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Amit Cohen, Ron Leshem Talk Fremantle Banner Title ‘No Man’s Land’

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One of the major buzz titles over the last seven days’ Series Mania/MipTV virtual marketplace, “No Man’s Land” starts in Paris, as Antoine, a construction engineer corroded by guilt at his sister’s death in a terrorist attack, thinks he glimpses her in TV footage of the Kurdish YPG militia.

Minutes later in series terms, he has made it over the border from Turkey into Syria and into an extraordinary, if highly grounded true-facts-based, world where the YPG has since 2013 fought ISIS yihadists.

The geographical coordinates of Syria are hazy –   the series uses no location credits; its landscape is other worldly; its gender are reversed – it’s the women who bear arms given the Islamic belief that a man killed by a woman will have a hard time getting to heaven; and its stakes humble Antoine as the YPG wage a war for freedom, which Western powers yet prefer to ignore.

A series of geographical, and even larger emotional, sweep, “No Man’s Land” is at once intimate drama and a geo-political eye-opener, a thriller then war movie, that also serves testament to the globalization of high-end series finance.

Under the title of “Fertile Crescent” it won best series at Series Mania, where it won best project, presented by prestige French film-TV producer Haut et Court TV and Israel’s Masha Productions and Spiro Films. Fremantle boarded soon afterwards in a competitive bidding situation, Arte France and Hulu acme in after that.

Created by Masha’s María Feldman and Spiro’s Eitan Mansuri, “No Mans Land” was written by Amit Cohen (“False Flag”) and Ron Lesham (“Euphoria”) who, in a remarkable achievement, had two series in Series Mania main competition: “No Man’s Land” and “Valley of Tears.” It is directed in what looks likes a very effective unaffected style by Oded Ruskin (“False Flag”).

Commissioned by Arte and Hulu, “No Man’s Land” stars Félix Moati (“The French Dispatch,” “Le grand bain”), Mélanie Thierry (“La Douleur,” “Au revoir là-haut”) and James Purefoy (“Altered Carbon,” “Following, Rome”).

The series is produced by Feldman, Mansuri and Jonathan Doweck for Spiro Films, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal and Carole Scotta for Haut et Court TV, and co-produced by Arte France and Versus Production. Fremantle’s Christian Vesper will also co-produce; Fremantle distribute  internationally.

Variety spoke to Cohen, Leshem and Vesper as Fremantle launched “No Man’s Land” on the virtual marketplace.

When did you board “No Man’s Land”?

Cohen, Leshem: We wanted to deal with this unimaginable tragedy in Syria for a long time, and after Maria Feldman, Eitan Mansuri  and Caroline Benjo won the competition at Series Mania in 2017, we got the opportunity to join forces with them, and work on it together. That work was really rewarding. After that Series Mania there was competition for this project, and eventually we ended up at Fremantle. Almost immediately we went into development, ultimately setting up with Hulu and Arte.

Vesper: Haut et Court and Masha Films brought this to my attention at Series Mania, and we were immediately engaged and excited.  It was a competitive situation, but we were able to finance development quickly and get the guys writing, and shortly thereafter pitch to commissioning broadcasters/platforms.  Ultimately we found partners in Arte and Hulu, who were both terrific in terms of their creative understanding. With those networks on board, and with Fremantle International stepping up to support the production, it was rather a perfect Series Mania, global co-production, story.

The fascination of the story is what Eric Rochant refers to a credible realism within a genre, here a war, action series.

Leshem: The story was an incredible gift for us, having the most unique voices we could only dream of writing: An army of women fighting for freedom with hope, bravery, where we could explore the inner life of their resistance, and the voices of U.K. born-and-raised ISIS fighters; and Americans, who not only choose to fight but get addicted to the war. This makes for a character-driven thriller but gave us the huge responsibility of telling this untold chapter of history with all dramatic and deadly tragedies of our lifetime.

The series is critical of Western governments…. 

Leshem: Yes, their hypocrisy. Five years ago, Europe was so fearful of ISIS European fighters coming back home, that European intelligence forces thought it would be better to maintain the war.

This first stretches of the series play out as a kind of organic thriller, grounded in character decisions, which up the stakes until Antoine, from a secure Parisian life, is begging for his life and way outside his comfort zones. Can you comment?

Cohen: We knew it was a huge challenge, covering a major geopolitical subject like Syria’s Civil War. But it’s about the characters.  The social part evolves  from the characters. It’s drama, not a documentary. Theoretically, audiences want to hear about it, but it could antagonizing  because they hear about the Middle East on the news. We wanted audiences to listen to what we had to say. To that end, we needed to follow some dramatic rules.

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Which were…?

Cohen: We use this challenge to shape the emotional journey of Antoine. There are thriller elements and also a love mystery, of what happened to his sister. Also, in a way, Antoine symbolizes the audience. When he starts the journey he’s aware of the tragedy in Syria, of course. But it doesn’t concern him. He’s driven by a personal agenda. We want his character to gain a sense of belonging, be transformed, and we hope the audience will share the same experience. At one point later in the story, Antoine looks around and sees it’s not about him anymore, that he’s part of a bigger story.

There’s a progressive lack of clarity as to where Antoine is. You don’t name locations, for example….. 

Cohen: That’s right. Part of the journey is the disorientation. Going to a different place and not knowing where you are. That came from personal experience. Both of us were journalists working during rough times in the history of Israel and Palestine.

What was the development process like, and how did you decide on the aesthetic for the series?

Leshem: We always focus heavily on research. On this series we worked with intelligence officers and learned that arena well, studying it both directly and indirectly. We didn’t just want to be accurate in the settings, although we know how important that is, but we wanted to make the audience feel the story was real. We wanted to focus on the visceral side of this story, but without feeling like a frenzied war documentary.

And what is the timeline for the series now? Series Mania was meant to be a world premiere, are you bringing it to market now?

Vesper: Series Mania last week was very much meant to be the launch, and yes, it is coming to market now. This is part of the effort with Hulu and Arte, and air dates will be announced soon. The whole series is shot, and now we’re in post.

Is this a limited series? Or is there a possibility for another season or seasons?

Leshem: It’s hard to say for now. We’ve talked about other plotlines. It starts as this epic about a French guy and impossible danger and reward for crossing the border. He’s our link to the setting, but there are other points of view, like these three British best friends that go together to fight for ISIS.

Cohen: We asked ourselves what makes a person go fight in someone else’s war. That’s one possible description of the show as Antoine is our main character and it’s told through his eyes. But we want to represent the other side as well. Hundreds of men from our country went and fought for ISIS as well, and we asked ourselves why. What drove them to do that? We didn’t just want to tell the story of obvious ISIS members who fit into stereotypes.

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