Meet the WestEnd girls behind ‘Valley of Tears’

The two women launched their London-based production, financing and international sales company for feature films and television 12 years ago.

SHARON HAREL-COHEN (left) and Maya Amsellem. (photo credit: ERIC SULTAN)
SHARON HAREL-COHEN (left) and Maya Amsellem.
(photo credit: ERIC SULTAN)
When producers Sharon Harel-Cohen and Maya Amsellem heard about Valley of Tears, a proposed series about the Yom Kippur War, they were both instantly drawn to the project.
The two women, respectively the chairman and managing director of WestEnd Films, launched their London-based production, financing and international sales company for feature films and television 12 years ago. A complex, epic and expensive television drama about a war that Israelis are still uncomfortable talking about might not seem like the most logical step for a British company known for international films.
But Ron Leshem and Amit Cohen, the creators of the series, which has become a huge hit both in Israel on KAN 11 and in the US on HBO Max, were able to convince them Valley of Tears had to be made and that it would connect with audiences around the world. Leshem, who has made such series as Euphoria, and Cohen, who is known for False Flag, had been trying to get Valley of Tears off the ground for the better part of a decade when they connected with Harel-Cohen and Amsellem.
While Israelis have been glued to this series week after week and are anxiously awaiting the final double episode on December 7, and the series has been streaming on HBO Max in the US since mid-November, its creators were told again and again that it couldn’t be made. Israelis didn’t want to see a show about the Yom Kippur War, a national trauma that caused a generation to become disillusioned with its leaders, and the rest of the world barely remembered that it had taken place. Besides, recreating the battle scenes would be too expensive. It was a non-starter.
At least until WestEnd Films came along.
“We’d been trying to do television for a while,” said Harel-Cohen, as she and Amsellem spoke via Zoom from their apartments in Tel Aviv. They met with Leshem about another series that they are now producing, Traitor. “But when he mentioned Valley of Tears we were very interested.” Noting that this war had never gotten the cinematic treatment it deserved, she said, “That’s my age group’s war. All the boys were still in the army in 1973 and the girls had just gotten out. It had a very, very powerful effect on my generation. I had close friends who died.”
Valley of Tears was also produced by United King Films, KAN 11 and Endemol Shine Israel, and it took a collective effort to push this unconventional series across the finish line. But the more you know about Harel-Cohen and Amsellem, the more it makes sense that they played a key role in making this series a success both in Israel and the rest of the world.
Harel-Cohen is Israeli royalty through her father, Yossi Harel, the captain of the Exodus, the ship that brought Holocaust survivors to Palestine in defiance of the British regulations and inspired the bestselling book and classic movie. She is married to Sir Ronald Cohen, an Egyptian-born British venture capitalist who is one of the founders of  the social investing movement and also a philanthropist, and she herself is Lady Harel-Cohen.
She started out in the movie business in Israel in the late 1970s, producing The Troupe, the first film by Avi Nesher, who was her boyfriend at that time, and made two other movies with him. Altogether, she has produced 40 films, including Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning Gosford Park; Moshe Mizrahi’s Every Time We Say Goodbye, which features Tom Hanks as an RAF pilot who falls in love with a Jewish woman in Jerusalem during World War II; Bruce Beresford’s A Good Man in Africa starring Sean Connery; Stephen Frears’s comedy Tamara Drewe; and Rodrigo Garcia’s Albert Nobbs, a drama in which Glenn Close poses as a man so she can work as a butler in 19th century Ireland. While Harel-Cohen has mostly worked on international films since she moved to London decades ago, in 2019 she produced Yaron Zilberman’s Incitement, a drama about Yigal Amir, who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, which won the Ophir Award for Best Picture. She brought Zilberman on board on Valley of Tears and he directed the series.
Amsellem is an Israeli lawyer who is also qualified as a solicitor in England, but she was drawn into the film business years ago. Prior to founding WestEnd with Harel-Cohen and Eve Schoukroun, she worked on the business side of such movies as Robert Altman’s The Company, David Cronenberg’s Spider and Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust. About 10 years ago, she got to know actor Lior Ashkenazi on the set of Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, for which WestEnd handled international sales. The two married and have a daughter. While she and Harel-Cohen normally divide their time between England and Israel, both are spending the pandemic in Israel.
MAKING A war epic that recreates one of the most harrowing and deadly battles of that war, which took place on the Golan Heights during the first three days of fighting, in which Israeli forces were greatly outnumbered, was a daunting task, but Harel-Cohen and Amsellem were willing to give it their all. Leshem and Cohen, along with their co-writer, Daniel Amsel, had spent years gathering the personal and often incredible stories of veterans of this battle.
By necessity, the story would be tragic and, if it were to be realistic, very violent. It would be very expensive, not to mention technically difficult, to make the series accurate. Several storylines, such as one that involves a character based on leftist, bohemian writer Dahn Ben-Amotz (played by Amsellem’s husband, Lior Ashkenazi) who is searching for the son he has neglected, and another about activists in the radical Mizrahi rights group, the Black Panthers, might be mystifying to young viewers. The series, which stars a wonderful ensemble of Israeli actors including Joy Rieger, Avraham Aviv Alush, Shahar Tavoch, Ofer Hayoun, Tom Avni and many others, would have to hit just the right notes to make these storylines, as well as the bloody battles, intriguing to audiences of all generations and all backgrounds.
“We like challenges, we haven’t done easy stuff,” said Amsellem. “We knew it was challenging and risky.”
They are especially happy that the series has touched a chord in Israel, inspiring veterans of the war to share their experiences and discuss their PTSD, once a taboo subject. Natal, the Israeli nonprofit organization that helps survivors of trauma, particularly war trauma, broadcasts a message after each episode, inviting Yom Kippur War veterans, as well as anyone who feels triggered by the series, to contact them for help.
There have been discussions and arguments about the war in the press. Television presenter Koby Meidan has been hosting shows with veterans after the episodes, an Israeli twist on Talking Dead, the talk show that follows episodes of The Walking Dead in the US. A Facebook group where Israelis, including veterans, chat about the show has 36,000 members. Perhaps most important, the series has gotten the attention of the younger generation, which only knew the war from history books.
“It’s touched young people who are soldiers today, and other young people around the world who’ve seen it,” said Harel-Cohen, adding that her son and his friends have responded to the series. “People who were there were scarred for life and never talked about it at the time. We weren’t aware of helem krav [shell shock]. It was not defined as a disorder. The physical injuries were dealt with, the emotional trauma was not.”
How they managed to sell the series to HBO Max is another saga. During the year in between shooting and editing the series, they were invited to be part of the Series Mania television festival in France in March 2020, where it would be seen by buyers from television networks and streaming services around the world. Israeli series have done incredibly well in this festival, with Your Honor (which will be released in an American remake starring Bryan Cranston next week on CBS and Showtime) and On the Spectrum, which is being remade by Ron Howard and Jason Katims, winning the top prize in recent years.
“We were rushing to get it ready,” said Amsellem. But because of the pandemic, the festival was canceled at the last minute. They were not sure what to try next during this very unusual time.
“You need a bit of structure to show it,” said Amsellem. “That platform at a festival is important. But then we were approached by HBO. They heard we had two episodes ready and we sent it to them.... They really got it. They said it had to be theirs.”
While there was some interest from other networks, Harel-Cohen said, “I can’t imagine a better home for it.”
In spite of the pandemic, they are still working on a number of projects. One of these is an Israeli remake of Perfect Strangers, which was originally an Italian film about a dinner party in which the guests agree to let everyone read the messages they receive, which ends up revealing all kinds of secrets and betrayals. It will be Askhenazi’s directorial debut and it will star Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon, the duo behind the hit films Forgiveness and Maktub, as well as Moran Atias and Yossi Marshek. Between the two lockdowns, they managed to shoot a new series by Leshem and Cohen for HOT, called Traitor, a thriller about a plane that disappears and which stars Ashkenazi and Niv Sultan, who played the lead in Tehran.
Harel-Cohen and Amsellem said they enjoy working on projects in many genres but that what is most important to them is that they intuitively feel that a movie or series is right for WestEnd. Theirs is a mainly female-run company and part of the company, called WeLove, is devoted to “female-specific content” by women.
“It’s a tough business, dominated by men,” said Harel-Cohen. “The powerful people are men.... But we’ve been independent throughout the years. That makes you strong and gives you the luxury of being able to choose what you work on.”