Tawfik Abu-Wael Talks ‘Unknowns’ Mini Series, His Intimate Thriller Playing Canneseries

Coming off the success of HBO’s “Our Boys,” Tawfik Abu-Wael returns to the small screen with the new mini-series “Unknowns,” a nine episode thriller which is an observational portrait of a group of boys living in the margins of Israeli society. Already in a fragile balance, dangling on the edge of violent cycles and in a world that presents very few opportunities to break them, their lives are thrown into upheaval when a girl is raped in a nearby forest and they become the main suspects.

Commissioned by Israeli public broadcaster Kan and produced by Rabel Films, the series dives into the thriller genre, playing with its tropes while being more interested in exploring the emotional consequences of a crime. The result is a menagerie of deep and complex characters emotionally tangled in a whodunit thriller which unavoidably taps into the social and political  ambience that transversally affects the characters as the conflict between Israel and Palestine escalates. About Premium Content “Unknowns” is selling internationally.

Variety talked with Abu-Wael about his show, screening at Canneseries on Oct. 11.

The time that the first episode gives to some structural beats is interesting in that it moves through some quickly while giving time to breathe to other moments that in a classic thriller would more likely be cut. This could have been done in editing, but I sense it came during development. What was your narrative guideline when developing the show? 

“Unknowns” is a thriller, but not in the classic sense where the plot progresses quickly all the time. Instead, it gives the viewer the opportunity to get to know the characters more intimately through their relationship dynamics, which gives the story more layers and pulls the viewer closer to the characters. This is the kind of thriller that I’m drawn to. On one hand I value the structural plot that the classic thriller provides, while at the same time I seek to get more and more personal. This was my guiding narrative, to take the structure of the classic thriller and insert poetic moments that create intimacy with the characters.

The first episode utilizes a hand held camera that is sometimes immensely present, although it never calls attention to itself. Yet there are very clear moments when you go back to the tripod or resolve an entire scene. What was your concept when designing the visual approach?

My visual approach is driven by the modern thriller style. I seek to find the harmony between two opposite poles; the main element is to have a free moving camera that gives the actors the freedom to move swiftly and improvise in long takes in one whole scene. On the other hand, I try to find the right moments in which the camera is moving precisely on a track to accentuate moments where you have two different plots happening at the same time in the same scene, it serves to build expectations and tension for the upcoming scenes. For me, the visual style is about finding the right equation between spontaneous realism and meticulous realism.

The series is determined to give shadow and grey areas to these boys, and they rapidly become well-rounded characters. How did you work with the actors to find and portray that universe that they inhabit. What did you find in that research? 

The research is from my own personal experience. When I was their age, I was also in a closed circle. As most Palestinians living in Israel, I grew up isolated from the center of opportunities, and in a poor neighborhood where your best chances were to become a construction worker or a criminal. I was able to break free from this circle, which allowed me to understand and identify with these kids and build their characters in an authentic way. My approach with every actor was different, I’ve adapted myself to work with each one of them in a personal way. My aim is for the actor to lose self-awareness and fully emerge into the character. Osher, for example, played a character that is so far from the actor’s real life, and the way to bring him into the character was through practicing specific physical movements and behavior of the character he plays, aside from working on the physiological aspect.

In your previous show “Our Boys” you addressed an event that is directly correlated with the historical moment that both Palestine and Israel are experiencing right now. In your first film, “Atash,” you give dimension to the consequences that this conflict has. In the first episode of this series, it passes by as a comment. Now, after several projects which touch on this issue, how do you find yourself addressing the subject?

“Unknowns” marks the first project where I write and direct in Hebrew and the main subject of the story is Israeli. To have a Palestinian write and direct an Israeli Jewish story is within itself a political act. Aside from telling a good story and building strong characters, the great challenge for me was to portray the lives of these marginalized and rejected Israeli teenagers in a compassionate way. Ironically, these teenagers are also the ones who project their hate and frustration towards Arabs, like myself. But I still wanted to create lovable characters that you care about. Also, the exterior of the story may not look political at first glimpse, but once you dive deeper and up to the last episode, you’ll realize that it’s very political.

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