Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Review: Prisoners of War (Hatufim)



Prisoners of War is the Israeli series that inspired Emmy award-winning US drama Homeland. The series originally aired in its home country in 2010 where it was voted the best drama series at the Israeli Academy Awards. Prisoners of War (Hatufim in Hebrew and as it's referred to by loyalists) has gained cult-status in the UK following its run on the satellite channel, Sky Arts in May this year. Fans are now eagerly awaiting the broadcast of the imminent follow up season.

The series, set in 2008, depicts three Israeli Defence Force reservists, who were captured seventeen years ago during service on a secret mission with their unit in Lebanon. To society and their families they are heralded as heroes and endless campaigns are set up, highlighting a demand for their return. The series begins when Uri Zach and Nimrod Klein finally return home to their families, whilst the third captive Ameil Ben-Horin comes home in a coffin. Uri (Shai Golan) bears the physical scars of his captivity. His girlfriend Nurit Halevi-Zach (Mili Avital) has moved on during his absence and married his brother Yaki (Mickey Leon). The Couple also have a teenage son, Asaf and the family are initially forced to keep these major changes under wraps by an IDF psychologist until further notice. Nurit is wracked with guilt and when the truth is revealed, it leads to major complications.

Fellow captive, Nimrod Klein (Yoram Toledano) struggles in relating to his wife Talia (Yael Abecassis) who has devoted her life to fighting for her husband’s release. She, like her husband now struggles with a sense of purpose. Further complications arise when he is reunited with rebellious teenage daughter Dana (Yael Eitan) and teenage son Hatzav (Guy Selnik) who was born during his captivity. The dead soldier’s sister, Yael (Adi Ezroni) struggles to cope with her loss. Comfort is found in the arms of Ilan Feldman (Nevo Kimichi) an IDF Liason officer, whose purpose it is to help integrate captives back in to society and support those who have lost loved ones. The soldiers’ experience of captivity is gradually revealed through a series of disturbing flashbacks. As well as being the subject of public scrutiny the former captives now have to contend with the national hero status being thrust upon them via Israeli media. Their release raises the suspicions of Haim Cohen (Gal Zaid), an IDF psychologist convinced that there is more to the characters than meets the eye. He leads an investigation into Nimrod and Uri and enlists the help of IDF employee Iris (Sandy Bar) who develops a relationship with Uri in order to establish exactly what the former captives are hiding. Prisoners of War is very different to its US progeny Homeland.

For starters the whole series was made for a fraction of the cost of the US pilot alone. But, what it lacks in budgetary values, it makes up in rich content and high quality performances, still managing to present itself with the high gloss visual style of a series such as 24. Although Homeland enlisted the help of executive producer Gideon Raff and it lifts some key elements, the main difference between the two shows is that the Israeli original’s sole focus is on humanity. The series is a slow-burner, less of a high-octane thriller and more of a cerebral, psychological drama. It doesn't work on a required explosion count policy. It works as a modern circumstantial drama, with the emphasis being on reintegration and relationships, all set beautifully against a backdrop of tumultuous politics and a contemporary Israeli landscape. The series begins with a look at Israel’s own security service upon the soldiers return home. The former captives are treated to a brutal interrogation at a rehab centre that is reminiscent of their former holdings. Stripped naked, the pair are interrogated with no ounce of compassion.

For an international audience this makes for an intriguing glimpse of Israeli POW culture. But to viewers in its home country it must really touch a nerve as a genuine concern to many native families. But Prisoners of War doesn't pass judgement on the brutalities of the homecoming as it soon transpires that the two are indeed harbouring secrets, thus confirming the suspicions of their devious interrogator, psychologist Haim Cohen. The show progresses through the use of flashback sequences which occasionally shock with moments of visceral brutality involving electrocution, firing squads and suggestions of male rape. Occasionally startling, these vivid recollections can come from out of the blue, perhaps sparked by a single word and suddenly the horror is being relived. The sound of these scenes is shrill and magnified and each visual is tinged with viridian green that highlights the severity of the prisoners' crimson wounds.

With every flashback, the mystery unfolds but the briefness in the fragmentation of the scenes and their momentary juxtapositions with the present, creates a sense of uncertainty, a cloud of paranoia that increases in density throughout the series. Prisoners of War’s success is largely down to the outstanding ensemble cast. The actors behind captives, Nimrod and Uri are given the task of playing dual roles, the past and the present. Uri, upon release carries himself with sensitive fragility and emaciated in appearance, it is much to the credit of actor Shai Golan, that you often forget you are watching an actor. Fellow captive Nimrod, played by Yoram Toledano, is equally affected but his character is more composed than Uri and demonstrates an element of smugness that raises suspicions beyond the screen. Nimrod's wife Talia has evolved from a housewife to graphic designer/freedom campaigner. Her husband’s capture had given her life direction and following his release, she suddenly finds herself with no focus.

Talia is the embodiment of several roles, the campaigner, the mother, the wife, and in ways the victim. The role is performed with restraint and there is always an element of mystery to Talia. Her quiet anguish is always evident in the performance by Yeal Abacassis. The layers of complexity continue as the couple have two "difficult" teenage children. Hatzav was born whilst his dad was inside and rather than rejoice his father’s freedon, he mourns single parent family life. Hatzav is played with the expected teen angst but cultural issues involving national service add greater substance to the role. And then there's his sister, Dana. Dana is the affably contemptuous teen with a penchant for 'DILFs'. Her character is a mass of psychological entanglement. Actress Yael Eitan is a bright beacon of light relief, she provides some real “LOL” moments with her black humour and inappropriate sarcasm. Even in moments of high tension, Dana will not shy from dropping a daring one-liner. She's a ticking time-bomb of irreverence and sexual frustration with zero social skills. Dana, is a stand out character, Eitan delivers a brave performance, with the psyche of a lethal Lolita but clearly suffering from an absent father complex. Dana provides all of the humour in POW but she walks a fine line suggesting that if trouble announced itself on the horizon, she’d be the first to run towards it.

Perhaps the most complex of the relationships is that of Uri and Nurit. Mili Avital plays the former girlfriend, now married to the captive's brother and mother of her former boyfriend’s nephew. It's a very complicated scenario especially with an objective father-in-law thrown into the mix. Nurit has the weight of the world on her shoulders and Avital conveys the anguish perfectly and with an element of madness. The marriage to her former lover's brother puts her in the ring of a huge media circus. She is also at the centre of the moral compass. Is any way the right way for her to turn? Avital plays Nurit with youthful seduction and in a moment of madness she dramatically alters her physical appearance like a frantic Hitchcock blonde. Her circumstance is so convoluted that, as a viewer you become almost as lost as she is. Such is the genius of POW's pace and steady character development that, through one character's grief, we are able to digest Assi Cohen’s performance as Amie – a ghost. His sporadic appearances determine an astounding performance from his distressed sibling Yael played perceptively by Adi Ezroni.

The subject of grief and the effect of shock are handled with great care. It's hard to think of another drama series in which the viewer would willingly accept the appearance of a ghost, but Ami is more than a ghost. He is derived from the extremity of his sister's grief. He represents the moments of insanity that can accompany bereavement and we experience this from Yael's perspective. There are thrills in this series but they are delivered at a steady, realistic pace which is more effective as you live through the events with the characters. The twists and shocks are kept secret from the viewer also, which adds to their forceful impact. Prisoners of War is drama in its most raw and visceral state.

A huge number of people living in Israel are personally affected by the experience of captivity and the programme has been made without exploiting that situation. Israel is unspoiled by commercialism and studio demands, so the series is a mass of unrestricted creativity and talent and that shows in the series’ intricately sensitive composition. Prisoners of War is an absolute triumph. It’s a travesty that this outstanding and original show has been overshadowed somewhat by the hoopla of its American compatriot. POW is television for people interested in the complexities of familial life.

This is drama in its purest and most creative form. It's a loving and sensitive study of what happens to people over seventeen years, not just those held in captivity and it offers a rarely seen and incredibly interesting glimpse of contemporary Israel. If POW features the cream of Israel’s talent - from the script, the direction and the moving performances, it makes you wonder what other marvels the country has to offer. When the series ends you will miss the characters like absent friends and your concerns for them will continue way beyond the closing credits. Prisoners of War is intelligent drama and without the use of CGI effects, relentless gunfire or bombs. It is still able to deliver a hugely explosive ending that will leave you in pieces and yearning for the arrival of Season 2.

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