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by Alessio Franko
Discussed in this essay: Fauda, an Israeli television series by Lior Raz, Avi Issacharoff, 2015-17, available on Netflix.
THE TITLE OF A TV series is at once the most and least important thing about it. It is the face of the show, but absolutely nothing else. Most TV titles drive right into this skid, satisfied with being quick and dirty metonymies (Seinfeld, E.R., The Office, etc.). Fauda, meaning “chaos” or “riot” in Arabic, initially struck me as one such title (Scandal came to mind), but by the time I first saw the word “fauda” on screen in the opening sequence, it had already proved to be a pithy and open-ended encapsulation of the central themes of the series.
In the first episode’s cold opening, a Muslim man at prayer goes over to help an ailing stranger, whose friend has brought him into the mosque in a panic. Within seconds, the two strangers are brandishing guns, a woman in a burka has shot the security guard in the head, and the kindly Muslim man is being stuffed into an unmarked IDF van. This is a world in which prayers are punished rather than answered, in which tragedy and death can appear at any time without rhyme or reason. This is, in a word, fauda.
Currently distributed in the U.S. by Netflix, Fauda is an Israeli production that has received substantial acclaim at home for its gripping, tightly paced drama as well as its authentic treatment of life within the Israeli-Palestinian zone. The story kicks off when retired IDF counterterror agent Doron Kabillio (played by series co-creator Lior Raz) is called on to assist in one last mission: the capture of elusive Hamas extremist Abu Ahmad (Hisham Suliman) who Doron and his command believed he had already killed years earlier. Doron is cautious in accepting the assignment, but after a face-to-face encounter with Abu Ahmad, he becomes consumed by the thrill of the hunt and comes out of retirement to finish the job.
Creators Raz and Avi Issacharoff have tapped into their experiences as counterterrorist operatives in the Arabic-fluent Mista’arvim unit of the Israel Defense Forces to sketch out a world that is effortlessly engrossing. Pioneering a strategy that I would love to see catch on, Fauda is a truly bilingual series, with dialogue alternating between Hebrew and Arabic depending on who is talking. Especially for those of us navigating subtitles, the dual languages grant a living quality to the cross-cultural obstacles at the heart of the story. Though I do not recommend the stilted English-language option offered by Netflix (which also offers the series in its original languages, with subtitles), it is worth mentioning that Netflix only dubbed over the Hebrew, leaving the Arabic as is, with subtitles -- too much would be lost by having all of the characters speaking the same language.
WHILE FAUDA is a classic thriller in terms of gritty action and military aesthetics, it deploys these elements to lure viewers into thinking about deeper themes. While it moves through story with athletic efficiency, Fauda is not afraid to slow down and give us an intimate window on its characters. Early, dialogue-free scenes of Doron practicing his quick-draw on imaginary mujahideen in his backyard, for instance, imbue everything else he does with meaning; it marks the difference between a series about soldiers and a series about being soldiers, not just about survival but about how to cope with surviving. The sprawling, sunburned hills of Ramallah that serve as the backdrop for much of the series underscores, by contrast, how for everyone on the (notably, entirely secular) Jewish side, Israeli life represents a sort of confinement. Doron, drawn inexorably back into military service -- just like his wife Galli (Neta Garty), whose personal life has become too entangled for her to go through with leaving the country -- finds himself suited for Israel and Israel alone. Alternatives can be imagined but never attained. Once the season is in full swing, supporting members of Doron’s unit also receive opportunities to meditate on their own experiences of restlessness, stagnation, and guilt in Israel and the IDF. As the picture fills out, we begin to realize that, despite all being in the same nauseating boat, these characters perversely envy one another.
But Raz and Issacharoff’s most exciting choices lie on the other side of the language barrier. Taking for granted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is insurmountable and never-ending, the story doesn’t care who wins or who the good guys are. What it is concerned with is the cost of the conflict on both sides. Fauda gives its ensemble of mostly Hamas-affiliated Palestinian characters their own plot threads and screen time. The first episode is blunt but stylish (and in that way entirely true to the series) in telegraphing its intent to toss facile good-vs.-evil morality out the window. After hearing Abu Ahmad established as a ruthless terrorist and murderer, the very first time we see him, he is tenderly embracing his brother. The vulnerability of Suliman’s performance fully humanizes him, colliding with our impulse to peg him as “the villain.” Some of the first season’s most powerful moments depict pain, grief, and humiliation inflicted on Palestinian characters by wartime reality, an unforgettable example being a scene in which a Palestinian mother on the way to see her child is detained without explanation at a military checkpoint. It is a true credit to head writer Moshe Zonder and his team that, when a Palestinian suicide bomber claims the life of a Jewish character we have spent time with, we feel the loss of the bomber as much as of their victim.
Fauda is nevertheless locked into an Israeli Jewish point of view. Members of the show’s Palestinian factions do not have the same embattled, contemplative moments that their Jewish counterparts have (instead, the choices they are faced with are too often neat binary oppositions: family vs. community, passion vs. protocol, earth-vs.-heaven). The story is propelled forward by the internal struggles of characters trying to balance who they are with who they want to be, but Palestinian struggle here is depicted as external, a reaction to outside pressure. Ambivalence or uncertainty toward Islam itself is conspicuously absent. Given its willingness to sit with dizzying questions of structural injustice, it is not surprising that Fauda has earned comparisons to HBO’s The Wire -- television shorthand for transcendence in authenticity, sophistication, and scope. But whereas The Wire set out to tell the story of Baltimore without any biasing perspective by reporting on the drug dealers with the same distance and respect as it does the police, Fauda thinks harder about the “cops.” Its constant flow of life-or-death scenes does character development a disservice overall, creating situations that are exciting but too exceptional to reveal much about the Muslim experience in Palestine. For a series that aims to examine the conflict from both sides, this emphasis on thrilling action has consequences: Remove the Palestinians from the show and you are still left with prestige drama, but remove the Jews and the whole thing shifts toward the soapy.
But when Fauda does widen its scope beyond strictly atheist Jews and strictly God-fearing Muslims, interesting things start to happen. Walid Al Abed (Shadi Mar’i), the faithful 20-year-old gofer and confidant of Abu Ahmad, has feet in multiple worlds at once. He is a Hamas operative but still an urban youth through and through, useful to Abu Ahmad precisely because of his ability to move fluidly through and across Ramallah’s various socio-cultural barriers. Walid is willing to sacrifice everything for the cause, but is not so deep into its bureaucracy that he has been stripped of his personal instinct for justice. Mar’i brings fitting versatility to his character, able both to explode with youthful energy when to urge his mentor to reconsider reckless courses of action -- and to quietly simmer when his best efforts are not enough to move the vast machine in which he is less than a cog. Though the end of his season arc is swallowed up by a broad romantic subplot that arrives from left field, Walid nevertheless commands and demands the viewer’s attention. He can no more escape his circumstances than anyone else, but his trajectory within it, especially moving into Fauda’s second and third seasons, promises to reflect the show’s deepest fears and hopes about Israel and Palestine.
THERE IS NO QUESTION that the mastery of craft they have demonstrated, combined with the inexhaustible, cyclical nature of the world they have chosen, position Issacharoff, Raz, and Moshe Zonder to deliver a triumphant second season. The question is whether they will cling to the security of their formula or take the chance to dig even deeper into the psychological wreckage they have unearthed. The latter path without a doubt leads through attention to the Palestinian cast. Fauda can and should give us two or three more Walids next season, Palestinian characters whose complicated relationships with their identities move the story forward.
Israeli Jewish filmmakers, in general, are interested in compassion, but struggling to represent nuanced perspectives from the other side. This is visible, too, in Shimon Dotan’s strikingly leftwing 2016 documentary The Settlers, which devotes perhaps three minutes of its nearly two hours to interviews with Palestinians. Yet Fauda’s popularity with Palestinian -- and now, American -- viewers, in addition to Israeli Jewish audiences, should be taken as a sign that the series has touched on something that audiences are starving for, and that it should keep pushing against the aggressor-victim frameworks into which our thinking so often falls.
Alessio Franko is a Brooklyn-based writer of teleplays and radio plays. He trained as an actor at HB Studios in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago.