Interview: Gideon Raff

Channel 4's 'Homeland' is big hit. Soon viewers will be able to see the Israeli drama that inspired it.


Gideon Raff: breaking a taboo

Gideon Raff: breaking a taboo

A dimly lit Frankfurt hotel room filled with tension. A knock at the door; a letter is hand-delivered. A An elderly man's face occupies the screen; he wipes the sweat off his brow. "What now?" his colleague asks. "We wait," he replies. Eventually there is a telephone call. "It's a done deal," the elderly man says. "They're coming home."

This sequence is the opening scene of Hatufim, Israeli television's latest quality drama. The award-winning series - Hatufim means "abducted" in Hebrew - focuses on the fictional story of three IDF soldiers who had been taken captive in Lebanon and are released (two alive, one in a coffin) 17 years later as part of a prisoner exchange. The series follows the former soldiers' struggle to reintegrate themselves into their families and society. Meanwhile, questions are raised regarding their loyalty to their country.

From May, Hatufim will be shown in the UK - in Hebrew with English subtitles and retitled Prisoners of War - on Sky Arts 1. Israeli series rarely, if ever, get a showing on British TV, but Hatufim's cause may have been helped by the fact that it was the inspiration for Homeland, the award-winning American-made drama starring Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, that is currently being aired on Channel 4.

Hatufim began life when writer-director Gideon Raff came up with an idea for a PoW drama that started at a point where most other PoW dramas finished.

"I came to the network -Keshet Broadcasting - and said we're going to do a show about prisoners of war and the first episode is going to be their homecoming," he recalls. "Everybody expects it to be the last episode, everybody thinks that is the happy ending. In fact, that's the beginning of their journey."

The Israel-born Raff hit on the premise while he was living in Los Angeles, where he attended the American Film Institute. During the nine years he was away, he would regularly return to Israel and notice "'that the place would seem a little bit more distant, a little strange. Everyone moves on with their lives, not just you. Somehow that got connected to wanting to tell the story of somebody coming home after a long absence. It resulted in Prisoners of War."

Homeland,with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis attracted two million viewers to Channel 4

Homeland,with Claire Danes and Damian Lewis attracted two million viewers to Channel 4

He says that any criticism of PoWs in Israel is taboo. But in spite of its delicate storyline, the series has been incredibly successful; it is the highest-rated drama in Israel of all time. Raff was not prepared for its success, nor for what he calls the "ridiculous" attacks on him that went with it. "It became an issue even before the show was aired in 2010," he says. "Once people heard about the plot, the criticism started - 'how dare you turn to such a holy subject and make money out of it".'' However, he adds, when the show began "and people saw we treated the subject with sensitivity and respect, that shifted".

Raff undertook extensive research about PoWs, including the psychological aftermath of captivity. In Israel, he says, there are about 1,500 former PoWs and he interviewed many of them. He says they "were all for the show, they wanted their voice finally heard. They kept calling me every Saturday after the show was aired to tell me how similar it was to their own experiences".

Prior to writing Hatufim Raff had had no involvement with PoWs. However, he learned of a family connection when examining the experience of 300 former military hostages who had been returned after the Yom Kippur War and sent for treatment in a rehabilitation centre in northern Israel, where army personnel had interrogated them. "They were treated in a way that somehow reproduced captivity for them," he explains. "At the time there was a lack of sensitivity. People didn't really know what they went through." A document found by one of his researchers highlighted that his father had been one of the interrogators.

The series addresses the soldiers' battle with psychological trauma but the effect of their return on their families is profoundly evident". In Israel, Raff says, "we all think: 'bring back the boys'. The show revealed that it's a lot more complicated than that."

But the question of inappropriate timing and the blurring of fiction with reality has been leveled at Raff, particularly because of Gilad Shalit, the former prisoner who was still being held by Hamas in Gaza when the show was initially aired. But Raff argues that no timing is ever going to be right.

"If it's not Shalit, it's Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev or Ron Arad. Unfortunately there will be other PoWs."

Undoubtedly, the national tragic resonance has contributed to the series' popularity, but Raff firmly believes that "issues that are sensitive are the issues that we should see in theatres and on television. It sounds presumptuous but many people have said that Hatufim changed the public perception's of how PoWs need to be treated".

Raff wrote the pilot for Homeland, along with Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, the producers of 24. He is also an executive producer on the show. Some of the pilot was shot in Israel, in the same location that Hatufim was filmed, with the same crew. The series has received rapturous reviews and garnered much praise both here and in the United States, and has picked up two Golden Globes.

There are echoes of similar plot lines but the writing was altered to reflect the "astonishing" differences of how each country regards its captured soldiers. In America, Raff says, "it's just not a subject that is talked about on a national level. On a community level there is interest, but in Israel it is something that drives the country crazy. Everybody is part of the campaign. In the US there is a no negotiation policy, which is why we changed the beginning of Homeland.'

In Hatufim the emphasis is on how captivity affects the characters' domestic life. It later develops into thriller mode. "In Homeland,' Raff says, "we went for the thriller element straight from the beginning."

Raff is currently finishing editing the second series of Hatufim. The signs are promising that it too will reach an international audience.

'Homeland' is on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4. 'Prisoners of War' ('Hatufim') is on Sky Arts 1 from May

Last updated: 4:24pm, October 23 2012