Based on a true story: one film highlights historical terrorism in Israel

A film debuts about the hunt for ‘The Engineer,’ notorious Palestinian bomb maker Yehiyah Ayyash

 EMILE HIRSCH and Oshri Cohen as Shin Bet agents pursuing ‘The Engineer,’ Yehiyah Ayyash.  (photo credit: 2B Films)
EMILE HIRSCH and Oshri Cohen as Shin Bet agents pursuing ‘The Engineer,’ Yehiyah Ayyash.
(photo credit: 2B Films)

The Engineer, a new Hollywood action-thriller set in one of Israel’s most politically turbulent and socially traumatic times of the mid-1990s, made its world premiere this week at Mammoth California’s International Film Festival. The fast-paced film follows the Shabak manhunt and targeted killing of notorious Palestinian bomb maker Yehiyah Ayyash (“The Engineer”).

The man behind the film, which is scheduled for worldwide release this spring, is Israeli-born actor, director and sometime screenwriter Danny Abeckaser, who teamed with Israeli producer Yoav Gross.

Although born to first-generation Israeli parents and living the first nine years of his life in Haifa, Abeckaser’s parents moved the family to Brooklyn for career prospects. Abeckaser has certainly made the most of the move, transforming a very successful career as a New York City nightclub promoter to now equally successful career as a Hollywood filmmaker, who can effortlessly wear several hats.

Abeckaser considers himself a storyteller who had several motivations behind making The Engineer, filmed entirely in Israel.

“If I’m going to tell a story like this, I’m going to tell the biggest story. It was the biggest manhunt in the history of Israel; it changed the whole landscape of Israel. The suicide bus bombs came to the heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, affecting everyone – kids, women, all the people; it changed everyone’s lives. I wanted to tell this story.”

Archival footage from terrorist acts of the past

The film deftly interweaves documentary-style archival footage of the key heartbreakingly traumatic events of 1993-1996, recreating suicide bus bombings using live action combined with the latest filmmaking technology. 

Dramatic storytelling and special effects seemingly blow the audience out of their seats. Through effective character development Abeckaser, whom everyone calls “Danny A,” tells the manhunt story through the eyes of Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) agents, including the super-secret Mistaharavim unit that infiltrated Gaza in extremely high-risk efforts to locate and eliminate Ayyash. 

Abeckaser’s film showcases news footage of key events, such as the signing of the Oslo Accords, which brought expectations of peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians to the highest level ever previously experienced, and sadly never experienced since. 

Simultaneously, Palestinian radicals were increasingly supporting the emerging Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, which is centered around violent rejection of Israel’s existence through any means, including targeting civilians who are going about their daily lives. The suicide bus bombings had a tremendously traumatic impact on Israeli society, which of course impacted Israeli politics and has reverberated for decades.

IN OWING TO his Abeckaser’s goal of filming an international story, the lead Israeli agent is Emile Hirsch, a well-known, highly accomplished American actor who moved to Israel with his family for the three-week shoot last summer.

“I make movies to entertain people. Number one it has to be entertaining,” Abeckaser said in a recent interview.

“I don’t want to tell the story through the eyes of one side, it’s not fair. This guy [Ayyash] was recruited by Hamas, had an engineering degree, but was barred by Israel from pursuing his career in Lebanon or Jordan. He was a brilliant engineer. Hamas used him to start building the bombs and directing suicide bombers on where and how to deploy them for maximum terror.”

While shying away from saying the film tells Ayyash’s side of the story, Abeckaser says, “I’m telling the story for a wide audience, giving all the factual information of what happened, how it happened, and showing that the effect was killing innocent people, disrupting everyday life. It doesn’t matter what your views are on the conflict, what he did was just wrong. We think the world should see it, so we tell it in an action-thriller format.”

Abeckaser had another, more personal motive behind telling this story – to make a feature film in Israel with a mixed American, Israeli, Arab cast and crew. Well-known American actors, such as Hirsch and Robert Davi, were joined by Israeli and Arab actors many of whom had never appeared in English-speaking roles for an international audience. 

Another of Abeckaser’s objectives was to give local actors the opportunity to showcase their talents and expand career opportunities. He also recruited a local, very seasoned director of photography, Barry Markowitz, a relatively new immigrant to Israel with extensive big-title Hollywood successes in his portfolio.

“I can’t say enough about working with Danny,” says Markowitz about working with Abeckaser. “He’s a giver; he likes to make people feel good, he’s very gracious and talented enough to wear many hats, which reminds me of Rob Reiner.”

Says another local Israeli actor, Dan Mor (Beauty Queen of Jerusalem) on working with Abeckaser, “He knew exactly what he wanted, created a good atmosphere on the set.

“Getting the part, working with American talent was an amazing experience for all of us. To be part of something so big and tell this story, it’s one of the reasons I’m an actor.”

Last May, Abeckaser married Israeli actress/model May Almakaies, who plays a small but important opening scene in the film. The two welcomed the birth of their son this week in Israel.  Earlier last year, he had finished another new feature film, Gemini Lounge, set in his native Brooklyn and also based on true events, which opened this year.

Momentum for The Engineer’s big-screen theatrical release will undoubtedly be positively impacted by receiving three nominations at the Mammoth International Film Festival: Best International Film; Best Actor, Emile Hirsch, and Best Director, Danny Abeckaser.

The Engineer will open in Israeli theaters this summer.