Emily Gian reviews “Prisoners of War”

February 8, 2013 by Emily Gian
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The Israeli television series “Prisoners of War” has been airing on SBS ONE on Saturday nights for past three weeks. This is a compelling series about the return of two Israeli soldiers after 17 years of captivity in Lebanon and it is already winning the acclaim of critics and the hearts of many Australian viewers.

Emily Gian

Emily Gian

Prisoners of War

Prisoners of War

The series (which first aired in Israel almost three years ago) won nine Israeli Academy of Film and Television Awards and is billed by SBS as navigating “from delicate political themes to poignant domestic drama, under the direction of acclaimed writer Gideon Raff” (see more).
Raff, who is also an Executive Producer on the American series “Homeland” (which was based on the Israeli format), created the series to explore a contradiction between the way Israeli society fights to bring home its prisoners of war, “then, once they’re back, we don’t want to hear about them anymore. We don’t want to hear that coming back home is just the beginning of the journey and, that for some of them, it’s even harsher than being captive. We don’t want to hear about secret investigations against them or if they’re endangering Israeli security if they’ve been turned. Also, the prisoners of war themselves carry such a heavy burden and guilt on their shoulders that they don’t want to be exposed” (see more).

This is the premise behind this incredibly well scripted and brilliantly acted programme is one that, to my mind at least, contrasts remarkably with both the Hollywood pizzazz of “Homeland” and the blatant historical distortion of fact of the BBC propaganda series “The Promise” which was shown on SBS a little over a year ago. It also contrasts with some of the media hype surrounding real “prisoners of war”, like Gilad Shalit, who was held captive in Gaza by Hamas for five years until his release in late 2011, and of the less fortunate Ehud Goldwasser z”l and Eldad Regev z”l whose capture in an incursion and attack inside Israel by Hezbollah sparked the Second Lebanon War.

“Prisoners of War” succeeds for all of the right reasons and its screening is a welcome development after “The Promise”, with its stilted acting and a script which mangled historical facts in a thinly veiled attempt to delegitimise the Jewish State and its creation in 1948, and to dehumanise its people in their present day struggles. The latter was certainly a different programme but it lacked completely in credibility to those who understand the factual nuances surrounding the conflict between Israel and its neighbours and more particularly, the role of the British prior to the War of Independence.


Emily Gian is the Media and Advocacy Director at the Zionist Federation of Australia and a PhD Candidate in Israeli Literature.



7 Responses to “Emily Gian reviews “Prisoners of War””
  1. Liat Nagar says:

    What an intriguing combination you are, Otto! I’m trying to picture you in my mind’s eye. I’m well used to a ‘Mizrachi’ style Israel, as my second husband is a Yemeni Israeli, whose parents were brought to Israel from Yemen, rescued, with many others, from their predicament by the Magic Carpet airlift in 1949, and he was born two years later. We lived for two and a half years in the Yemeni town of Rosh Ha’Ayin, from late 2004 through to early 2007.

    When you think about the character Uri in the series, in regard to his father, his father actually looks European? No matter if Iris is both gorgeous and smart, as well as doing her job for Israel, I’m hoping she doesn’t end up destroying what’s left of Uri.

    Long before viewing this film series my thoughts have turned to Gilat Shalit and I’ve wondered how he might be getting on in regard to family and relationships, and living back in Israel. Because I’m sure he will be scarred considerably in all sorts of ways and he will need a lot of good assistance and understanding before he can feel in any way healthy. On his release I thought the public, and media, expectations of him were bizarre and ridiculous, and I remember some of his first words being misused by media, out of context, in order to push their own bandwagon. That initial exposure in that way should not have been allowed.

    Between the ages of 18 -20, I read nothing but Holocaust literature (and I’m an avid reader) – I don’t know what turned me to it at that particular time, but I immersed myself, reading everything from William Shirer’s tome ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ to Leon Uris novels, as well as more scholarly works, studying the photos as well, in horror and mortification. It became a morbid obsession of mine for a long, long time, and for some reason I related in a very personal way to it. After those two years, it would be twenty years before I could read another book on the Holocaust or view a film, such was the effect on me. And it was when as an Arts Administrator for the National Book Council in Carlton, I met a survivor who wrote his memoir of his experience in the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau (where his parents and brother perished in the gas chambers) as well as Althammer, Dora and Bergen-Belsen (he survived them all), that things turned around. The man’s name was Abraham Biderman, his book ‘The World of My Past’ was self-published, but shared equal first prize with the historian Henry Reynolds, in the NBC 1995 Literature Awards for Non-Fiction. NBC Executive Director, Tom Shapcott and I administered these awards, and I met Abraham when he fronted up with copies of his book, the entry form, and the most amazing mischievous blue eyes and wide smile. Many weeks later, he popped into the office for a chat and asked me if I’d read his book yet. I said, “no, it’s many years since I’ve been able to read a book on the Holocaust.” He said, eyes twinkling, “please, read mine, then I’ll take you out for coffee and we’ll talk about it.” How could I not read it in those circumstances?! Over coffee we did indeed talk about it, and I remember saying to him, among other things, how glad I’d been to be privy to the beauties of the family life he shared earlier in the book before the horrors of the ghetto proper began. Forgive this long story, Otto, it’s a way of saying I understand how difficult it is for you to watch Shoah or war-time persecutions of the Jews.
    Interestingly, after Abraham won this important literary prize, Random House took up the book and published it, which meant distribution to bookshops was taken good care of, Abraham was sought after for media interviews, and spoke at many schools.

    Getting back to the torture scenes in ‘Prisoners of War’, the problem is that those being tortured are actually impotent, because of their situation, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult to bear. I realise that Israel can retaliate, however, those captured can’t.

    I don’t like finishing on such an awfully graphic note, so I’ll get back to considering what you might have looked like when pulled up by security guards when crossing a street in Israel. Reminds me of my younger son when he first went alone to Israel at 18 years of age, and was the only one removed from the queue after arrival to be carted off for questioning – he could be mistaken for Greek, Arab, Jewish; hard to pick – they said to him, “why is your passport new? you haven’t been anywhere else except for Athens on the way?” And he said, well, it’s my first passport!

  2. Liat Nagar says:

    This is what well-written fiction does best, bring out the extremities and the nuances, emotional and psychological, as well as the complexities of human kind within the fabric of the ordinary. That this film does this so well, with the added dimension of life peculiar to Israel, which is extraordinary and something all Israelis live with on a daily basis as they go about their ordinary lives, is a credit to all concerned.
    Emily’s review is excellent and Otto’s remarks equally excellent for their insight, nuances and comprehensiveness.
    Gabrielle, I was under the impression that the woman who married the brother had not in fact been married to Uri earlier … she’d been involved in a relationship with him that had not had the chance to get as far as marriage yet.

    Yes, Otto, Iris is gorgeous, but my heart sank with the closing scenes that exposed her as ‘secret agent’.
    On a personal note, I’m finding the torture scenes difficult to watch, but that’s my problem. When I find myself in this situation viewing a film, I try to rationalise it by remembering that people in real life have to experience this, so how can I be such a coward as to want to cover my eyes. I would rather these scenes were more implicit rather than graphic, however, that’s not so much a fault with the film as it is with my own sensibility perhaps.

    • Otto Waldmann says:

      Dear Liat

      I am sure you know the old adage, a sign at Haifa port welcoming the olim
      ” Here you can ve good lookin’ , but smart, forget it !! “.
      With Iris, after 66 years of Medinat Israel, they can be both, but only if serving Zionut !!!!
      Strange, I cannot watch any concentration camp Shoah or war-time Jewish persecutions, but the current ME conflict scenes I can. The answer is in the simple fact that now we can reply and defend, but, of course I suffer when MY Israeli mishpuha suffers. I cannot watch the burial news reels.
      Gilat Shalit has ben ha ben sheli, not just because he looks a bit like my little Bubele, same age, but because I feel responsible for his well being.
      Back to the TV series, I hope that everything in them will sink in with the viewers with every frame depicting anything about Israel. One detail, though, THE Israel they are showing us is one so distinct in its identity as detached from the “old” Jewish pre Medinat state, that we, the remnants of the shtetl, must adjust our vision of it. Mind you they are also of the same ilk, but only telling us, in the typical ” ma pitom !!! ” idiom, that they have arrived where we should all accept and understand that THIS Israel is, in fact that millenarian dream of Zion !!!! Thus, most principal characters look very Middle Eastern, Mizrahi as if selected only from Iraki Jews which is ok with me. I look so bloody Arabic meself, that, when in Israel, I get stopped by security each time I want to cross the street, let alone board an Eged bus… Proud of it, I owe my ME looks to my Kiraly Helmec – sub Carpathian Ukrainian/Hungarian/Slovak – Grand Father and thence my Temesvar divine Mother, not to mention my Bucharest pedigree. Can’t get more Mizrahi than that !

  3. Otto Waldmann says:

    Both Gabrielle and Ann are SO wrong, they missed the essence of the series so badly that I would not elaborate on their simplistic, miopic, unfair comments.

    For quite some time I have been seriously reluctant to watch all Israeli films.
    Dramas dwell on intense problems ( what else defines a drama, you may ask !! ), “real life” accounts dwell on dramas and constant conflicts and comedies are so puerile slapstick tha I wonder how the “other” Jews I worship in comedy writing, directing and acting are the very best.
    This one, however is special and very, very good.
    The psychological depictions, vignets of the extreme cases in the series are grafted on a superbly ethched mandane Israeli society. The emotional charges in well selected cases, Uri’s Mother’s letters, had me impressed to uncontrolled tears. It revealed the importance of specific emotional ties to us all Jews. The well versed psychologists that contributed to the refining of the script needed to bring out the massive distinction in the type of intimate relationships Jews develop. On one side parental, on the other one the conjugal. Almost bi-polar.
    The main theme is, to mine, the conflict between the individual and his own society, the way we must read into and UNDERSTAND the relationship between the subjective universe and the acquired civic responsibilities.
    These are extreme cases, the type that are bound to posit the most ardent existential questions about factors that determine one’s response to stymulis of conflicting nature.
    On the rwe see a panoply of everyday Israeli life, but once we indulge into the tribulations of negotiating the presonal condition to the objective impositions, the drama I was alluding to emerges so clearly, gripping in the radical climate of Israel. The personal conflicts of existential debate is enhanced by the overwhelming conflict that demands an ENTIRE society to abandon at times – at least – the individual, subjective traumas of reaching the “right” answers.
    In parts the plot is easy and predictable. Iris and Uri are bound to be an item of interest from the moment one sees her back at the cemetery, let alone the “hutzpah” advances of the Shim Bet agent. But she is simply gorgeous….

    Nimrod has all the expectations of the tried, tested and toughened Israeli together with the dilemas the same arrives at after a long period of detention. Yet the detention here is the one ALL Israelis find themselves as prisoners of a seemingly endless geoplitical testing psyche, one that is BOUND to arrive at the symbolical drama revealed in the TV series.

    Emily, you are so good.

  4. gabrielle says:

    I think the story is a bit formulaic.
    Three men, one is killed, one is mentally ruined, the third seems that he might just be able to recover. It covers all possibilities.

    One woman has remarried, one remained faithful and the one who’s husband was killed is close to loosing her mind.

    I think the second part was much better than the first and the men are brilliant.

    • Ann says:

      I agree with Gabrielle. The fact that Gabrielle has not understood after 3episodes that the dead man was a brother and not a husband and that the demented one was a boyfriend not a husband, shows how poor is the script/translation. The first episode was ridiculous. Never would such men have been allowed to go home immediately. It has improved, although there are still glaring errors. Ever since Terry Waite was returned from his 7?years of captivity, and especially after Gilad Shalit’s return, there has been much written and filmed about the long, long process of debriefing and reacclimitazation. This series is a pure fiction. That is how it is was viewed in Israel. A soap! The acting is very uneven. Why Emily Gian chose to use this very fictional series to critique a completely different one shows that she is not being completely honest as a reviewer.

      • gabrielle says:

        Thanks Ann that clarify a few things. I did miss 10-15 min of the first episode but thereafter I either stopped concentrating or the relationships were not referred to. It did trouble me that the woman who married the brother could in fact not do that because the rabbi would not have given her a get, but somehow I managed to put it out of my mind.

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