KFAR QASIM — It's chaos on the set of hit Israeli drama series "Fauda."
Just after lunch on a sweltering September day, the show’s main cast, supported by a large group of extras, is milling about on a leafy street in this Israeli-Arab village. A crew of testy directors, producers and cameramen are trying to get everyone organized.
Makeup artists tweak costumes of traditional Arab garb — hijabs, djellabas and kaffiyehs — and sprinkle fake blood on necks and faces.
Then, as instructions are yelled into a megaphone — first in Hebrew, then Arabic — a classic “Fauda” scene unfolds. Our lead characters are undercover Israeli commandos dressed as Arabs, walking past a mosque in a Palestinian town. Suddenly, a scarf-covered man bursts out of a crowd of supposed shoppers, arm raised with a knife, looking to stab one of the Israelis, who draw their pistols in defense. Their identities now revealed, the Israelis are soon surrounded by an angry, chanting mob. They manage to reach their car and jump in as the crowd pounds on the windows. The driver makes it through the throng, and the director shouts, “Cut.”
But the actors, “Fauda” star Lior Raz and newcomer Idan Amedi, keep on driving. . . . They can’t hear him.
“Cut! Cut!” he screams.
Suddenly, the anger dissolves into Jews and Arabs laughing rapturously together. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been so much fun.
“Fauda,” which translates as “chaos” in Arabic, is filming its second season (premiering Dec. 31 on Israeli TV), and, of course, there is nothing fun about its main subject matter: A decades-old intractable conflict and military occupation that has brought myriad wars and deaths, and eluded a succession of U.S. presidents who have sought peace. The show explores these issues through the story of Doron Kavillio (Raz) and his team of elite Israeli undercover agents as they chase a group of Palestinian terrorists around the West Bank. Amid the action, the characters on both sides contend with their own personal battles.
Despite its dark premise, the show has captured the hearts of audiences in Israel and, since its first season was picked up by Netflix last year, it has spread to the United States, as well 190 countries worldwide. Netflix and the show’s producer, Israeli satellite television company YES, do not typically release ratings, but Raz and the show’s other actors point to the stacks of fan mail they receive as an indication of the show’s popularity. Two months ago, when the trailer for the long-awaited second season was finally made public, Israeli channels featured it in their news bulletins.
"Fauda" cast members have become household names in Israel. The show has also been highlighted by American celebrities including Stephen King and Conan O'Brien, who stopped by the set to film a skit in which he "interrogates" Doron to reveal the address of Israeli actress Gal Gadot.
Raz, who previously appeared in a handful of Israeli films and TV shows, is also the series co-creator with journalist Avi Issacharoff. “It allows people to see the complexity of the conflict and to understand that everyone has a backstory, on both sides, Israelis and Palestinians,” Raz said of the show.
Raz added that sometimes the Arab actors will dispute the way their characters are portrayed, and so they’ll rewrite a scene together. “Obviously, I am Israeli, so I write with an Israeli narrative, but we are also good listeners and will make changes if we feel they are good for the show.”
Issacharoff, a prominent journalist who has covered Palestinian affairs, said it was important for the duo to show Israelis that the Palestinians are real people.
“It is very convenient for Israelis to ignore the Palestinians,” Issacharoff said. Most see little of the Palestinians except through the lens of the military.
The writers admit they did not have high hopes of success when they started writing the series. “It’s the unsexiest issue on earth,” Issacharoff said. The mainstream channels in Israel rejected it outright, but the two shopped it around until YES agreed to produce and air it, and Netflix came on board soon after. Now, Raz and Issacharoff have been commissioned by Netflix to create two more espionage-themed shows.
Raz served in an undercover unit during his mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, and many of show’s plotlines are based on his real-life experiences.
For instance, in the first season, the girlfriend of one of the central Israeli characters, Boaz, is killed in a suicide bombing carried out by a Palestinian. Boaz must continue his undercover work knowing that his emotions must not get the better of him.
When Raz was a soldier, his own girlfriend was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem. The two had been together for three years — she was his first love. Raz said he did not talk about his loss for nearly 20 years, but now, for the show, he wanted to examine the impact of tragedy on a person’s judgment.
“The show talks about the mental price all people who live in a war zone are paying,” Raz said. “In this conflict, it’s like throwing a stone into water — every ripple, every wave it makes affects so many people.”
Hamed, one of the main Palestinian characters in the first season, is also based in real life: on Ibrahim Hamed, one of the most wanted Hamas figures of the second intifada, the violent uprising against Israel from 2000-2006. “Fauda” portrays Hamed as a ruthless terrorist, prepping suicide bombers and plotting the fight for Palestinian freedom while also showing his love for his family. In the first episode, Hamed is hoping to come out of hiding to attend his younger brother’s wedding — but can’t because he’s worried that Doron’s unit will show up.
On the Israeli side, Doron takes the hunt for Hamed personally. He refuses to give up trying to catch him, disobeying orders, and risking losing his family and his friends in the unit.
It is perhaps the intimate relationship Doron forms with a Palestinian doctor, Shirin Al Abed, that most challenges stereotypes, as it touches on the taboo of love between a Jew and an Arab.
Doron initially courts Shirin while undercover to gain information on Hamed but develops feelings for her and eventually reveals his true identity. Shirin, played by French-Lebanese actress Laëtitia Eïdo, falls for Doron, too, only to be left heartbroken and betrayed.
“Shirin is Palestinian, but firstly she is a woman. With Doron, she is following her emotions,” Eïdo said.
She refuses to reveal whether Shirin gets her revenge on Doron in Season 2. “All I can say is that everything you saw from Shirin in first season is harder and more intense in the second season,” Eïdo said.
Raz said that Shirin, though a supporting character, “typifies the show. She comes from France, where she has lived all her life, and then gets dragged into a conflict where both sides take advantage of her.
Raz added, “It’s really the story of how modern people survive in a radical place.”