Written by Tom Augustine.
It’s rather surprising to scan the list of series adapted from successful existing Israeli series for Western audiences. Perhaps the most famous is counterintelligence thriller Homeland, but other major series like Your Honour, In Treatment and even Euphoria first saw light as series from this small, conflicted part of the world. More recently, original series from Israel itself have made a splash elsewhere, seemingly part of the same diverse boom that saw Squid Game roar to life on Netflix. Most notable is the vivid action series Tehran, but this month on Rialto Channel New Zealand audiences have the chance to catch another – the intriguing and incendiary Unknowns, a drama that blends pointed social realism with the twists and turns of a thorny police thriller.
The series comes to us from Palestine-born director Tawfik Abu Wael, alongside Guy Sidis (whose experiences as a teacher in an at-risk boys’ school are what the show is based upon) and Nirit Yaron. Wael is known for previous works Our Boys, Thirst and Last Days in Jerusalem, raw and immediate pieces that refuse to look away from the darkest corners of his society. This is true of Unknowns, too, which follows a group of boys who attend a school for at-risk youth in a poor part of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem. When a girl is found in the nearby woods beaten and potentially sexually assaulted, the boys become the immediate suspects of the escalating police investigation, throwing their lives into further turmoil.
This propulsive Israeli crime series – a major award-winner in its home country – is a compelling, bleak vision of at-risk youth drawn into a police investigation beyond their control. Its addictive, crime drama twists and turns are matched by director Tawfik Abu Wael’s unflinching, raw approach.
The series is naturalistic in its execution, employing a handheld approach that is subtle, but which heightens the immediacy of the drama from scene to scene. This is aided by the wonderful performances from the series’ broad ensemble. Of particular note is Amir Tessler, superb as volatile live-wire Osher, a young man who is immediately suspicious, appearing when we first see him with a bloodied hand, but who slowly reveals layers of complexity as the series proceeds. Wael is clearly interested in challenging assumptions, and Unknowns is canny in the way it plays with audience expectations, constantly upending the formula to provide a range of twists and turns that expose the way societal prejudice often works as a deterrent of true justice. It’s a whodunnit told with uncharacteristic bluntness, eschewing the salacious thrills of the genre for a rawness that underlines the characters’ desperation and overwhelming lack of viable paths to salvation.
As the series unspools and the boys get drawn ever further into the police manhunt – headlined by detective Avner (comedian Yaniv Biton in an against-type dramatic role) – the series refuses to flinch, laying out the stark particulars of the investigation with a commendable seriousness. Wael refuses to alleviate the tension or to steer away from the material’s bleaker implications – as a Palestinian man living in Israel, the director’s shades of the political are notable – providing a refreshing take on the crime drama that never forgets the way a single moment of brutality can have unexpected and far-reaching repercussions.
Unknowns series starts Tuesday May 16, 8:30pm on Rialto Channel.
Movie title: Unknowns (Wael, Sidis, Yaron, 2023)
Movie description: This propulsive Israeli crime series - a major award-winner in its home country - is a compelling, bleak vision of at-risk youth drawn into a police investigation beyond their control. Its addictive, crime drama twists and turns are matched by director Tawfik Abu Wael’s unflinching, raw approach.
Date published: May 11, 2023
Author: Guy Sidis, Nirit Yaron, Tawfik Abu-Wae
Director(s): Tawfik Abu Wael
Actor(s): Yehuda Levi, Shani Cohen, Yaniv Biton, Ofek Pesach, Amir Tessler
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller