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‘Our Boys’ Explores the Anatomy of Hate Crimes


“Our Boys” is a deceptively innocuous title for a powerfully unsettling story.

A coproduction of HBO and Keshet Studios, the 10-part series, debuting Monday, dramatizes the aftermath of the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas militants in Israel during the summer of 2014. Two days later, a Palestinian teenager, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was burned to death and found in a forest outside Jerusalem. The series uses the trappings of a police procedural to tell a politically and emotionally sensitive story, which splits its point of view between Muhammad (Ram Masarweh) and his Palestinian family, and the investigator Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz), who works the case for the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency.

Three creators from disparate backgrounds joined forces to bring “Our Boys” to the screen: Hagai Levi, the Israeli co-creator of Showtime’s “The Affair”; Tawfik Abu Wael, a Palestinian filmmaker (“Last Days in Jerusalem”); and Joseph Cedar, a New York City-born, Israel-raised writer and director (“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”).

Although the series is about real-life events within a specific time and place, its exploration of how hate crimes shatter and reverberate throughout a society is depressingly universal.

When I heard about the El Paso shootings, I thought, this is so close to what we are doing here,” Levi said. “It’s not really about Israel only.”

Levi, Abu Wael and Cedar discussed “Our Boys” via Skype from Tel Aviv, where they were editing the season finale. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What was the genesis of this series?

HAGAI LEVI HBO approached me in 2015 and asked me if I could turn an article from The New York Times about the murdered boys into a series. That whole summer of 2014 was a very bloody summer. We all felt it was a crucial story we had to tell.

How did you come together as a team?

LEVI We hadn’t worked together before. I brought in Joseph as a director, and he became a co-creator. Then we brought in Tawfik because a very big part of the story is about the Palestinians, and we wanted one of the creators to be Palestinian.

TAWFIK ABU WAEL Usually when someone approaches me about doing something political, I say no. But this time, I went to meet with Hagai and Joseph and found myself traveling with them to East Jerusalem, where we met the family of Muhammad. We went to their house and told them we were going to make a series. It was a big relief for them to understand that I was going to tell their story.

How did you divide the labor in terms of writing and directing individual episodes?

LEVI There is no specific episode one of us wrote or directed. Tawfik was responsible for writing and directing the Palestinian story line, and Joseph was the director of the Jewish side. But you can’t really divide whose it was. It was a complicated collaboration.

What was it like writing and directing in multiple languages?

JOSEPH CEDAR Sometimes the Hebrew has Arabic in it, and the Arabic has Hebrew in it, and those combinations are part of the story because we all have to communicate with each other. We take terms and references from each other all the time. I really enjoyed the places where the Arab characters can only explain something in Hebrew.

How did you find the actors for the main roles?

CEDAR This is the first time Shlomi has been in front of the camera. He is very well known in Israel as a writer and director. He is also the brother of the late Ronit Elkabetz, who was the femme fatale of Israeli cinema. In an early discussion, we said, “Why don’t we find someone who looks like Shlomi?” Finally, we said, “Why don’t we try Shlomi?” He auditioned more than once, and it was clear not only is he right as an actor, there’s something about his life’s work that made him valuable as a collaborator.

ABU WAEL I like to work with nonactors. You will not find at Muhammad’s age a real actor, so I looked for a kid to play him. Ram had never acted before, but I worked with him.

Once you started shooting, was there resistance from the local population?

LEVI We worked under the radar for three years, with almost no publicity. But a couple of weeks before we started shooting, we had some problems from the Arab side.

ABU WAEL It’s a small place, and there was an article in a Jerusalem newspaper against the series. I suddenly started to get calls from a lot of people I don’t know telling me not to do it. Muhammad became a symbol in the Palestinian struggle — historically, you can speak about Jerusalem before the murder of Muhammad, and after. I didn’t know if I had the power to stand in front of this pressure. In the end, I got the power from Hagai and Joseph, and I decided to do it.

LEVI There was also a Jewish actor who was supposed to play a rabbi and left the series because he realized what the series is about.

How did you balance the procedural, personal and political sides of the story?

LEVI On the procedural side, we wanted to be as faithful as possible. We did research for about two years. We took much more liberty in the personal side, although it was also based on things we heard and felt. As for the political, we knew from the beginning we wanted to combine true documentary footage with the dramatized scenes.

When you were shooting scenes of unrest, were you concerned it would spill over into actual violence?

ABU WAEL We were afraid of it. We prepared. We chose extras we could really trust. In one scene, I wanted them to be really angry, and Joseph told me he felt a bit afraid, but it was part of making it authentic and true. We used documentary footage of the riots, and we could match it, so most viewers can’t notice what is drama and what is documentary.

It’s a difficult story to watch. Was it as emotionally grueling to make as it is to view?

CEDAR Absolutely yes. It’s the hardest thing all of us have done. Not only isn’t it an escapist experience, it’s almost the opposite of escapism. It forces you to confront things you don’t really want to.

Why tell this story now?

CEDAR There was something about the summer of 2014. It felt like a new step toward hopelessness. Just the harshness of how cruel these two kidnappings and murders were. How they linked so easily, how they ignited the whole region was different from other periods that had seemed violent in the past.

LEVI And not only in Israel. The following year, from Trump to all over Europe, there was an increase in hate. What we tried to do is explore the nature and anatomy of hate crimes. The most important issue now is to understand these things so we can try to prevent them. It’s very difficult because it’s complicated — there are many layers behind why people do these things.

Do you take encouragement from the recent success of other shows with difficult subject matter, like HBO’s “Chernobyl” and Netflix’s “When They See Us”?

LEVI It shows there is a need for something not only entertaining but much more meaningful and with some gravity, not just wasting your time. It’s going to be a bit harder because it is in Hebrew and Arabic, unlike the others. So it’s a challenge. But we tried to use the procedural side of the story as a device to take you into all these big political issues. We wanted you to be drawn into a genre story.

Is there an overall message to the series?

ABU WAEL I never thought I was making a message. For me, I wanted to tell this Palestinian tragedy and also for Israeli viewers to have a mirror to look at what happened from the other side very deeply. We hope it will open the minds of people.

LEVI It’s about the huge power of incitement. You have leaders who are doing this. You only need one person to think, If people say “Death to Arabs!,” we have to kill Arabs. Or if people say, “Go back to where you came from!,” we have to do something about it. Usually, it’s people who have problems of their own. But if those people meet incitement, this is what happens.

What does the title “Our Boys” mean to each of you?

LEVI The Hebrew character is actually “The Boys,” which carries a lot of biblical resonance. Usually, in Israel, people talk about the three boys who were kidnapped. But we wanted to say that all of them are boys.

ABU WAEL In Arabic, it’s just “Boys.” On one side, there are horrible murderers, and on the other side are victims. But they’re all boys.

LEVI In a way, we wanted to reclaim the word “boys.”

CEDAR Early on, we considered calling the series “Stray Weeds,” referring to the extremists, the killers, who are not the norm. We have to deal with them — we have to pick them out — but they’re not the main crop. Gradually, as we dove deeper into this story, it was harder to call them “stray weeds.” In English, “Our Boys” means “one of us.” That layer exists in the title. The killers are one of us. They are our boys. What this series does is try to figure out how to deal with that.


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