Conversation With The Creators Of The HBO Series 'Our Boys'

Sep 14, 2019
Originally published on September 15, 2019 11:39 am
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We sometimes talk about shows that are described as television events. It's usually hype - this one isn't. It's a 10-part dramatic series on HBO called "Our Boys" based on events in the summer of 2014, when three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped and eventually found murdered by Hamas militants. Two days after their bodies were found, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem was found dead, his body burned in what we now know was a revenge killing.

The murders led to yet more violence, resulting in a weeks-long conflict that left many more dead and was felt on a global scale. This series, which was filmed in Israel, follows the investigation into the death of the Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. But it aims for both sweep and intimacy, capturing the emotions of people on all sides of the story but especially the families who have to live with the consequences after the rest of the world has moved on.

The series is now in the middle of the 10-episode run, so we thought this would be a good time to check in with two of the show's creators. Joseph Cedar is the director of many acclaimed films, including Beaufort, which was nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign language film category. He's with us now from our studios in New York. Mr. Cedar, welcome.

JOSEPH CEDAR: Thank you. Hi.

MARTIN: Tawfik Abu Wael is the director of the movie "Thirst" which won the Critics Award at the Cannes International Film Festival. He is with us now from Tel Aviv. Mr. Abu-Wael, welcome to you as well.

TAWFIK ABU WAEL: How are you? Nice to talk to you.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Cedar, I'm going to start with you. How did you decide to tell this story? I am particularly curious about how you decided to locate the story in the investigation of the death of the Palestinian boy.

CEDAR: OK. So I should say that there is a third partner to the creators. His name is Hagai Levi, and he invited me to work on this show. The first mandate we had from HBO was to deal with the summer of 2014, which as you described in your intro was extremely dramatic and violent and tragic. There were a few different stories that we looked into. And after a relatively long period of research, we found out as Israelis that we were really interested in the Abu Khdeir murder because it just shocked us and was hard for us to understand. This is before we had a Palestinian partner. This is before Tawfik came on. So we were drawn to this story because we wanted to understand how this murder came about and why the Israeli society had such a hard time accepting that it came out from within us.

MARTIN: And, Mr. Abu Wael, Tawfik, why did you decide to sign on?

ABU WAEL: You know, as a Palestinian director living in Israel, when I have calls from Israeli creators or directors, it have something to do with Arabs and I usually say no. And this time, Joseph Cedar called me. And I like his work, so I found myself travelling with him and Hagai Levi to meet the father and the mother of Mohammed. It was a tense meeting because it was hard for them to accept the idea that Israelis are going to tell their story. And they suddenly went they understood that I'm going to tell their story, I'm the Palestinian storyteller, they looked at me like they are giving me the most important thing in their life. And it was a moment I just understood that somebody decided for me before I even thought about that.

MARTIN: You know, it's gotten a tremendous reaction. Some critics are absolutely raving about it, calling it a must-watch. And the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu - who, it has to be said, is running for reelection - has called for a boycott of Channel 12. He's called the series anti-Semitic. Did you anticipate this reaction or as artists did you just try to not think about it?

ABU WAEL: We knew that it's not a show that's going to satisfy Israelis or Palestinians in general. But I think it's a good thing because when you create something, it's not just to satisfy people. Sometimes it's to make them angry, to make them think and to test themselves, to look at the mirror. So I think this is what the show is doing.

MARTIN: Mr. Cedar, Joseph, what about you?

CEDAR: I do feel a need to just comment on the way our prime minister used the words anti-Semitism when there is actual anti-semitism in the world, using the term against storytellers who are deeply rooted in their culture and religion is upsetting. And it's consistent with Netanyahu's cynicism on other issues.

MARTIN: Well, in a way, it tracks with one of the central questions that the series is asking, which is, whose job is it to think of the public good? You know, whose job is it to tell the truth? And is the truth paramount? I mean, this is sort of the dilemma embodied in the main character, Simon (ph). He's a fictional character. I mean, he's a composite of the investigators into Mohammed's death, and he's struggling with this.

CEDAR: Yeah. So Simon is a operative in the Jewish division of the Shabak. What makes his story dramatically interesting is that at a certain point he realizes that the murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir are extremely close to him personally. There's even a family connection. And he's forced to use his personal knowledge and these family connections in order to collect evidence and ultimately use it against them. So, of course, by his close circle, he's called a traitor. And what he's doing is seen as a betrayal.

This allowed us to deal with this sentiment of someone who feels that he's doing something necessary. He's following his own conscience and doing what he sees as the moral role that he's responsible for And at the same time disappointing and sometimes hurting people around him. So in an interesting way, Simon's character is a proxy for us.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. In a way, isn't he a stand-in for you and for other artists and journalists, frankly, who were trying to tell the truth of a situation in which a lot of people don't like the truth. They like - they don't really care what's true, they like what their side wants to hear.

CEDAR: Right. So yes. And I think part of what we end up with is ambiguous. There is no truth. There's just a sincerity that Simon brings to his job and an effort to do the right thing. As he looks into other options, every incident puts him in a situation that forces him to look at it closely and come up with his own personal moral decision.

MARTIN: What are you hoping that Israeli audiences will take from it? And what are you hoping that international audiences will take from it?

CEDAR: Having an Israeli Jewish audience identify with the grief of the other side is, I think, really a tremendous achievement if it works. I think the other thing that I hope an audience can get out of this is we know superficially what this conflict is made out of. And we have this rare opportunity to give the conflict a human face that goes so much deeper and is so much more nuanced than what you see in the headlines. And I'm hoping that an audience that follows through the entire 10 episodes will have just a deeper understanding of the complexities that we're living in.

MARTIN: You know, I'm still dying to know that if you had known all that you were going to confront in making this if you would still have done it.

ABU WAEL: For me yes because it's, you know, I felt it's a destiny to make this show. I can't believe we succeed to make it. It's like kind of miracle in this situation we're living in, this hateness (ph) and this gap between people to create such a very hard story, you know, dealing deeply in the roots of the conflict. And I think we - three of us, you know, would make it again - not right now but...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What about you, Joseph? I know, after that, what are you going to say? But honestly, if you had known...

CEDAR: The answer is absolutely not. The reason this show exists is because of an accident. We went into this thinking, this sounds nice. HBO is offering us to tell a story about our hometown with the HBO budget. But after the fact, knowing what this entailed, it was incredibly difficult, depressing, relentless. No one goes to film school or decides to be a filmmaker thinking that one day he'll be putting on screen characters who burn a young man alive. And this is something I found myself doing on set, getting into the smallest details of how that happens. I wouldn't do it again. And while I was doing it, I was aware that this is something that happened. I'm treating it with the utmost seriousness. But it's not a place where I want to stay.

MARTIN: That was Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael. They are the creators of "Our Boys." It's currently airing on HBO. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ABU WAEL: Thank you very much.

CEDAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.