A valiant young social activist for asylum seekers in the teeming immigrant enclaves of Tel Aviv is clubbed to death. Days before she had a run- in with its organized crime which runs a banking racket for the illegal immigrants. Appointed to lead the murder investigation, police officer Anat Sitton has to clear the obvious suspect, Gabriel, a mild-mannered painter from Eritrea, and join the dots which link the local mob to the political establishment and far bigger business interests than lending money to the stateless.
Produced by July-August Productions for Yes Studios, which handles international distribution, based on a bestselling novel by Liad Shoman, and directed by Eitan Tzur and written by Uzi Weil, “Asylum City” is a thriller which lifts the lid on the emigre mean streets of South Tel Aviv. Packing short sharp scenes, shot on location, often at night, or with the camera trailing characters, “Asylum City” is yet another example of terse, effective, economic writing which packs a powerful punch as it asks ethical questions of its protagonists.
Getting on for three weeks after the series’ linear broadcast has ended in Israel, Variety talked to “Asylum City” co-creators Zur and Weil in the build-up to Series Mania, where the series screens in International Panorama.
1.Why make “Asylum City”?
Eitan Zur: For me, making the series was a response to the desire that accompanied me for several years to create a series of tension with a socio-political background and appeal, closely linked to reality in today’s Israel.
When I came across Liad’s book “A City of Refuge,” I immediately realized that this was the opportunity I had been waiting for. A fascinating book centered on a murder investigation that brings us into the world of asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv (the largest and most controversial of asylum seekers inhabitants in Israel) exposing the social, political, legal and policy mechanisms in their encounter with this world.
I wanted to examine one of the questions that have bothered me for a long time as an Israeli. How a society established by immigrants and refugees, most of whom have gone through a terrible tragedy, is spinning and losing its humanity in the face of thousands of refugees trying to find refuge at its gates.
In my opinion, this is a fundamental test case for what is happening in Israel in other areas, and hence its importance. A case that represents the incomprehensible gap between a society that could have, in the wake of its tragedy, delivered a humanistic and universal message to the world, including a war on racism, protection of minorities and human rights, and today’s society, fearful of nationalism and racism.
Uzi Weil: What interested most was the fact that those neighborhoods where asylum seekers lived, had become a no-man’s land, where everything can and will happen. The government doesn’t know how to deal with this situation, and would rather just turn a blind eye to the horrible conditions that it had created. So there’s human misery on one hand, and a lawless vacuum on the other. And where there’s a vacuum, there’s plenty of room for corruption, greed and desperate human acts – all the makings of a good story.
But the main attraction was just to tell the human stories behind the politics. Because in all the political sound and fury of the refugee problem, the human factor has been forgotten. And I wanted to create a series that would make everyone, no matter what their political conviction was, just look at the people behind the headlines, from all sides of this tragedy: the refugees, the Israeli residents in those crumbling neighborhoods, the criminals and the government.
What research did you do for the show?
Weil: Luckily for me, we already had a book to go by, and the author – Liad Shoham – did great research work. But as we went on and developed the story further, we did have a lot of talks with refugees, cops, journalists, and some people that we rather wouldn’t name from inside the intelligence community. The last ones had to do mainly with Israel’s secret arms dealings in Africa.
Zur: The adaptation we worked on (scriptwriter Uzi Weil, Liad Shoham the writer and I) has further expanded the circles exposed in the series. We therefore also looked into the subject of Israel’s arms deals, and to the extent possible (as these are secret agreements) the nature of the agreements signed between the State of Israel, Uganda and Rwanda, to allegedly absorb the tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees from Israel.
As we wrote the series, we discovered incidentally that even in places where we thought we had given too much of a free hand to imagination as a dramatic means, reality itself is even more extreme, disturbing and absurd.
There’s a documentary feel to the series, coming in part from the shooting style. At the same time, it’s a tightly written thriller. Were these two elements present in your minds when you developed the project from the very beginning?
Weil: Oh yes, certainly. Eitan Zur, the director, had always “The Wire” on his mind since the very beginning; I had John Le Carre and Elmore Leonard on mine. It came out somewhere in between.
Zur: As a series that takes place in an actual reality on a subject that has been in the headlines for several years, it was important for us to create credibility, and to be as realistic as possible, both stylistically and figuratively. From the style of filming, the choice and design of the locations, to the so-called “conspiracy” elements that are revealed as the series progresses.
However, we knew that a tight plot would be the ideal conveyor for presenting social and political issues, which would prevent us from falling into didactic obstacles and would also attract audiences who do not necessarily want to receive a burdensome reality package at the end of the day.
Did you write the series on your own, Uzi, or what was the writing process?
Weil: The writing itself was all mine, but Eitan Zur was the one who dreamed of making this series a long time before I came along, and the creative process was done together. We went back and forth endlessly trying to get the right tone.
The series insinuates links between big business, politicians and organized crime. What have been the reactions to it in Israel?
Zur: The main references to the series so far (the linear broadcast ended about two weeks ago) were in reviews, most of which was very flattering, and often referred to the “dance” that took place between the riveting plot and social and political realism.
At least at the moment, it seems that the statements in it provoked some kind of public shock if that was what you meant by this question. I think that when an acting prime minister faces an indictment in three different bribery cases, and some of his associates are accused of corruption related to arms deals (buying submarines for Israel from shipyards in Germany) it is quite difficult to shock. Nor was it our intention.
Weil: Israel is a crazy place. My definition for my country is: It’s like the world, only ten times faster. As of two days ago, we have a prime minister on his way to trial for corruption and bribery charges. So TV series don’t make headlines as much as we would like them to make.
All that said, the series sparked a debate and made a lot of people pause for a minute and think about what their country is doing in their name. So there is that….
Is there a Season 2 in the works?
Zur: Initial thoughts only
Weil: We sure hope so… but nothing concrete as of yet