Prisoners of War/Hatufim, the 2009 series written and directed by Gideon Raff, opens in the moment when the release of three prisoners of war is secured in tense, high-level negotiations. Seventeen years after the army reservists were taken prisoner in the midst of the Israeli-Lebanese war, the men - two alive, one nothing more than unidentifiable remains - are set free as part of a prisoner swap. During the years of their captivity, the men became icons in Israel, with their youthful faces, frozen in time, appearing on billboards and banners everywhere. But the men, brutally beaten and tortured during their imprisonment, are now shadows of their former selves.
They are reunited with their families at the airport in a perfectly executed scene, fraught with tension. Nimrod (Yoram Toledano) has a passionately loyal and devoted wife, Talya (Yaël Abecassis), who spent 17 years fighting for his release, sacrificing her own life in the process. Nimrod also has a rebellious daughter who has an addiction to sleeping with older men, and a son he’s never met, who is about to be called up for military service. Uri (Ishai Golan), on the face of it, returns to nothing: his fiancée, Nurit (Mili Avital), beautiful, and demonised by the Israeli media and public for her lack of faith, gave up hope of his returning alive, married Uri’s brother and had a son. But the real mystery in Hatufim surrounds the fate of the third prisoner, Amiel, who leaves behind a distraught, grieving sister, Yael (Adi Ezroni), to try and come to terms with the death of her beloved older brother.
The men are given only a day after to spend with their families, before they are ‘debriefed’ at a special facility by Israeli intelligence agents, who believe not only that the men are hiding information about Amiel, but that they may have been ‘turned’, posing a threat to national security. Rather than being treated as victims, the men are suspects, interrogated and spied upon by their own government, even after they are allowed to finally return to their impossibly alien homes.
It’s a slick, gripping series, with some terrific performances, especially by Toledano and Golan. Made while Gideon Shalit was still being held captive by Hamas, the series was also prescient, and must have been incredibly resonant when it aired in Israel. But the problem with Hatufim is the sense that Raff tried to make it mean something to too many people. The promise of a tense, political thriller contained in the first episode never quite materialises; instead, Hatufim develops into more of an emotional, sentimental drama as the prisoners, racked with complex feelings of guilt, seek to re-connect with their families. Many of the episodes contain moments that dissolve into unsettling tearjerkers. Even the storyline involving Iris, an intelligence agent who ‘befriends’ the vulnerable and damaged Uri in order to gain information, turns into something of a love story. This melodrama can sometimes seem like a distraction from the most compelling and mystery-tinged elements of the series (while it’s hard to know just what to think of the storyline involving Amiel’s ‘ghost’).
Raff does a brilliant job evoking the problems that POWs face when returning to their families after captivity; it just feels at times that Hatufim is never sure if it wants to be a domestic drama or a thriller. In the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling, after watching the final scene of the first series, that the entire 10 episodes leading to that moment are nothing more than an elaborate set-up, a teaser, to the most compelling storyline in Hatufim. It’s only then that we get a glimpse at what really happened to Amiel. Series two is promised for later this year.