Israeli-born writer and director Gideon Raff knows the cost of war. That knowledge, as well as his Jewish background, helped him create two of television’s most compelling dramas.
Raff’s “Prisoners of War” series on Israel’s Channel 2 won the Israeli equivalent of an Academy Award for best drama in 2010 and was sold to 20th Century Fox. Originally titled Hatufim in Hebrew, the show was adapted into the acclaimed Showtime series “Homeland” in the United States.
“Judaism affected the way I write, the way I see the world,” Raff said. “It’s in my education, it’s in my history and in the way I was raised. First and foremost Jews are storytellers. I can’t think of a time my mother wouldn’t shove a book in my hand demanding that I read.”
Starring Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, “Homeland” broke viewership marks for Showtime and won multiple Golden Globes and Emmy awards. Danes stars as Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer with bipolar disorder who comes to believe that Nicholas Brody (Lewis), a U.S. marine who was held captive by al-Qaida as a prisoner of war, was turned into a traitor by the enemy and now threatens America.
Set in 2008, “Prisoners of War” depicts three Israeli soldiers captured 17 years earlier while on a secret mission with their unit in Lebanon. The story begins with their return home after years of negotiations for their freedom. Nimrod Klein and Uri Zach return alive, while the remains of Amiel Ben-Horin come back in a coffin. The series explores the reintegration of Nimrod and Uri into a society that has made them national icons, and into an interrupted family life, while working through the trauma of being held captive and tortured.
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Raff served in the Israel Defense Forces, moved to Tel Aviv, and then completed a degree in directing at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. His Jewish heritage, especially his military service, influenced his writings and is evident in the themes of “Prisoners of War” and “Homeland.” One major difference in the two shows involves their depictions of society’s feelings about war.
“The main reason for this difference is because military service is not mandatory in the U.S. but is in Israel,” Raff said. “Because service in the army is mandatory in Israel, and because it’s such a small country and such a tight community, whenever something happens to a soldier in Israel it hits close to home in every household.”
When he wrote “Prisoners of War,” Raff was living in Los Angeles and was influenced by how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars played out for American soldiers who served.
“You heard that soldiers were hurt and dying but you never saw the funerals, never saw the coffins coming back home, and this was intentional,” Raff said. “In Israel it is exactly the opposite. We are very well aware of the price that the boys, sons and daughters, pay for our freedom. We are asked to pay that price. So whenever something happens to a POW, Israel campaigns for his return because next time it could be me, it could be my brother or sister.”
Raff’s writing addresses a topic he said isn’t usually covered on screen — how prisoners deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Most people don’t deal with it,” Raff said. “When we try to deal with it, there is no one cure, there is no one way to get better. Captivity especially has a very unique PTSD. We do not deal with it because the people themselves, coming back from war, don’t understand that it takes time to realize they have a problem. They want to forget about it and move on with their lives. It is an illness that is very hard to diagnose and see how to help. There are different ways of dealing with it but there is not one cure, no secret or magic pill for this.” Ran Tellem, vice president of programming for Keshet — whose distribution and international production arm, Keshet International, produced “Prisoners of War” — enjoyed working with Raff because he is “not only a great guy, but an extremely talented writer, producer and director.”
“Under his stewardship, ‘Prisoners of War’ became the highest-rated drama for Keshet Broadcasting (and in all of Israel), alongside its acclaimed multi-award-winning U.S. adaptation ‘Homeland,’ has been sold to several countries all over the world from Afghanistan to Vietnam,” Tellem said.
After graduating from the American Film Institute (AFI) in 2003, Raff worked as director Doug Liman’s assistant on the blockbuster “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” which starred Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Raff’s feature directorial debut, “The Killing Floor,” was distributed in more than 40 countries and was acquired by ThinkFilm for domestic distribution.
“AFI was a great part of why I am where I am right now,” Raff said. “You study in an environment where later you grow and work with the same people in the real industry. It was a good program and it helped me a lot. I’m still in touch with AFI.”
Raff is also a bestselling author in Israel, where he completed his undergraduate degree at Tel Aviv University. He interviewed prisoners and their family members as part of his research for “Prisoners of War.”
In its first season, “Prisoners of War” was the highest-rated drama of the year in Israel, achieving a 37-percent share. Season II scored a 40-percent share, making it the most-viewed drama in Israel in 2012. The show won nine Israeli awards equivalent to Emmys, including best director and best drama.
Raff attended this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where attendees got the chance to explore the evolution of “Prisoners of War,” learning how it morphed into “Homeland.” In late 2009, Keshet and Raff sold the format rights for “Prisoners of War” to 20th Century Fox. Raff collaborated with Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, creators and producers of the hit U.S. show “24,” to write and develop the American adaptation. “Homeland” debuted on Showtime in 2011.
What is next for Raff? David Yates, director of the last four “Harry Potter” movies, signed on to helm the pilot for high-profile FX drama “Tyrant,” from “Homeland” executive producers Gordon and Raff as well as “Six Feet Under” writer Craig Wright. Yates replaces Ang Lee, who originally committed to “Tyrant” but pulled out for personal reasons. Created by Raff and developed by Gordon and Wright, “Tyrant” tells the story of an unassuming American family drawn into the workings of a turbulent Middle Eastern nation.
The Fox 21-produced project has a big commitment from FX and is expected to go to series.
“We’re shooting the pilot this summer in Morocco. That’s all I can say about ‘Tyrant,’ ” Raff said.