Generation of Generals

Project: Slaves of the Sword
October 1, 2003

Project: Slaves of the Sword

Description: A 3 x 1-hour documentary series offering a critical examination of why Israelis have repeatedly elected military men to find a path to peace in the Middle East. By profiling three of Israel’s most significant leaders – Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, all ex-generals – the doc will show how soldiers-turned-politicians have shaped the country’s history. Looking forward, it asks: Will there ever be peace so long as fighters lead the way?

Producers: Liran Atzmor and Noemi Schory, Belfilms (Israel)

Distributor/executive producer: Esther van Messel, First Hand Films (Switzerland)

Director: Paul Jenkins (U.K.)

Copro partners: BBC (U.K.), ARTE (France/Germany), ZDF/ARTE (Germany), Noga/Channel 8 (Israel)

Associate partners: VRT (Belgium), TV 2 Denmark (Denmark), YLE TV2 (Finland), SBS (Australia), Alliance Atlantis – History Television (Canada), VPRO (the Netherlands)

Budget: 870,000 euro (US$983,000)

The years 1973, 1983 and 1993 were milestones for Israel and the Middle East. The first saw former Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan lead his country into the Yom Kippur War, the disastrous results of which motivated him to seek reconciliation with Egypt. Five years later, as minister of foreign affairs, Dayan signed the Camp David Agreement, the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country. The early 1980s witnessed the Lebanon War, a futile action pursued by then Israeli minister of defense Ariel Sharon. Sharon was stripped of his title after an official tribunal found him responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians. Yet, in January 2003, he was elected to a second term as prime minister of Israel and today is considered one of the country’s most popular leaders. Lastly, negotiations in the 1990s between former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and chairman of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat resulted in the Oslo Peace Accord. Sadly, the first Israeli leader to publicly shake hands with a Palestinian leader also suffered the first political assassination in Israel’s history.

In early 2002, Liran Atzmor and Noemi Scholey of Belfilms in Tel Aviv hit upon the idea of examining Israel’s recent political history by profiling its three most influential leaders. Each had been a general in the Israeli army, fighters since they were teens. How equipped were they to look for diplomatic solutions to the escalating crisis in the Middle East? Weaving archive footage with newly shot interviews, the team hoped to conduct a critical investigation into why Israelis continue to elect military men to lead the country, and how this pattern has shaped policy.

‘The most important thing was to examine the theory that generals affect and influence, from a military perspective, Israeli politics, even after leaving the army and becoming politicians,’ says Atzmor. ‘While we wanted to make films from a very defined point of view, we also wanted them to be classic enough to withstand time.’

November 2001: During the Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries in Amsterdam, BBC ‘Storyville’ commissioning editor Nick Fraser approaches Esther van Messel of First Hand Films in Zurich and says, ‘We should do something on Moshe.’

In the wake of world events, Fraser noticed that most media outlets, including the BBC, were grappling with how to explain Israeli society and democracy. Then, shortly before the forum, he read Amos Elon’s Blood-Dimmed Tide, a collection of essays, one of which profiles Dayan and questions the validity of his reputation as a great general.

‘Dayan was a very flamboyant and wonderful character. He was sort of the first Israeli celebrity,’ says Fraser. ‘I thought a film about Dayan would be a palatable way of exploring what Israeli society is and what the relationship is in Israel between the military and politicians, because Dayan was both.’

On returning to Switzerland, van Messel contacts Liran Atzmor of Belfilms in Tel Aviv and tells him about Fraser’s suggestion. Atzmor and his partner Noemi Schory are already considering how to do a film to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, in which Dayan played a crucial role. Naturally, they are interested in the idea. Van Messel asks them to prepare a one-sheet.

December 2001: Atzmor and Schory send van Messel a single-page description for Citizen Dayan, a one-hour profile of Moshe Dayan. ‘We liked the humor in the name and the promise of an historical film that would feel edgy,’ recalls Atzmor. ‘We even had an idea to film in black and white to give a Kane look to the film. But, Esther thought – and she was right – that we must not turn it into a parody, to keep the classical look of a history film and put our criticism and point of view into the subtext of the film.’

Van Messel sends the proposal through to Fraser, who immediately gives his approval.

Early 2002: Belfilms approaches Sinai Abt, head of programming at Israeli pubcaster Noga/Channel 8, about Citizen Dayan. ‘It’s the only channel in Israel that does serious documentaries, and the only one that does international coproductions,’ explains Atzmor. With the BBC on board and the doc timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the project – now with an estimated budget of about US$300,000 – seems perfect. Noga/Channel 8 commits to the film.

Fraser confirms his commitment for £50,000 ($80,300). First Hand Films puts up a minimum guarantee of 20,000 euro ($22,500) and agrees to handle world sales.

April 2002: The producers and Abt pitch Citizen Dayan at the The Israel Forum for International Co-Productions in Tel Aviv. The increased violence in Israel means few international commissioning editors attend. Hans Robert Eisenhauer, head of topical evenings for ARTE G.E.I.E. in Strasbourg, France, does make the trip, but has to depart prior to the pitch. Before he goes, he leaves a message with forum moderator Pat Ferns, saying he’s interested in supporting the project. Philippe van Meerbeeck, commissioning editor of docs for public broadcaster VRT in Brussels, is also keen. After the pitch, he suggests to Atzmor that the concept be expanded to a series that examines other Israeli leaders.

Atzmor runs back to the Belfilms office and raises the idea of a series with van Messel and Schory. Van Messel is immediately enthusiastic, but both producers are skeptical about pulling together a larger project by the target delivery date of autumn 2003.

Then, they hit upon the idea of examining the country’s ex-generals-turned-politicians – Dayan, plus Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. Says Atzmor, ‘The minute we had the idea of the three generals and understood the meaning this has had for Israeli society and policy through the last threes decades, we felt we had a reason to fight hard on the financial side.’ The timing of the project remains appropriate, since it’s also the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Agreement and the 10th anniversary of the Oslo Peace Accord.

Discussions begin with the coproduction partners about expanding the project to a series. Happily, all agree and increase their original funding proposals.

June 2002: The copro partners meet at Sunny Side of the Doc in Marseille, France, and launch the 3 x 1-hour series. The group now includes Olaf Grunert and Martin Pieper of ZDF, which shares the funding burden with ARTE (ZDF backs the films on Dayan and Rabin; ARTE funds the Sharon episode).

London-based Paul Jenkins is suggested to direct. He worked with Fraser on A Cry from the Grave (1999), Milosevic: My Way (2001) and others. He was also an officer cadet in the British army. Says Fraser, ‘If his films were going to be critical of the Israelis, they were going to be critical for the right reasons, because he has an understanding of the culture these generals existed in.’

Also during Sunny Side, Iikka Vehkalahti of Finnish pubcaster YLE TV2, Mette Hoffmann Meyer of TV 2 Denmark, and Mark Atkin of Australia’s SBS show interest in the series.

Summer 2002: Contract discussions progress with each broadcaster. Now called Slaves of the Sword, the trilogy is budgeted for about 870,000 euro ($984,000). Eventually, van Messel confirms that the BBC is in for about 235,000 euro ($266,000), ARTE G.E.I.E. for 100,000 euro ($112,800), ZDF/ARTE for 156,000 euro ($176,000) and VRT for 13,500 euro ($15,300). Additionally, TV 2 Denmark picks up the series as a pre-buy, with Hoffmann Meyer pledging 15,000 euro ($17,000). Noga/Channel 8 is also locked in for 120,000 euro ($136,000). In total, 75% of the budget is secured.

Research begins in August. As content supervisor and editor of the series, Schory manages two people devoted to gathering background information and finding and preparing interviewees. They meet with more than 100 people in Israel, Palestine, Europe and the U.S.. Also, three people research archives.

Images are gathered from sources around the world including the BBC archives and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, the Gerald R. Ford Library and the Jimmy Carter Library. The interviewees also share their private collections. One rare find comes from the mother of the rock musician who performed for Rabin the night he was assassinated. Says Atzmor, ‘We have footage of her son kissing Rabin good-bye at the end of the rally, just a few minutes before he was assassinated. It’s a very emotional piece.’ Schory also oversees scripting and writes the Dayan episode.

November 2002: Jenkins signs on to direct the series. ‘Foreign affairs is my thing. I do a lot of biographies as well, so this was a perfect fit for me,’ he explains. ‘It’s always nice to find projects that work well dramatically – that suck people into the narrative – but where the business of the film is a very sensitive matter dealing with history or policy.’

Later, Slaves of the Sword is pitched at the forum in Amsterdam. The team is still hoping for a North American outlet. At MIPCOM the month previous, it looked like PBS might take the project for its ‘Wide Angle’ strand (produced by Thirteen/WNET), but the U.S. pubcaster ultimately turns down the series.

The pitch pays off. Cindy Witten, vice president of original production for Alliance Atlantis’s factual and BBC channels, comes into the project with a pre-buy offer of CDN$45,000 ($33,000). Vehkalahti of YLE TV2 also commits, pledging 12,000 euro ($13,500) and Jannie Langbroek of VPRO in the Netherlands joins with a pre-buy of $15,000. SBS also comes on board, adding AUS$25,000 ($16,500).

January 2003: Most contracts are officially signed and money starts rolling in. The first sum arrives from the BBC thanks to Jason Emerton in the BBC business office who, in mid-December, delivered the invoice from First Hand Films by hand to accounts payable so it could be processed before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Jenkins travels to Israel to begin shooting interviews. Each involves a half-day of preparation, with the filmed conversation conducted in each person’s native tongue (mainly Hebrew and Arabic) through simultaneous translation. Says Jenkins, ‘You get more authenticity and nuance by doing interviews in the original language.’

Among those interviewed are: Moshe Dayan’s ex-wife and son, Ruth Dayan and Assie Dayan, respectively; Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Rabin period; Henry Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state; Adnan Jaber, a former plo fighter; Palestinian leader Haider Abdel Shaffi; and Israeli journalists Urri Dan, Yeshayahu Ben Purat and Uri Avneri.

Both Atzmor and Jenkins note that having a non-Israeli director gives the interviews an added dimension. Says Jenkins, ‘The actual interview was with me, the Brit, but everyone else in the room was Israeli, except in the Palestinian areas, where it was me plus a crew of Palestinians. To be blunt, it meant there was no bullshit from the interviewees. It simply wasn’t acceptable to start spouting off what they might spout off to purely foreign representatives.’

The broadcast partners are kept apprised of progress on a weekly basis.

March 2003: With such a tight production schedule, there is no margin for error. Naturally, circumstances force delays. The U.S. attacks Iraq, causing uncertainty over the safety of the crew in Israel. Jenkins is sent back to the U.K. until things settle down. ‘It was a bit like a biblical exodus,’ he recalls. ‘I basically got the last British Airways flight out of Tel Aviv, and the rest of the passengers were Orthodox Jews.’ Belfilms considers arranging for the editing to take place in Greece, in case Tel Aviv is bombed. ‘Happily, it took only one week to understand who was against who, and what the risks were,’ recalls Atzmor.

April 2003: Eisenhauer and van Meerbeeck screen a rough-cut of the Dayan film in Tel Aviv, during the Israel forum.

June 2003: Shooting wraps. More than 50 interviews have been filmed in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah and elsewhere in Israel, plus New York and Paris. At Sunny Side of the Doc, the broadcast partners screen a rough-cut of the Dayan and Sharon episodes. From this point forward, the copro partners are sent rough-cut tapes whenever they’re completed. ‘The discussions were very intense and detailed, sometimes to the level of shots and frames. People really felt passionate and involved with the series, and we were happy for that,’ says Atzmor. ‘We received input from 10 of the most interesting and professional commissioning editors in the world.’

Adds Jenkins, ‘This was a real coproduction. Normally coproduction either means the BBC, and then other broadcasters commission a local production house, or an outside crew uses a local production company as fixers. But, this was quite different; there was a real melding of perspectives.’

Summer 2003: Editing continues at an intense pace.

October 2003: Slaves of the Sword is launched at MIPCOM. The series will premiere around the world from October 2003 to April 2004.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.