First there was Homeland and Fauda, then Beauty and The Baker and False Flag. Now Israel – which is increasingly becoming the go-to nation for original drama – has churned out another thrilling export, Mama’s Angel, which airs on Channel 4 this Sunday and via Walter Presents, the broadcaster’s on-demand service for foreign language dramas.
The gripping 10-part psychological thriller revolves around prison therapist Yael (Sharon Shtark), who, on the eve of Yom Kippur, is assigned a new inmate, a man accused of murdering his own children.
In a twisted turn of events, Yael’s seven-year-old son, Kfir, is found dead the next morning beside a memorial to air force heroes, not far from the suburban Tel Aviv home she shares with her emotionally-distant husband, Eithan (Yehezkel Lazarov), a former soldier.
Just days earlier, Eithan recalls seeing 18-year-old Ethiopian artist Rafa vandalising the memorial. While a seemingly minor offence, it places him at the scene of the crime and propels him to become the prime suspect, much to the distress of his mother, Nigist (Tehilla Yahayauh).
Old-school detective Benny Mendelovich (Eyal Rozales) must solve the case, but will he agree with CSI expert Na’ama Saddeh (Vered Feldman), who is convinced they have the wrong man?
For writer Keren Weissman, Mama’s Angel marks her first major foray into television and is already reaping critical success, having earned a nomination for best drama at the Israeli Television Academy Awards.
Citing it as “an exploration of motherhood and its burdens”, the mother-of-two further explains: “It’s a story about how each mother is sure that her child is a wonderful creature.
“‘Mama’s Angel’ was a name that came very naturally to me, as it’s something that many Jewish mothers say. I’ve used the term myself many times for my children!
“I originally wrote the series as a way to deal with my own anxieties as a mother. Most of my friends who are mothers feel they can’t watch this series, but for me I found this very helpful. Watching the worst case scenario on television is cathartic in a way. My worst fears come out in my writing, but in real life I’m actually very calm!”
Weissman, who studied screenwriting at the Tisch Graduate Film School at NYU, recalls how the first seeds of an idea were planted after reading an article in the New York Times seven years ago.
“There was this very intelligent woman, who had fallen in love with a man on death row. As it turns out, he was there for a murder that he didn’t do. I kept thinking over about a person on death row and someone actually loving him and then I thought about others who had been wrongly accused. For me, that was my starting point.”
As she formulated the twists and turns of her dark thriller, other elements of Weissman’s life began to inform her writing.
While she was born in the US, for example, she was raised in Israel and has spent most of her life in Tel Aviv, where the series is set.
She also has first-hand experience of the prejudices aimed against Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, a theme explored through prime suspect Rafa and his mother, Nigist, which Weissman wanted the opportunity to highlight.
“I have a very good friend who feels she is not accepted. She lives in Tel Aviv and is not religious, and her family have shunned her. She doesn’t really fit in anywhere,” explains Weissman.
“There are plenty of Israelis who don’t consider Ethiopians as ‘real’ Jews. Just recently, Ethiopian workers were fired from a winery for not being ‘Jewish’ enough to touch the wine and grapes. And they, like the Druze and Muslims – who make up 30 per cent of the country – have not even been mentioned in the Law of Nationality. There’s nothing in there about equality for all. So yes, there’s still a long way to go in terms of addressing prejudice.”
As for the subject matter of Mama’s Angel, Weissman soberly reveals “the death of a child is not a foreign subject to me”, having tragically lost her three-year-old sister to cancer when she was aged just 10.
I ask Weissman if drawing on her own real-life experiences had in turn made her scripts more realistic. While they certainly gave her more empathy for her characters, it was not always the case that the truth worked better.
She reveals: “My father’s best friend was head of the Israeli CSI and I worked with him for a few years on getting the details right for the script. The funny thing is, some people didn’t believe such things could really happen. The truth is almost too hard to accept – but the made-up details are easier to believe!”
Mama’s Angel airs on Sunday, Channel 4, 10pm, with the entire series available on All 4 afterwards.
Listen to this week’s episode of The Jewish Views Podcast here: