For some years, Israeli TV has punched above its weight. Both Homeland and HBO’s In Treatment were adapted from Israeli originals. Then original content from the country started arriving on streaming services, including Fauda on Netflix. The reasons behind this surge are complex, but it continues and this weekend’s big ticket is an epic 10-part series currently airing in Israel.
Valley of Tears (Saturday, Hollywood Suite, 9 p.m.) in Hebrew with English subtitles, is a stark, tense and gripping war story. It’s about what direct experience of war does to people and to a society’s sense of itself. (By the way, it streams on HBO Max in the United States and here, Hollywood Suite, available on free preview on most cable services until Jan. 4, airs it weekly.) It’s not easy viewing and some of its intentions can be questioned, but it sure is ambitious and feels potent and urgent.
The setting is the Yom Kippur War, sometimes called the 1973 Arab–Israeli War. While the focus is on soldiers and fighting, it’s framed as a turning point in a country’s evolution, with a strong background story about individuals who didn’t want to be soldiers and savoured the open society that preceded the war, with its flourishing anti-establishment, anti-authority movements. Mainly, mind you, it’s about the terrifying dangers and tensions of war itself.
It opens in October of 1973 – two episodes air Saturday – in an Israeli military outpost on Mount Hermon where the officers and staff are mostly worried about getting home for Yom Kippur. A young intelligence analyst, Avinoam (Shahar Taboch), is idly eavesdropping on phone calls in Syria when he suddenly gets a clue that an attack by Syrian and Egyptian forces is imminent. Thing is, nobody believes him. He’s too young and raw to be trusted. Besides, nobody believes an attack is plausible. Even when he shouts, “A war has started!”, an officer tells him, “Get outta my face.” Finally, he convinces one officer, Yoav (Avraham Aviv Alush), who is only there because he missed his ride home, of the urgency. Almost immediately, the outpost is being bombed from the air and tanks are on the horizon.
From there, the drama escalates fast into the arena of outright action. The tank crews are at first cocky, then terrified as the claustrophobia and terror descends on them. The outpost is being overrun with deadly force and a small group must go on the run, fight and stay alive. Woven into this story of war – which is entirely from the Israeli perspective in the early episodes – is a portrait of society on tenterhooks. Three young men, all friends and active in anti-government protests, must gird themselves to fight on behalf of a government they despise. Yoav’s wife Dafna (Joy Rieger), who works at military HQ, must decide to rebel, or not, when she’s ordered to leave with other women staff, for their own safety.
Sometimes the series is sprawling with multiple characters meant to represent multiple strata and tensions in Israel at the time, but for the most part it’s intimate, about the war itself; the deaths, the fighting, the injuries and the toll of the ceaseless danger. It’s very male, very much aiming to dramatize the psychological and physical horrors of war, and implying the burden that places on a country.
Also airing this weekend
There are a batch of pleasantly distracting holiday-themed TV movies, if a stark war story isn’t to your taste. Christmas Unwrapped (Saturday, CTV, 9 p.m.) is new and promises a tale in which, “An ambitious yet pragmatic reporter learns the true meaning of Christmas when she investigates a millionaire who insists that all the gifts that arrive on Christmas Day every year are from none other than Santa himself.” A Christmas Carousel (Saturday, W Network, 9 p.m.) is about, “A woman hired by a royal family to repair a carousel for them before Christmas.” Then, Starring Christmas (Sunday, W, 9 p.m.) offers this: “Dumped two weeks before Christmas, an actress secretly returns to her tiny hometown to avoid the press. Instead, she has to step up to take the starring role in her own life, realizing that home is where the heart is.” If these storylines are part of your perfect countdown to the holidays, go for it.
Forgiving the Unforgivable (Saturday, CBC NN, 10 p.m. on Passionate Eye and CBC Gem) is a soulful documentary – it was in many film festivals under the title Risking Light – about three people who turn their long-held anger and anguish into forgiveness. They are a mother whose son was senselessly murdered in Minneapolis, a man forced into child slavery by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, and a woman in Australia who was removed from her family as a baby through an Australian government program to relocate aboriginal children. It’s powerful, lacking sentimentality and it’s inspiring.
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