on the Palestinian side. He feels more connected with the fake identities that he makes up. His relationship with Shirin has to be seen from that point of view. When ventually 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 the 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 of 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 not a handsome, tall, blonde guy but a regular guy.
A lot of Indian fans have stated that they love the realism of FAUDA. How did you make the
show look so real and believable?
The secret here is that we try to give the show a documentary look with the hand held amera work. When it comes to covering the action, we have very tough camerapersons. The DoP of the last two seasons is Mosh Sharali, is an amazing guy who just dives into an action and never gets out before 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 SWAT and Fauda soldiers engage. This is like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) where fighting scenes explode in your face.
There is also a ‘point of view’ of action. If you have good 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. You are literally in the character’s point of view. What he sees is what you see and you never cut away from him. That makes it very intense. You may be in the car or on a plane or on the ground, it remains 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.
What are your favorite TV Shows? Your influences (directors, writers, editors, and cinematographers) and who has inspired you as a storyteller/filmmaker?
A lot of my influence has not been this realistic look that we see in Fauda. I am a big fan of David Fincher and his works both on TV and movies. I grew up in the 90s admiring ilmmakers of the 70s like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ellen James etc. Those are the people who influenced my thinking and my work.
When I came to Fauda, I had to find my own voice within the language that had already been created by the first season. That’s when I drove into the world of Black Hawk Down to see how you create this very intense, high octane sequences. So I stepped aside from my personal taste and created a new language for myself. Like my next show will be a club show?? That is going to be more classic where people are running around like crazy. So I hope I can make that adjustment.
What was the strategy behind the unique treatment of the women characters of FAUDA like the journey of 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 women characters have a special role here. They naturally take the opposite side of violence and don’t think that is the only solution. It happens on the Palestinian side too. There also they try to talk sense into the manly, mad boys. 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 the wounds, both mental and physical, it influences their environment deeply. It resonates with the family and wife and becomes a part of how they act and feel on the battlefield. 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 a single woman in an otherwise all men’s team was to say that a woman in man’s world remains a woman. She still needs to fight that battle and make sacrifices of different kinds in order to be recognized. For Nurit, in both the second and the third season, it is about coming to terms with the fact that she can never give up combat. She is willing to give up her human or womanly aspect so that she could level the field with men. It is like killing your emotions and become robotic. That’s a big price to pay.
How did the personal life experience of Lior Raz and Avi affect and shape the writing and treatment of the show?
Both Lior and Avi were soldiers in a military unit that is similar to the one shown in Fauda. They were also dressing up and going into these spy operations. That’s where they know each other from. After leaving the army they met again after some years, they started talking about a TV series which would show that kind of unit. When they sat down to write, they decided to bring in their personal experiences in the show and not hide behind it. Lior even had to go for psychological treatment to deal with the hard stories that he was to tell. It also resonates in the character of Doron who is also very emotional. Therefore, Lior just put his emotions on the line and put it all out there, in front of the camera for the whole world to see. He has been very honest.
When I came in as director for the show I brought in my own combat experiences. It helped me in the technical aspects too and in the action sequences like I could tell actors how to hold their weapons or how to advance into a building etc. Because we had low budget and couldn’t hire experts so my experience helped in guiding them and made the action look as real as it is.
Tell us about how Israel’s mindset differs from other countries on counter-terrorism?
There is a difference between how the show portrays the mindset on anti-terror and how Israeli state thinks about it. There is no similarity there. The show simply portrays the circle of violence that never ends. Violence just leads to more violence and so on and this point comes out very strongly in the third season. Like there is a character in third season who has nothing to do with terrorism but gets sucked into it because of his proximity to a person who is into terrorism.
Hopefully we will find a way to cut this circle of violence. When you look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and where violence comes from, you have to realize that the conflict has been there for more than 50 years and there are third or fourth generation of people who have now been affected by this violence. I think Israel is a lot less understanding in the sense that we dont 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 greys 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 have to see the real origin behind it. Forget about the politics of it, the conflict has produces so many interesting characters just like in the movie Joker. Till now we had only known Joker as the Jack Nicholson joker – a crazy man with some make up. But that doesn’t show you the depth of the character. You need to know where did that evil come from?. That makes them interesting and more three dimensional and more appealing.
I think our job sometimes is not to just state facts but to raise more questions. We are here to make people think differently from what they usually think. 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 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 Israel-Palestinian 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.
How does it feel that you and your show has a big fan following in India?
It’s unbelievable. I always think when it comes to art honesty is one currency that you cannot fake. If people feel that you are coming from an honest place then they think their money has not been wasted. A lot of art work or TV shows or films have this fakeness behind them. They are not as honest. I think Fauda has been made very honestly and that resonates.
Do you have any messages for the fans of FAUDA in India?
This has been an amazing journey for us. It is small family show made on a very low budget. We never thought ever, even in our wildest dreams, that it will become such a big international hit. I get message from people in India all the time. I hope you stay on as our fans for the next season to come. This is very flattering we are grateful and love you so much!