Decade’s best Israeli TV and films showcase conflict, both military and cultural

A boom of sabra storytelling in the form of comedies, thrillers and drama has won prizes and fans around the globe

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

In this May 30, 2019 photo, a crew films a scene on the set of Israel's hit TV show "Fauda," in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
In this May 30, 2019 photo, a crew films a scene on the set of Israel's hit TV show "Fauda," in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Move over, Jaffa oranges. The signature Israeli export is fast becoming movies and television shows, with a significant number of them becoming viewers’ favorites and award winners around the world over the past decade.

As well as entertainment, these films and shows provide global fans a glimpse into various aspects of life in Israel — largely to do with conflict of various types —  and shed light on its people, places and events.

1) The list must begin with “Fauda,” a nail-biting thriller created by Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff (Issacharoff is also a Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent) that was acquired by Netflix and has just launched its third season, this time set in the Gaza Strip. “Fauda,” in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic, showcases the tensions and emotions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict realistically with an intensive look at the adventures of an undercover Israeli commando team immersed in the heart of Palestinian society.

As Issacharoff recently told The Times of Israel, “Drama allows you to give something that journalism is less able to do. You can’t go into the characters and their lives or understand their decision making, figuring out what changed their minds, what kind of relationship they have with their wife or kids or mother or father that made them. That’s why it’s so great to do both, it’s so great to dive into characters and an undercover soldier and the son of a terrorist at the same time.”

(Issacharoff’s latest series with co-creator Raz is “Hit and Run,” a spy thriller created for Netflix about a happily married man whose wife is mysteriously killed in a hit-and-run accident.)

2) Second up is “Shtisel,” an award-winning show about the ultra-Orthodox, Jerusalem-dwelling Shtisel family and their relationships, histrionics and kitchen-table dramas.

Creators Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon never thought their Haredi drama would resonate with an Israeli audience, much less an international one via Netflix.

“It’s astounding to us,” director Alon Zingman told The Times of Israel. “We didn’t know so many people would connect to it.”

Viewers have been deeply impacted by the tale of Akiva Shtisel, an aspiring artist, and his recently widowed father, Shulem, and their extensive circle of family and friends. It’s the attention to detail that has made “Shtisel” resonate so deeply, including the Israeli actors’ speaking in Yiddish-accented Hebrew.

A third season is in the works, but there is no release date as of yet.

3) If we’re talking about “Shtisel,” then another groundbreaking show on ultra-Orthodox life in the last decade is “Shababnikim,” known as “The New Black” in English. The 2017 series, by Eliran Malka, is a rollicking, hip comedy that feels like an “Entourage” for yeshiva students.

It revolves around four twenty-something friends who push the boundaries of yeshiva mores as they go on matchmaker dates and weigh their place in modern Israeli life. It’s sharp, funny and poignant.

It’s not yet on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but the first few episodes are available — in Hebrew — on YouTube.

4) Another noteworthy TV series of the past decade is “The Affair,” which isn’t technically Israeli, but was created by Israeli Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem. Levi is also one of the writers of “Our Boys,” a 2019 HBO miniseries about the 2014 kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and creator of “In Treatment” (B’Tipul), one of the first Israeli dramas — although not of this past decade — to hit global prime time.

Showtime’s”The Affair” was wildly different from any other TV show, with a storyline that didn’t move in a linear manner and featured the main characters’ perspectives on events as they unfolded, showing how their views differed drastically.

(Levi’s next show is “The Public,” about a formerly ultra-Orthodox police detective who pretends to be religious in order to return to her childhood community to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl. The series takes place in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Brooklyn, and will be in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.)

5) You know that Israeli television has finally moved beyond dramas of war, army and conflict when it produces a show like “On the Spectrum,” Dana Idisis’s debut series for satellite channel YES about the lives of people with developmental disorders.

“On the Spectrum” revolves around three roommates on the autism spectrum, living independently in an apartment in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv satellite town where Idisis grew up.

The show is her clever, comical and emotional introduction to life with a developmental disorder.

“I could have written this years ago. Maybe because of my own awareness, I never had any qualms about the subject,” Idisis told The Times of Israel. “But it was still a challenge to go to YES and say ‘Let’s do this kind of series.’”

6) Turning to the cinema, let’s start with the 2012 Oscar-nominated film “Footnote,” by Israeli director Joseph Cedar, about a beleaguered Talmud professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who wants accolades for decades of work only to be upstaged by his own son, a fellow Talmud professor and recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize.

It’s a black comedy, shot in the dim, dusty hallways of Hebrew University, that illuminates the tedious, but very real, minutiae of academia.

Also in the Cedar oeuvre is “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer,” about a cringeworthy New York Jew who does favors for an Israeli prime minister.

The film features Richard Gere as the hapless, frumpy Norman Oppenheimer, a has-been fixer, along with another Cedar favorite, Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi.

7) There are indie films, too, including Arab director Maysaloun Hamoud’s first feature film “In Between” (2017), produced by Israeli Jewish filmmaker Shlomi Elkabetz, on three Arab women sharing a Tel Aviv apartment as they try to figure out their twenty-something lives and attempt to find the balance between their Arab background and being Israeli.

There’s a little bit of everything in this film, including Muslim, Christian Arab, lesbian and secular identities, and it clearly had an effect, as it inspired the first Palestinian fatwa in decades.

(Muna Hawa, one of the actors of the film, went on to star in Mira Awad’s recent TV series “Mouna,” which broadcast on Kan at the start of 2019. Its eight episodes revolve around a young Arab photographer living in Tel Aviv and dealing with her Israeli Jewish boyfriend, disapproving parents and adoring fellow Arab workmate and friend.)

8) It’s nearly impossible to make a list of Israel’s best films and TV shows of the last decade without mentioning a few more picks that focus on the conflicts of this region. There are many that offer a wide-eyed view of what takes place here, and one of the best films was “Bethlehem” (2013), which starsTzahi Halevi (of “Fauda”) and won six Ophir Awards. The movie was also Israel’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, but didn’t make the final cut.

With a cast of Jewish and Arab actors, the film takes place in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and follows the complicated relationship between an Israeli secret service operative and his young Arab informer.

9) Another film — available on Netflix — about Israel and the Israel Defense Forces is the 2014 comedy “Zero Motivation,” a comedy-drama about a female soldier, her colleagues and their boring army service. These soldiers are counting down the days until they can say shalom to their office jobs; its relative lightheartedness is a welcome respite from grimmer movies about Israeli army service.

10) Also an Israeli entry for Best Foreign Language film that didn’t make the Oscar cut, “Sand Storm” is about a Bedouin family undergoing a complicated conflict of tradition and modernity in their village. Set in the Negev and entirely in Arabic, the film swept Israel’s Ophir awards and won top prizes at international film festivals in Taiwan, South Korea, Seattle and Jerusalem and the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
For first-time director Elite Zexer, the goal was for every person to find themselves, just as the protagonists of this unusual film strive to do.

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