Last month, a bilingual cooking show was being filmed at Herzliya Studios, featuring two women portraying cooks, one translator and a large production crew. As the Arab cook adds cinnamon to a dish, her Jewish colleague warns her not to overdo it. "Cut!" the director shouts irritably. The Haaretz photographer leaps into action, thinking this is the perfect moment to get a close-up of the stars. But the director is actually an actor, Natan Ravitz, and his "Cut!" is part of the script. The interference of the photographer, who suddenly finds himself caught in the midst of a scene, prompts the real director, Uri Barbash, to shout "Cut!"
The cooking show is part of an upcoming television series, "Okhelet yoshveha" ("All Consuming"), debuting soon on Channel 2. It is the story of two women - Amal (played by Clara Khoury) of Ramallah and Tami (Orna Fitusi) of Givatayim - and their families. The screenplay was written by Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz, author of last year's successful TV drama "Merkhak negia" ("A Touch Away"), which also dealt with the bridging two different worlds; the series told the love story of a new immigrant from Russia and a young ultra-Orthodox woman.
In the episode of "All Consuming" filmed that week, when the fictional director asks the cooks to smile and lighten up, in broken English, and then turns around to quarrel with the fictional cameraman about some minor issue - the women grumble about the men in their lives and how they wish they lived in a world without them. This is a strange statement coming from one of Barbash's protagonists - he directed "Tironut" ("Boot Camp") and "Milu'im" ("Reserves") and is widely considered to be the "macho man" of Israeli filmmaking. "What can you do?" he says. "The men in these women's lives really do make life difficult for them."
Khoury's Amal is a Palestinian who has chosen to leave the West Bank for Rome, where she opens a restaurant. She is forced to return to Ramallah after her brother is shot by the Israel Defense Forces and ends up paralyzed. In his eyes, his sister, who agrees to star in a TV show with an Israeli, is a collaborator. Meanwhile, Tami's son is about to be drafted into the IDF. He objects to her participation in the show - not because "the Arabs only understand power," a common prejudice - but because her actions "weaken him as a soldier." Weiss-Berkowitz says she once heard this argument from the son of a woman who joined the Four Mothers (a protest group that called for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon).
"This series aims to portray an almost impossible encounter that is filled with drama and anguish, but not without moments of compassion," Barbash explains. "It tries to create empathy on each side for the intolerable suffering of the other."
Isn't that problematic - establishing an equivalence between the pain felt on both sides?
Barbash: "The series explores some very gut-wrenching situations. We were inspired by the Parents Circle-Families Forum, an association of hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian families, that have lost loved ones. People don't go crazy about each other, but they do identify with the pain of the other."
Sounds like a series with a message.
"People tend to confuse ideology and propaganda. The series' message is part of our inner beliefs, and we don't hide that. But propaganda is an attempt to impose beliefs - on life, on people, on relationships. Here, it's the exact opposite."
While the scene being filmed may reflect cooperation between the female cooks, in the end it relegates them to the kitchen. Their talk about a world devoid of men comes across as a little jarring as they bend over their steaming pots. Khoury understands why someone might be bothered by the oversimplified "orientalist" approach, as she calls it, which portrays everything as "hummus and falafel," but she doesn't think this applies to the character she plays. "She is such a modern woman, a little like me. A few stuffed vegetables will not change that. Besides, that's not the point. The point is our relationship." Fitusi reminds us that most of the chefs in the world - and on television - are men.
"One of the fascinating things about art is taking stereotypes apart," says Barbash. "Apart from the focus on Palestinian and Jewish families, this series also adds the whole dimension of decision-making in the world of television. There's a director of programming, for example, who leaves the religious world and becomes secular."
What about second-generation Holocaust survivors?
"Oh yes, we've got one. Tami's father," Barbash says straightfaced. "I look at my life and the life of my friends, and that's what I see," he explains. "The problem is not making stereotypes human, but doing the opposite: taking human beings and turning them into stereotypes."
One way or another, the series boasts quite a few stereotypes, and when it comes to languages, as Barbash puts it, "All Consuming" is a veritable Tower of Babel: Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, Yiddish, Italian, even sign language.
'Sense of mission'
For Fitusi, "All Consuming" embodies a "sense of mission." She recalls an experience from her military service back in 1987. "I served in Gaza for a few months before being sent to an officers course," she says. "Just before I left, the soldiers on the base organized a 'surprise' for me. They took me along on a search for a Palestinian militant. We went into people's homes in the middle of the night: A bunch of soldiers, smashing things, throwing stuff around, making a mess, shining flashlights in people's eyes. Children crying. Scared family members looking at us with hatred as they watched the head of the household being roughly seized and led out."
Back then, she was able to convince herself that these arrests prevented terror. Today, as the mother of two daughters, she remembers the wailing children, aware that by now, most of them are probably armed. "I understand where it's coming from," she says.
Meeting with the Parents Circle-Families Forum was an emotional experience for all the actors. "I couldn't stop crying," Khoury says. "People on both sides, who are dealing with their pain every day, are fighting to talk and change things. If we start comparing pain, there is no end to it. Everyone is suffering. But there is a difference, of course. There's an occupier and there are occupied."
"All Consuming" is the second Hebrew-Arabic series to be given a prime time slot on Channel Two this year, after "Avoda Aravit" ("Arab Labor"), and the third one on television in general, after "Parshat Hashavua" ("Weekly Portion") on HOT, which also features Arabic. Khoury plays lead roles in all three series ("I got lucky. I'm on a roll, and I hope it continues"). The different characters all somehow reflect Khoury in different variations. "I will always find some aspect that ties in to me, even if I play Antigone," she says, although she agrees that all three women have something in common: "They are all modern women. I represent the new generation of Palestinians who live in Israel, who have something to say and are realizing a career. The women of this generation are opinionated.
"Actually," she goes on, "the character in 'All Consuming' is different. She comes from abroad. She lives in Ramallah. She sees the suffering every day. She doesn't have the privilege of living a normal life. But she has hope, which, incidentally, is the meaning of her name - Amal." Khoury herself worked for Hany Abu-Assad's theater in Ramallah and East Jerusalem, and experienced the difficulties involved in crossing checkpoints.
"Arab Labor" also addresses many of the problems that are featured in "All Consuming," but does so with humor (very successfully, for the most part). In "All Consuming," Amal's brother accuses her of being a traitor because she has agreed to take part in an Israeli show. In real life, some Arab viewers and journalists are upset about what they feel is a cartoon-like portrayal of Arabs on "Arab Labor."
"No one has complained to me," Khoury says. "Maybe they say things behind my back. The characters we play are caricatures, because it's a comedy. You have to understand Sayed Kashua's humor. The problem is that some people don't know how to laugh at themselves."
"'All Consuming' portrays both sides in a very human way, and it's very well written," Khoury says. "It shows life the way it is. If it didn't, I wouldn't accept it. But it feels as if the series was written by people sitting on both sides of the fence."
In fact, the series is the work of Weiss-Berkowitz alone. "All the characters incorporate bits of me," she says. "Writers know how to put themselves into the shoes of fictional characters. They adopt their identity and know everything about their characters. Identity is what interests me most. The character of Amal, for example, is based on Amos Gitai's trilogy 'Bayit' ('House'), about a Palestinian family's fight to recover their home, which has been taken over by Jews.
"The sad but interesting thing," says Weiss-Berkowitz, "is that the younger generation of Palestinians is living in Europe and doesn't want to fight for its property. Amal and her husband are political exiles. They don't want to be part of the conflict, but in the end family loyalty wins."
So does the series reflect a message that it is "time for reconciliation," like in "A Touch Away," but between Jews and Arabs?
Weiss-Berkowitz: "It's a story about two women who are brought together by life, and a bond develops between them because they are women, and because they are fighting against others' beliefs. It's about the empowerment of women, about encouraging women to stand up for what they believe, although in the end, reality is stronger than the plan they devise. 'All Consuming' is rough stuff. It's not cute and kitschy. The political reality triumphs over the desire to reach out and bond. The message is not optimistic. You can't tell untruths about the situation."
But can you tell the truth without scaring the viewers away?
"I have my fears. I don't deny it. In 'A Touch Away,' they spoke Russian, but they were Jews. This series isn't even about Israeli Arabs. It's about Palestinians, who don't carry blue I.D. cards. This is a more political series. But I hope the tale of two brave women who are prepared to pay a price, and the tale of families undergoing an identity crisis, will dominate. Politics may triumph over the fictitious TV show in the series, but I hope that 'All Consuming' will triumph over politics."