On Saturday night, I watched the first episode, on SBS television, of the 10-part Israeli television series, Prisoners of War (Hatufim), often cited as the inspiration for its US counterpart, Homeland*- yet another facet, albeit this time in the cultural domain, of that most peculiar political phenomenon, the Israeli tail wagging the American dog.
Both entertainments, of course, draw on, and feed into, the fears and prejudices of the deeply Arabo- and Islamo-phobic societies which produce them, so it should come as no surprise, at least as far as the first episode is concerned (the only one I intend watching BTW), to know that those into whose hands the eponymous prisoners had fallen are portrayed as diabolical monsters who have no compunction whatever when it comes to messing with Israeli minds or torturing Israeli bodies.
Now I may be wrong, but, given the anti-Arab racism that pervades Israeli society, I'd expect the malignity and brutality of our heroes' captors to remain a key feature of the entire series.
While most of the episode centres on the human interest story of people, essentially presumed dead, coming back to life after a prolonged absence (in this case 17 years) and impacting uncomfortably on the lives of families, most of whom have moved on, a paranoid dimension is introduced with the concept of the Manchurian Candidate - namely, the unsettling idea that these prisoners have been captured by an enemy so irredeemably evil that they stand every chance of being transformed into virtual zombies and reprogrammed as enemy agents. The paranoia emerges early in the episode; as one of the 2 Israeli POWs, Nimrod, is about to board a plane for the journey home, his Arab handler farewells him with the words: "Do you remember everything we talked about? God be with you."
That the POWs have been tortured, both physically and mentally, is established in episode one. Nimrod, for example, while attempting to make love to his wife for the first time in 17 years, flashes back to electroshock sessions in captivity. The other prisoner, Uri, whose girlfriend had given up on him to marry his brother, flashes back to the time when, in the fourth year of his imprisonment, he'd been taken from his dungeon, presumably for the first time, and placed in a room furnished with washbasin, mirror, couch and platter of food. A disembodied Arab voice is heard, saying to the scruffy, fearful man: "This is a gift, from us to you."
Uri peers at his face in the mirror - his first glimpse of himself in 4 years. He stuffs himself with food - his first real feed in 4 years. He even crams pieces of fruit into his pockets for later consumption - his first fruit in 4 years. He sits on the couch, picking up an Israeli magazine that's been put there for him - his first Hebrew-language read in 4 years.
When he comes upon an article with the headline Cheating on an entire nation, we know at once that it is through these cruel means that he first learns that his girl has married his brother. Surely, surely, those merciless sons of Amalek could have spared him this!
So there you have it: hellish torture and deprivation of every conceivable kind from beasts posing as men!
Needless to say, exactly what kind of murder and mayhem our 2 prisoners were perpetrating in Lebanon in the first place doesn't figure. Unless, of course, they were doling out sweets to kiddies, patting them on the head and generally impressing on them what wonderful guys Israeli soldiers are.
Apropos that, I draw your attention to the blurb in Saturday's Australian by TV critic Ian Cuthbertson, who'd selected Prisoners as his 'pick of the week'. Apart from recommending it as "gripping television of the first order," Cuthbertson hilariously refers to our POWs as "abductees captured behind enemy lines in Lebanon."
Finally, a last gloomy thought. Is it just me or are you too wondering whether SBS's screening of Prisoners is by way of penance for screening The Promise in December 2011?
[*See TV's most Islamophobic show, Laila Al-Arian, salon.com, 16/12/12.]