This week’s impeachment hearings — in which countless witnesses reaffirmed how Donald Trump had withheld aid to Ukraine until the country agreed to investigate the son of political rival Joe Biden (something even Trump has more or less admitted to) — was nonetheless a reminder how even the truth won’t prevent competing narratives in the media. For storytellers looking to accurately document real-life events for TV or film, that makes telling the definitive story even more challenging.
And yet, true-life stories have come to dominate TV, particularly in the limited series category. While remakes and reboots of old intellectual property is hot in the regular series realm, programmers are leaning into ripped-from-the-headlines tales to captivate audiences in 6, 8 or 10-hour segments. Among some of the current contenders in various longform awards races include Emmy winners like “Chernobyl,” “When They See Us,” “Fosse/Verdon” and “The Act,” while “The Loudest Voice” and “Our Boys” also travel in slightly fictionalized reality.
“Our Boys” is based on the true story of the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khedeir, who was killed on the outskirts of East Jerusalem in 2014, a revenge killing after three Jewish teenagers were murdered by Hamas militants. The series tells the stories of the investigation into his killing, as well as the families impacted by the turn of events — but despite deep research by the writers, who meticulously re-created the story and its aftermath, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attacked “Our Boys,” labeling it “anti-Semitic” and calling for a boycott of Keshet’s Channel 12 in the country.
“We embraced the criticism,” says Hagai Levi (“The Affair”), who created and executive produced “Our Boys” for HBO and Israeli-based broadcast Keshet with Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael, who was brought in to make sure the Palestinian story was told accurately. “We didn’t expect the prime minister to come at us in that way, but we did expect some reaction.”
I was on the phone this week with Keshet CEO Avi Nir as he was watching the U.S. impeachment hearings. Nir laments that we’re at a crucial time in both politics and media, where the battle for the truth has become more muddled than ever.
“I think there is great appetite for stories that will make sense about events in reality,” he says. “These shows are more meaningful in our quest to come to grips with what’s happening and what has happened around us.”
Levi warns that scripted versions of real-life events, particularly tragedies like the ones told in “Our Boys,” can’t be treated simplistically or with any kind of overbearing message. For “Our Boys,” like “When They See Us” and other true stories, telling a tragic, real-life story doesn’t require embellishment.
“Our Boys” began its journey as a much more fictionalized take on the story of Abu Khdeir’s death. But as the writers dived into the material, they soon realized the series would have to be grounded more in reality to effectively tell the story.
“We couldn’t understand how this happened, and we had a real need to figure it out,” Cedar says. “There’s a responsibility that comes with it. It put us on a whole different track of research, which was more journalistic. We spoke to the investigators, the lawyers, the families, the murderers as close as we could get; we also spoke to journalists and experts, people who have a wider and broader perspective on the context of this. We spent time in jail, to understand how to write something that takes place there. We spent time in court.”
The result was a bit of creative tension as the writers balanced telling the true story with the need for a satisfying dramatic arc.
“We have to be very close to the truth, while the personal stories we felt we could take some artistic liberty,” Levi says. “But one thing important to us was to stay away from doing things for entertainment.”
Ultimately, despite the criticism from Netanyahu and other politicians, Nir calls “Our Boys” the most impactful series of his career. “I think we touched on something, it resonated the deep frustration, pain, of dealing honestly with the conflict,” he says. “Judging by the number of people who reacted and watched the show, they absolutely got it. They were not affected by the political spin.”