Following the successful streaming of Beauty and the Baker and Milk and Honey, two light-hearted, Israeli TV series, Channel Four's foreign language drama platform Walter Presents has acquired another Israeli show, thriller Mama’s Angel, which starts this Sunday. Created and written by Keren Weissman, the compelling series focuses on life in an affluent Tel Aviv suburb that is suddenly devastated by the murder of a young boy and the ensuing police investigation.
The heart of the drama, explains Weissman over coffee in her local Tel Aviv café, is about losing a child and a mother’s grief.
“When I was ten, my almost four-year-old sister died of cancer and the mother who loses her son in Mama’s Angel is based a little on mine.” Although most of the storyline is made up, she says that, “For me, the most important scenes in the series are with the boy’s ten-year-old sister and her birthday scene is a true story. When my sister was [critically] ill, I nagged my mother for a birthday party. She’d say to me, ‘Later, this is not the time,’ but I nagged and nagged. In the end, I did have a party which was the most miserable birthday party I ever had. I even knew that it was going to be but I had to have my birthday. My sister actually died that same night.”
Mama’s Angel focuses on motherhood; its burdens, challenges and conflicts.
As well as bereaved mother, Yael, there is Dina who is obsessively protective of her son with special needs and Nigist, the mother of the accused. “One of the burdens of being a mother is actually anxiety — fear that something will happen [to your child],” says Weissman. “Another — which I think is worse, more complex — is what if my son or daughter has done something bad? What do you do? Stop loving them?”
However, the actual inspiration for Mama’s Angel came from letters Weissman had read in the New York Times in connection with the notorious West Memphis Three case — three teenagers who were tried and convicted in 1994, (one placed on death row), of the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Following intense media and celebrity interest, as well as new evidence, the men were eventually released in 2010, having served almost 20 years.
The published letters were between one of the prisoners and a woman who had fallen in love with him while he was serving time. “I started to look at it from another[perspective], from this guy who was wrongly accused, who had always been viewed suspiciously because he was different— I think in a good way,” she says. “Usually in America, the people who are wrongly tried are blacks and Hispanic and, in this case, it was not because of race but perhaps because he was smarter — he’d read a few books. So that got me thinking, who could be the scapegoat in Israel and I thought about the Ethiopians.”
In Mama’s Angel, an Ethiopian young man becomes the murder suspect and the neighbourhood’s animosity towards him and his mother is based on their skin colour and also his decision to avoid army service by going abroad to study.
“There’s something about Israel,” says Weissman, “that you can’t be non-political. Everything [is political], even when [and where] you send your child to playschool.”
Walter Iuzzolino, founder and curator of Walter Presents, says that the series’ ability to use the architecture of a traditional thriller to tell a more poignant and unconventional story about social and racial prejudice is why it appealed to him.
“It’s much more than just a twisted whodunnit,” he says.
But what lies behind Israel’s success at scripted TV drama? “I’ll give you one cynical answer,” says Weissman. “It’s cheap! This whole series cost about as much, or even less, than one episode in Hollywood.”
“Do we have more ideas? I’m not so sure. The fact that we have more wars or more terror doesn’t mean that we have more stories.” But, she laughs, “We have smart people!”
Walter Presents: Mama’s Angel episode 1 will transmit on Sunday 12 August on Channel 4, with the entire series available on All 4 straight afterwards.