By Paul Risker.
Permeating contemporary film and television is the sense of an oppression of foreign language drama within storytelling, whose intentional or unintentional objective is the promotion of English as the officially sanctioned language of film and television drama. The words that most aptly describe this enduring threat are those of the French writer Émile Zola: “Inability, human incapacity, is the only boundary to an art.”
Of course, the guaranteed and immediate remakes of foreign television dramas could be indicative of the innocent mining of international narrative for potentially lucrative and successful stories. But the adverse reaction of American and British audiences to subtitled drama only compounds this foreboding impression that foreign language drama is perhaps perceived as the ‘Other.’ Therein, the English speaking populous inherently show symptoms of the frailties that cast them as a “boundary to an art”, whether it is a case that they can’t or will not watch subtitled drama, or whether it is the motivations of the broadcasters whose preference it is for foreign dramas to remain marginalised. Whilst the BBC have actively sought to illuminate the original series’ from their native countries, prior to Hostages (Bnei Aruba, 2013) airing on BBC Four, a rival broadcaster, Channel 4 had previously aired the English language remake. The question of the way we connect and experience international art and culture therein remains a pertinent one, and perhaps eludes to our need for cultural ownership through language in which art and culture is limited still by something as simple as a verbal superficiality.
Hostages is an example of solid narrative storytelling, and the engine that drives this ten episode series is the familiar and cautionary adage: ‘best laid plans’. For in Hostages, every narrative device is directly or indirectly subservient to suspense and tension, and so consequentially plans are conceived for sacrificial purposes: creating a sense of suspenseful order through suspenseful chaos. Its progression therefore discerns that plans must rise and fall, while characters improvise as they respectively – to borrow a phrase from chess – play a simultaneous exhibition,and one that is not neatly defined as a game comprised of the family of protagonists versus the gang of antagonists. Here the filmmakers understand that there is no precedent to create a game changer. Rather their only obligation is to tell a familiar story well, and if they create certain narrative and archetypal dynamics and then put these pieces into play correctly, the result will be a compelling tale. But behind this veil of ‘the plan’ within the show there is ‘the plan’ behind the show, as the writers and directors who through misdirection, hidden motivations or machinations merge with a much older type of performance to successfully create a piece of dramatic narrative fiction that offers the audience an opportunity to bask in the warmth of familiarity.
The sheer age of narrative storytelling across film and literature as well as oral tradition passed down through the ages forces us to consider that there is no authentically original narrative waiting to emerge from the next master of narrative fiction. The truth that pervades narrative fiction is that every story is recycled. Interviewing illustrator and writer turned filmmaker Marjane Satrapi recently, she stated: “With Citizen Kane (1941) Orson Welles came along and he just invented everything, and then after Citizen Kane Stanley Kubrick created the rest of it. So there is nothing really to discover. Rather it is more about the language and you have to find your own, because it is about how you tell the story, and then it becomes your own personal language.” And perhaps for all intents and purposes this is the way these Israeli storytellers chose to tell this story. It was not their intention to create anew but rather bask in the familiar warmth of the sun, and dance with the archetypal collapse and improvisation of a plan that masks ulterior motives to create an enjoyable and rewarding ten episode drama. And perhaps Hostages is a reminder that in the right hands the familiar will always have a place within narrative fiction.
Following on from another recent Israeli drama Prisoners of War (Hatufim, 2009), what is immediately refreshing about Hostages is that it subverts our expectations. Prisoners of War centred on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and it was inevitably anticipated that Hostages‘ plot—a surgeon whose family is held hostage as leverage to force her to kill the Israeli prime minister—would tap into the same conflict raging in this region of the world. From the outset, however, Hostages makes it clear that this is not a Palestinian-Israeli scenario but rather an Israeli insular set drama. If the antagonists subvert our expectation then the drama’s lead protagonist Dr. Yael Danon (Ayelet Zurer) functions within a familiar moral sphere for this archetypal character, who intrigues us and therein draws our gaze because she is torn. It is not just a loyalty to her family she feels but also to social ideals: her internal hardcoding tells her that murder is an immoral absolute. Danon is a character that holds up an optimistic mirror to humanity and asserts that as individuals we are basically good and our inclination is to pursue a means to do the right thing despite external pressures. But look deeper and Danon is a powerful reflection on the strength of the conflict that rages between our moral instincts and our survival and maternal or parental instincts.
If there is a weakness to be found in Hostages then it is the eventual descent into chaos that upsets the tense evolution from chess match to family drama that unearths secrets and reveals that the family unit are in fact a family of four individuals, just as the antagonists are divided. But the evolution from a chess match to a series of personal dramas, as Danon’s schemes to thwart her captors, serves only to bring into play everyone’s own motivations, secrets and exposes all involved to uncertainty. The gamesmanship does not stop per say, but rather what we have is a descent into chaos before emerging on the other side to discover the resolution. In a way it is a calm before the storm followed by the calm after the storm, and whilst action sections of such narratives are typically less stimulating, they serve an important purpose. Ultimately, a breakdown is required before order can resume and these chaotic and action-orientated mini-episodes also evolve the relationship dynamics as well as the narrative.
True to form, the limitations of film and television compared to literature casts us in a reactive role: unable to enter the mind here of Danon who we empathise with and root for. Throughout the experience of Hostages one is never manipulated. In spite of the medium’s restrictions on being privy to Danon’s thoughts, we are forced to play catch up with both our guide and the narrative as she navigates the personal and the professional; the social and the national moral quandary that confronts her. But by the point of the series’ conclusion we have caught up with Danon as we find ourselves standing side by side with her to encounter whatever fate the storytellers have had in store for us both.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.
Hostages is available on DVD and Digital Download courtesy of Arrow Films.