HBO’s Our Boys is an intricate tale of conflict and loss

Our Boys tells the story of a death foretold as an act of revenge for the kidnapping and murders of three Jewish teenagers.

By
August 13, 2019 03:19
Yoram Toledano on the left and Shlomi Elkabetz on the right in the new HBO series "Our Boys"

Yoram Toledano on the left and Shlomi Elkabetz on the right in the new HBO series "Our Boys". (photo credit: HBO)

It’s not easy to watch the new HBO series, Our Boys, which becomes available to Israeli viewers on August 13 on HOT, YES, Cellcom and PartnerTV, just like it isn’t easy to read a newspaper most days. It’s a powerful drama that aims to be a kind of Israeli version of The Wire – set in and around Jerusalem – and it often hits the mark. “It’s like a Violence Olympics,” remarks a cynical policeman, watching rioting via security cameras, one of many moments that recalls that previous HBO drama about the drug wars in Baltimore.

A co-production between HBO and Keshet International, it was created by three of Israel’s most talented filmmakers and dramatists – Joseph Cedar, the director of the Oscar-nominated films, Beaufort and Footnote; Hagai Levi, one of the creators of BeTipul, the Israeli series about a psychologist that has been adapted all over the world (including in the US as In Treatment) and who also made the series, The Affair; and Tawfik Abu Wael, the director of the drama, Thirst, an allegorical film about an isolated Palestinian family that won the top prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

Our Boys tells the story of a death foretold – the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian resident of Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighborhood – as revenge for the kidnapping and murders of three Jewish teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah. The unrest following the killings of these four boys sparked rioting and, eventually, rockets fired from the Gaza Strip by Hamas and an IDF military mission that led to Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.

Its intricate tale of conflict, violence, discrimination, problematic co-existence and rivalries in and around the capital involves subtleties and sophistication that might well prove challenging even to Israelis who don’t live in Jerusalem, let alone Americans who can’t tell which characters are speaking Hebrew and Arabic. And it’s critically important who is speaking which language in many of the scenes, as some characters are forced to stumble in their second language to make themselves heard, while others always speak their mother tongue.

Some commentators who had not seen the series expressed concern over the fact that it focuses on the murder of the Palestinian teen rather than the three Israeli boys. That’s a choice the filmmakers made and it’s a different story than it would have been had three-quarters of the series been focused on the hunt for the Hamas members who killed the Jewish teenagers, a story that might have played out like an episode of Fauda. Instead, Our Boys looks at how the revenge killing came about, an investigation that was marked by the firm and often-stated belief – particularly after the burned body of Abu Khdeir was found in the Jerusalem Forest – among both police and the general public, that Jews could not possibly have been the terrorist perpetrators.

The series opens with the harrowing cellphone call made by Gil-Ad Shaer to the police from inside the car in which the kidnapped boys were held, a call that was eventually leaked to the press. When played in its entirety, the call dispels any hope that these three Jewish teens were still alive, as gunshots ring out and Shaer’s voice goes silent. Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz, the director/producer who was the brother of the late Ronit Elkabetz and who gives an impressive performance in his first starring role here), is a police detective tasked with keeping tabs on Jewish extremists.

He is disturbed by the huge prayer vigils for the boys’ safe return and worries what will happen when the public learns the truth. Just as much as it is about the murders, the series is a character study of Simon, a man caught in the middle – between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular Jews, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, and police and civilians. Always expecting the worst of people, he is never disappointed.

The first episode, which is the hardest to sit through of all of the five to be released to the press (there are 10 in total) faithfully recreates the surreal atmosphere of those days, when it was obvious that there was little – if any – chance these teenagers were still alive, but thousands nevertheless prayed tirelessly for their safe return. I remember explaining sadly to my son at the time that the boys were dead – that had they been kidnapped, the kidnappers would have made demands, certainly after a few days – not wanting him to be influenced by the fervor around him.

Some parents have told me that their children were told so strongly by teachers and other authority figures that their prayers would bring the boys home safely that the children felt guilty when the bodies were found, thinking that had they prayed harder, the boys would have lived.

Eventually, the bodies of the three teens are found and Mohammed Abu Khdeir (Ram Masarweh) is abducted from the street. There are some excruciating scenes where Khdeir’s father, Hussein (Jony Arbid), is among police officers who all know what has happened to his son but pretend to him that there is still hope – an eerie parallel.

Hussein, along with Simon, is one of the key characters in the series. A contractor who protests that he works with everyone, Jews and non-Jews, and just wants to get his boy back, he is also pressured by the tragic events. He wants his family to mourn their son privately, rather than have him celebrated as a martyr, but is sharply rebuked by his brother-in-law, who tells him, “He’s not only your son anymore.”

The scenes between Simon and Hussein are especially powerful, as Simon (who calls himself Shimon at times, depending upon whom he is with) speaks quietly to the worried father in Arabic.

The series attempts to create a full portrait of Abu Khdeir’s killers, painting them as Mizrahi members of the ultra-Orthodox community who weren’t good enough scholars to excel in the yeshiva world and who resent the Ashkenazi elite, a similar storyline to the one in Yaron Zilberman’s drama, Incitement, about Yigal Amir, which will be released in the fall.

Shlomi Elkabetz in the new HBO series "Our Boys" (Credit: HBO)

I can only guess that the subsequent episodes will flesh out these portraits, and as good as the actors playing these difficult roles are, it’s hard to understand how these confused, resentful young men, some of them still teens, could have committed the horrific killing. Adam Gabay, playing Avishai, one of the killers, is one of the standouts in a cast that includes Michael Aloni (Shtisel), Lior Ashkenazi, Doron Ben-David and Shadi Mar’i of Fauda, Ohad Knoller (Srugim), Tzahi Grad and many others. The cast is mostly men, although Ruba Blal Asfor (Sand Storm) and Noa Koler (The Wedding Plan) are both compelling as, respectively, Mohammed’s mother and a psychiatrist treating two of the killers.

It’s impossible to predict the reactions of the public outside Israel to this extremely complex story. Watching Our Boys is like looking at a Google Earth shot of Jerusalem and then following along as the camera zooms in on certain apartments, houses, dormitories and parks, and examines their inhabitants as if they were specimens observed under a microscope. If you don’t know some biology, you won’t understand what you’re seeing.


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