Life & Culture

Is Rough Diamonds Netflix's new Shtisel?

The diamond trade in Antwerp is the backdrop for the new series


Antwerp and diamonds are inextricably linked with more than 80 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds making it through the Belgian city’s Diamond Quarter.

Antwerp diamonds and the Jewish community – in particular the Chasidim - are also inextricably linked with the industry being so dominated by Jews that traditionally the main language used was Yiddish and the exchange was closed on a Saturday.

That is all changing; while more than half of Antwerp’s 20,000 strong Jewish community still works in the diamond industry, it is becoming increasingly controlled by acontingent from the Indian subcontinent.

At the same time, the sparkly world of diamonds has, through some high-profile court cases, shown its darker face with Antwerp diamonds being used by drug smuggling gangs and fraudsters across Europe.

So it is no wonder that Flemish producer Pieter Van Huyck knew he would have to tread carefully when it came to an eight-part family drama exploring a Chasidic diamond-dealing family who get caught up with the wrong people. But the result is the entertaining and enlightening new Netflix show Rough Diamonds which takes us into several unexplored worlds.

"This was something that I have been working on for six years," says Van Huyck. "Our team wanted to create a show about these two unique things we have in Antwerp; the world centre of the diamond trade and the Chasidic community who are at the heart of it.

"Jews have been migrating to Belgium for 500 years and they were not allowed to do certain jobs so they started their own businesses with diamonds and it turned out they were talented at this and became very successful.

‘"It has been a long process because we have had to gain the trust of these two joined communities. Both have their own reasons not to be very open to the world."

His production company teamed up with the Israeli production company Keshet to co-develop a story that would not only give an insight into these two secretive worlds, but also create a compelling family drama. Fauda writers Yuval Yefet and Rotem Shamir were brought in to flesh out a story that is exciting and emotional from the start.

We meet a Chasidic man as he gets ready for work, he walks to Diamond Square and then kills himself. Seemingly unrelated, is a secular man with an English child who is flying to Antwerp from London. It emerges he is Noah Wolfson, the brother of Yanki, the man who died, and who has been estranged from his entire family ever since he left them more than a decade earlier.

But as the family sits shiva he learns his brother had not only traded diamonds with criminal elements but the once powerful family business is in trouble. And he decides to stay even if it means his own trouble which he left behind him in London will come searching for him.

Noah is played by one of Belgium’s most popular actors Kevin Janssens who had regular lessons in Yiddish and Chasidic culture to play the part. Half of the Wolfson family are played by Jews – the rest by Belgian actors.

"We want to portray a normal Chasidic family in the most authentic way possible but, of course, it is a family which is in trouble so it is not a normal situation they are trying to survive," says Van Huyck. "It wasn’t easy finding Jewish actors who knew that specific way of living and so we had a mix of Jewish and local Flemish actors and we had quite a few Jewish coaches.

"They trained them to speak Yiddish, they were on set checking if everything was right. They read the scripts, many, many times and they were even in post-production to make sure everything was pronounced right; if not we re-recorded the dialogue.

"It was very important to us to get all the details right because that way of living has so many rules, habits and details. There have been other productions in the past which did not get it right but we wanted to be respectful. Coaching bibles were written for the actors so they could learn not only about the language but how to incorporate it into their physical behaviour – what to touch, what not to touch, how to pray, how to put on your hat.

"For us it was also important that we showed well-rounded people – people that we recognise – father, mothers, business people trying to make their living, loving each other and sometimes fighting.

"It was very beautiful to see how the Jewish actors took care of the Flemish actors and taught them; I think for all of us it was more than just a production, it was a way of soaking up a culture. We filmed a Shabbat meal with the whole family and even though – of course – it was fake, one of the Flemish actors told me how moving he had found it because it felt so real."

The production not only gained an insight into the Chasidic world but opened the doors to the Diamond Quarter and this was the first drama to record in the cloistered world of secretive buildings surrounded by roadblocks because they house billions of pounds worth of precious gems.

"Where there is money, there are criminals and fraud," says Van Huyck. "Diamonds are special because they are so easy to move around. Antwerp has diamonds, a big port and that also means it’s the entrance gateway for the cocaine industry into Europe."

So the drama won’t necessarily be a comfortable watch for those in the diamond trade but, above all, it is entertainment – for which it works very well.

"We had a secret screening a few weeks ago with a very small group of people at the top of Antwerp diamond world who are also Jewish and I know going in they were a bit sceptical and a bit scared because they know it is a risk," says Van Huyck. "When it was finished, they said they liked it and we had got it right and that was all we could hope for."

Rough Diamonds is available on Netflix from April 21.

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