After weeks of being enthralled and captivated by the inspiring performances of Claire Danes and Damien Lewis on Homeland, depicting the true like story of a ‘turned’ prisoner of war returning back to his country and trying to readjust back to normal life, I was, like every other avid fan, sad to see the season end last Sunday. Only days had gone by, but I felt myself longing for that Homeland-fix. And boy was I excited to hear about the start of Prisons of War (Hatufim), the original Israeli version of Homeland. Before Homeland had even begun I was aware that it was based on an Israeli version, written by the wonderfully talented Gideon Raff. I knew that it aired almost 2 years ago on Israeli television, and to my knowledge it was the country’s highest-rated drama of all time. Now, to me, that didn’t really say much. I’ve watched my fair share of Israeli television and to be honest I don’t rate it highly. I’ve even recently been watching the Israeli version of The Voice, and had many a laughs on how the judges react to the contestants and even come across themselves. But if there is one thing Israel knows about, all too much unfortunately, it’s a kidnapped solider.
Throughout the years, Israel has seen 1,500 former PoWs been released, in response to releasing an astounding 10,000 (estimated) imprisoned Palestinian terrorists – of which many go on to reoffend, may I add, leaving the released soldiers to feel guilty (although thankful) and the rest of the country on edge.
Being a Zionist, I have spent many a times writing letters to families of captured soldiers offering them hope, along with campaigning letters to the Israeli government, fighting to get our hostages back. So like many other British Jews, I celebrated the recent return of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, and even rejoiced, upon hearing that 175 days after his release he was seen out in Tel Aviv partying amongst friends of mine. And so that whole matter of returning PoWs really hits a home truth within Israeli culture, and perhaps gives this series a topicality that the similarly gripping Homeland largely lacks.
The genius work of Raff was that he recognised that the homecoming of a solider usually signals the end of most PoW stories. In the case of myself, and many Israelis, we spent years campaigning for the return of our captivated soldiers, and upon their release we are satisfied and go on to find the next thing to rally support for. However, Raff yearned to make his narrative start at a point where the rest finish. Where the coming home is only the start of the soldier’s journey.
This insight- that coming home can be even harder than captivation itself, is what makes the show Prisoners of War, like Homeland, so incredible. For a whole hour I was gripped (trust me, that’s a big deal!). The show was emotional. It was raw. But most of all, it didn’t have that glossy ‘romantic’ feel that the American producers forced onto Homeland to help the narrative fit the American market. This may be because for Israeli’s, this is really something to which they relate. All Israelis have had that first-hand experience of fear that comes with being a soldier in the Israeli army. Saying goodbye to their loved ones. Learning to use a gun for the first time. Coming face-to-face with the enemy. Hearing about the loss of a dear army friend.
Prisoners of War tells the emotional and stripped-back story of three Israeli reservists captured behind enemy lines in Lebanon. Seventeen years later, they’re freed. Two come back alive, the third in a coffin. Yes the episode was all in Hebrew, and yes there were subtitles (which usually annoys the hell out of me), but I found it surprising easy to follow despite not being very fluent in the language. Even forcing me as such, to become more attentive, and connected to what the characters were saying. I loved the obviously obnoxious daughter, and aloof son whom clearly felt that he owes nothing to his father who has been gone for seventeen long years of his life. My favourite part of the show was when Nimrod gets the name of his son wrong, and in one small but powerful moment exposes the raw difficulty of returning home, and the painful impact it has on the prisoner’s family.
I think at this point it is important to celebrate the fact that an Israeli TV show has actually made it onto a major Sky channel on UK television. Something I never really saw happening. Maybe the subtitles are a little too heavy and hard to cope with for a celebratory ‘almost-the-weekend’ Thursday night, but having a look through some of the comments on Twitter, I can see that many others share the same enthusiasm as me, and are willing to give this new series a go!
As a huge fan of Homeland, I am excited by this original, less glossy series, and intrigued to see how the story will unfold. I know what I will be doing next Thursday at 9.30pm, but will you be watching too?