An Israeli-Palestinian True crime Story
HBO brings us yet another series about a crises and this one, viewers might be all too familiar with: Israel and Palestine. But “Our Boys” has a true-crime story that may not be as well known, regarding the tensions that were created over kidnappings in the summer of 2014, which were in political reaction to each other.
“Our Boys” is very much like a missing child epic with its first episode (of 10) starting with the disappearance of three Israeli boys in Jerusalem. By the end of episode one, their bodies have been discovered, and the police are trying to keep an eye out for any revenge plots, while at the same time controlling the public narrative. It was a given that people were going to be upset—and reactive—and even the media statements by the parents of the missing children have to be monitored so much as to not rile up angry crowds.
But then “Our Boys” moves onto a revenge plot by episode two, and in its first big setback, it doesn’t give the opening kidnapping storyline a fulfilling conclusion. It instead focuses on the disappearance of an Arab boy named Muhammad (Ram Masarweh), whose fate leads to another political mess and PR disaster, especially while the outraged people in his East Jerusalem neighborhood scream for justice, and start to become destructive. We have a personal angle by following his grieving father, Hussein (Jony Arbid), who learns in due time that his son is no longer as private affair, but that of hundreds of thousands of people. He watches a wave of people forcefully claim his son (so to speak), and he realizes that he has a better chance at changing the literal direction of the angry crowd than in having a proper private sense of grief.
“Our Boys” becomes a kind of procedural into investigating the disappearance, as police collaborate with the Israel Security Agency (known as Shabak) to use expansive surveillance, hacked phones, and anything else they can use to hear or see to track possible suspects. The main investigator Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz) moves back and forth from a monitor-filled control room to the streets, sometimes wearing his yarmulke as a means to go under cover, investigating some Jewish men who could be related to the incident. But tensions are so high that arrests must be 100% certain, otherwise the turmoil across the land could get worse. We go through the step-by-step process.
Even with a story like this, given all of its inherent conflicts, “Our Boys” is frustratingly slack. Part of that feels to be because of its length—it’s a series that runs for ten 55-minute episodes, and seemingly features every minor interaction that could possibly move the plot along. However, visual storytelling feels limited to handheld camerawork and cross-cutting between different narratives. Had the narrative been curated carefully with its investigative beats, the series would retain the necessary tension that causes the strong cast. to often wrestle with massive emotions in a time of personal and political strife becoming intertwined. The series wants to get into everyone’s head, and only sometimes conveys the urgency of a parent’s pain, or the anger of someone who feels attacked, wanting to retaliate. We spend a fair amount of time with a group of young Jewish men, including the meek Avishai (Adam Gabay) and his leader, Yosef (Ben Melech), himself the son of a revered rabbi. It’s in these long stretches, watching these men as they celebrate the Sabbath—and sneak away to break its rules that “Our Boys” wants to pull some truth out of the religious, conservative community but “Our Boys” can’t quite do so and this causes the pacing of the series to suffer.
The series’ intrigue appears to be held together by Shlomi Elkabetz, whose performance as the investigator at the center is calming but weighed down. His constant slouch and cool nature shows him to be someone who is methodical and yet privately imperfect and this is certainly often more fascinating than the muted conversational scenes he’s always in.
The biggest curiosity within “Our Boys” is in hearing both sides, while not casting judgment. It bounces around between different sides and always points out their neighborhoods, and every now and then you’ll see the distinction between how someone who is Jewish or Arabic feels about the injustice at hand. Everyone has an assumption about who could have done such unspeakable things, and it’s based on their biases. Effectively, “Our Boys” even plants these characters within news footage, and expands the scope of the story from the image of intimate conversations to massive, raucous crowd scenes, the latter provided by footage from the real events.
One has to give HBO credit for bringing this project to life but “Our Boys” feels like a saga that desperately needs to be reined in, especially as it can’t even maintain the sense of nervous conflict that initially inspired it.
Five years ago, the murder of four teens sparked a 50-Beginning on June 12, 2014, when three Israeli Jewish adolescents hitchhiking home from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank went missing. Their disappearance led to a wide-ranging search for their abductors, called “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” which saw the arrest of hundreds of Palestinians.
The search efforts ended on June 30 when the teens’ bodies were discovered in a field near Hebron. (The suspects, Hamas members Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu-Isa, remained at large until they were killed by the IDF in a September 23 shootout.) On July 2, a day after the teens were buried, three Jewish settlers seeking revenge for their death abducted a 16-year-old Palestinian boy from the steps of his father’s store in Shuafat, East Jerusalem. The boy’s burned body was found in a forest on the outskirts of the city.
By July 8, in the midst of responding riots in Arab neighborhoods and rocket fire from the Gaza strip, Israel and Gaza were at war. These killings and the conflict that followed — codenamed “Operation Protective Edge” by the IDF are still vivid in the collective memory of Israelis and Palestinians, but accounts of precisely what happened often diverge. When filmmakers Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael came together to make a fictional portrait of these events, they decided the best practice would be to allow for contradictions.
The audience will get two separate stories around the same event,” Cedar told The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren. To capture these dual narratives, Cedar, an Israeli Jew, wrote and directed the scenes that followed the Israeli Jewish narrative, and Abu Wael, the Palestinian thread of the story. In cases where the plots overlapped, both directors were on set. However, the point of view of the series was filmed in Israel by an Israeli studio and is predominantly Israeli.
Abu Wael has stated that “[Hamas] didn’t start [the conflict] with the kidnapping of the three boys” and “Palestinians are killed every week by Israeli soldiers, they have permission to do it because of the occupation.” But the first two episodes take an even-handed but at times evasive approach.
The show opens with real-world news footage about the missing hitchhikers, 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah. Levi said that the filmmakers judged that a dramatization of the teenagers’ abduction would be too close to home. However, the parents of the murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir gave their blessing for him to be included as a character and the final days of his life occupy much of the series’ first episode. His death is kept offscreen; the search for its perpetrators is what drives the early action.
“Our Boys” in its early episodes is a kind of crime procedural focused on the death of Abu Khdeir reflecting on the nature of Israeli “aggression,” rather than victimhood.
The series begins as the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, tries to get ahead of any plans Jewish nationalists might have to retaliate against Palestinians for the murder of Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrah. After Abu Khdeir is abducted, the nationalists the Shin Bet (known as the Hilltop Boys) serve as red herrings for the investigation. When the Shin Bet discover the burned body, few among them believe that Jews did it, and instead look into whether it was an honor killing.
However as disinformation mounts, the main agent, the fictional Simon (Elkabetz), insists when others don’t (or won’t) that those responsible for Abu Khdeir’s murder are, in fact, Jews. If you remember the developments of 2014 closely, you know that Simon’s hunch is correct, and Abu Khdeir’s murderers were Jewish settlers. The slow unfolding of the murder investigation feels like a concession made to viewers outside of Israel and it doesn’t entirely work. Viewers are likely to see to whom the evidence is pointing well before the Shin Bet does.
The show does not, on the whole, feel like a watered-down explainer for those hazy on the details of the murders. It is also not didactic in explaining the realities on the ground in East and West Jerusalem. But it is specific enough in its inquiry to probe such a relatively local issue as the secondary status of Mizrahi Jews in Israel.
“Our Boys,” despite being made by two separate studios and directors, isn’t harmed by this and its split focus. The stories feel at odds only in that they feature characters whose ideas of the world rely on different narratives of who is aggressor and who is victim. The stories are tied together by documentary footage: of thousands of Israeli Jews flooding the streets after the hitchhikers were found, shouting “Death to Arabs;” of protesting Palestinians, their faces covered by keffiyehs, setting fires in East Jerusalem after Abu Khdeir’s disappearance; of clashes between those Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces armed with guns and smoke grenades.
That seemingly charged footage is, in fact, neutral, because it’s documentary. The creators avoid the risk of playing into any one narrative by dramatizing the events. The video serves only as evidence that this all happened.