Over the past decade, Israel has become a booming hub for creativity and the arts, from its hearty and lush technology sector to its rash of wildly successful television series being sold for adaptation to media markets around the world, including studios and production companies in the U.S., Japan, Russia, and South America.
For Haim Saban, Israel’s ever-rising prominence in the entertainment industry makes perfect sense given its status as a country that is a true international melting pot, with immigrants hailing from all four corners of the globe.
“It used to be that people lived off of the land, but Israel is a classic case of the land living off of the people,” says Saban. “It’s about the people, people that came from 70 countries, each one with his or her own culture and habits and somehow they managed to put together this miracle place. It is a miracle place.”
While “Homeland” and “In Treatment” started the trend, a steady stream of Israeli ideas are finding their way to TV and film screens outside of the country. From such big-screen features as Talya Lavie’s “Zero Motivation,” a 2014 satirical comedy about female Israeli soldiers that is being adapted in the States by Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne, to the hit tween TV series “Greenhouse” (recently sold to Netflix), and Keshet’s smash comedy “Traffic Light” that was adapted for Fox and has become a runaway hit in Russia, creative executives from around the world are looking to the country for fresh and thought-provoking content.
“The idea of Israel as a start-up nation — everybody knows that,” says Saban. “And Israel is also a creative nation. The fact of the matter is that these people from many different cultures work together and create content that also holds appeal to multiple audiences outside of Israel. It just makes sense.”
Israeli writers, directors and actors must often make do with modest budgets and air-tight deadlines. The facility and efficiency with which Israelis are able to work given these financial challenges, says Saban, can be attributed, in part, to their collective mandatory experience serving in the Israeli army.
“There is a clandestine intelligence unit in the army called 8200, which is like a high-tech spy agency, and the people serve three, four, five years, and when they leave, what they have in their head, what they know, nobody can take that from them,” says Saban. “And that is the source of it all, because necessity has been the mother of invention, and the same principle applies to content as well. And that is why we are seeing such success in Israeli entertainment.”
Saban’s current favorite Israeli fare is “Fauda” (Arab for chaos), a smash hit TV series about an Israeli counterterrorism operative created by Lior Raz, who also stars, and Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff. The series, available on Netflix in the States, is fierce, spellbinding, binge-worthy TV, filled with tornado-like performances and nuanced, humanizing portrayals of both Israelis and Palestinians. Recently, the king of suspense, Stephen King, tweeted his praises for the series.
“For a long time nobody wanted it,” says Raz, who plays Doron, a ruthlessly passionate commander of an undercover unit in the Israeli Special Forces who steps out of retirement to hunt down notorious Hamas leader Taofik Hamed “Abu Ahmad.” “But for those of us that have been in the army, ‘no’ is not an answer; it’s just a path to the next step.”
One of the most talked-about series to emerge from Israel, “Fauda” owes some of its popularity to the fact that it incorporates both Hebrew and Arabic dialogue, helping to bridge cultural divides (at least in an artistic sense) in a country fraught with political and ethnic tension. Per Raz, whose Jewish parents both hail from Arabic-speaking countries, it’s currently the most watched TV series among the Arab-Israeli population. “It’s a beautiful language, and it’s helped to open us up to a much wider audience,” says Raz, who worked with a dialogue couch to brush up on his Arabic. “Usually in a show or movie about terrorists it’s the guy with the beard who’s the bad guy. It’s very one-dimensional. But in ‘Fauda,’ the guy doing bad things is also the guy who has his moments where he shows love for his family and children. The bad guys aren’t always bad and the good guys aren’t always good.”
“Fauda,” broadcast by the Yes channel in Israel, is now gearing up for season two, which will air at the end of this year. Saban is waiting with bated breath.
“‘Fauda’ is amazing,” says Saban. “It is beyond amazing.”