For Moshe Zonder, taking dramatic license with true events and historic figures can make a hit documentary or television series.
“You hesitate to change history, but if a subject is very interesting to me it must be done,” said Zonder, head writer for the first season of “Fauda,” the only Israeli TV program to be released as a Netflix original.
“Fauda” focuses on a secret commando unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that is looking for Abu-Ahmad, a fictional terrorist who has orchestrated the murders of 143 Israelis in terrorist attacks.
“The challenge of the series really was making a Jewish audience identify with Abu-Ahmad, a terrorist who had a family, a wife, a mother, children that he loved, and a motive you can understand,” said Zonder. “I think I succeeded in this challenge and I think this was the main reason for its international success.”
During the fall semester at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Zonder will serve as a Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artist in the creative writing program. He will be teaching undergraduate students screenwriting for television, and will also participate in three public programs for the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival on Oct. 11 and Nov. 1 and 11. Learning how to take dramatic license to make an interesting story will be the central theme of Zonder’s time at the university.
“I want my students to have something in hand, to write a Bible and sell their dream to a network,” said Zonder, a Cinema Arts Prize winner in Israel. “In order to write that Bible they have to do it in four to five pages. It doesn’t matter what the platform is, I teach the same basic writing whether it’s a short film or TV.”
Zonder has almost 20 years of teaching experience at multiple schools in Israel, but Rutgers is his first gig outside of the country. “It’s very exciting because I’ve only had Israeli students,” he said. He spoke to NJJN from Manhattan, where he is living with his wife and 17-year-old son during his U.S. stay. Zonder’s second son remains in Israel, where he is serving in the IDF.
The Holon resident, who has a degree in fine arts from Tel Aviv University, was an investigative reporter for 13 years, starting in 1990, at two Israeli daily newspapers, Maariv and Hadashot (which closed in 1993). Zonder began his screenwriting career with the feature film “Zohar,” co-written with Amir Ben-David.
The 1993 film is about Zohar Argov, an Israeli singer of Yemenite descent who “became an icon in Israel,” Zonder said of Argov, who was known as “the King of Mizrachi music.”
“He had a very tragic life and became a junkie and died [in 1987],” he said.
The project became a jumping off point for Zonder’s writing career that has focused on bringing real events and personalities to life.
“I do docu-drama, which is a very unique genre, combining documentary and drama and is based on and even inspired by true events,” he said. “You write about things that happened or might have happened by getting to know the character.”
By studying the character, Zonder said, you get a feel for what actions he or she might take in a given situation, which “gives you the confidence” to take some dramatic license.
Another project with meaning for Zonder was the 2008 coming-of-age feature film “Burning Mooki,” because “it is an intimate script written about my childhood” as the son of a Holocaust survivor mother scripted “with a lot of love and pain.”
In 2015 “Fauda” was released, as was “Sabena,” a docu-drama film about the 1972 hijacking by four members of the Black September Organization of a Sabena airplane flying from Brussels to Tel Aviv via Vienna.
“It’s a really amazing story,” said Zonder, who was especially in awe of Reginald Levy, the captain of the plane who happened to be a British Jew. “I always thought [he] was on the side of Israel but working on this film and listening to his voice, I realized he wasn’t for the side of Israel, but was for the side of his passengers. He was more interested in their safety.”
Adding intrigue to the story, Zonder learned, the hijacking took place on Levy’s 50th birthday and he and his wife, one of the passengers, were planning a celebratory dinner at a Tel Aviv restaurant. Levy never revealed to the hijackers —two male and two female — that she was on board.
Once the plane landed at Lod Airport (later Ben-Gurion), Levy sent a coded message to Israeli authorities. A rescue operation, with a team of 16 Sayeret Matkal commandos, was led by Ehud Barak, a future prime minister of Israel. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also a team member and was wounded in the exchange. One passenger was killed and another was injured. The male hijackers were killed during the mission and both female hijackers were captured and sentenced to prison; they were eventually freed in a 1983 prisoner exchange.
Zonder said he met with one of the hijackers, Theresa Halsa, an Arab Christian living in Amman, Jordan, for “her version of the story.” (The second one had died of cancer.)
“It was so fascinating to hear from the mouth of one of the hijackers,” he said of Halsa, who was only 18 at the time of the crime. “It was interesting because we always teach our enemy is cruel and not human, not just in Israel but in every nation.”
That point is dramatically illustrated in both “Fauda” and “Sabena,” Zonder said. “I thought it was important to show the other side and not make Palestinians villains, but to treat them as human beings,” he said. “I know I’m a Jewish scriptwriter and maybe if I were Palestinian I would do it differently, but I try my best to show both sides.”
Among his current projects is writing a dramatic series about Israel’s efforts to counter the Iranian nuclear program, and a dystopian series set in the future where Israel is ruled by a king who builds a Third Temple in Jerusalem.
The Visiting Israeli Artists Program is an initiative of the Israel Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based academic organization aimed to enhance knowledge about modern Israel by bringing Israeli filmmakers, choreographers, musicians, writers, and visual artists to universities and other cultural organizations in North America for residencies. It was founded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in 2008.