“Language Is Culture”: An Interview with Israeli Hollywood Writer and Director, Gideon Raff
My endless fascination with language often leads me to find inspiration in unexpected places. I’ve made discoveries through food, family connections, traveling and, of course, TV and movies. The power of film lies in its universality, its ability to tell a story that resonates with audiences around the globe. The ability to build connection and empathy through the cinema is one of the reasons I became an actor.
Foreign films and TV shows expose you to new languages and can also be a fun and highly effective supplement to your Rosetta Stone lessons. When you watch a film you become immersed not only in the story itself, but also in the nuances of the characters’ world, the sounds that surround them, and the rhythm of their dialect. Language is a window into culture. If I can’t travel to where I want to go, then watching a movie from that place is the next best thing.
One of my favorite recent foreign films was a new miniseries on Netflix called The Spy. Watching it, I was captivated by the true story of legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen. Cohen was an Egyptian Jew who emigrated to the newly established state of Israel in 1955. Not long after he was recruited by the Israeli secret intelligence agency, Mossad, to serve as undercover spy in Syria. He would become one of the most famous spies in Israeli history, forging deep relationships at the highest levels of Syrian society and even establishing official positions within the government. The story is so astonishing it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that this really happened.
Spy drama and political heists aside, I was also intrigued by the role of language. I was already familiar with the story of Eli Cohen and so I assumed the show would be in Hebrew and Arabic, since those are the languages which the real-life characters would have spoken. But this series was written in English. I found myself wondering about the challenges writers must face when telling a true story in a new language. What changes would need to be made, if any, to the original story to get the same message across? How can you tell a story that is so ingrained in the minds of one group to an entirely new audience?
This curiosity led me to Gideon Raff, writer and director of The Spy and someone who knows a thing or two about these challenges, to say the least. Born in Israel and having lived between his home country and the U.S. for most of his life, Raff has been writing screenplays both in English and Hebrew since the beginning of his career. His hugely successful Israeli series, Prisoners of War, was adapted into the award-winning American series, Homeland. He spoke with me about his creative process, his experiences as a multilingual screenwriter, and how language inspires him.
(The interview has been condensed for style and clarity.)
1. The Spy was based on a true story in which the characters would not have been speaking English. What was behind your decision to tell the story in English rather than Hebrew and Arabic?
When I did The Spy, there was a big dilemma with what to do with language. I knew I wanted a very international cast, plus the story is [already] very well known in Israel and I wanted it to read more broadly. So, finally, I decided to do it in English with different accents for the dialects.
2. Were there cultural nuances between the way you tell a story to an Israeli audience that is already so familiar with it and the way you tell it to a broader audience who may not know who Eli Cohen was?
It’s a good question and it’s something that I struggled with in preparing the show because it’s not just between Hebrew and Arabic. What is so fascinating about Eli Cohen’s story is that he was an Egyptian Jew who knew Arabic in an Egyptian dialect but had to learn a Syrian one. And one of the things that I learned [in my research] is that, for instance, people started noticing, “Why are you talking in that dialect?” That is something that is hard to do in English. On the other hand, there are a lot of other things that we can do in English. We included a bit of Arabic and Hebrew in order to get the flavor and we had dialect coaches working with the actors on English, Hebrew, and the various Arabic accents. We wanted to make those distinctions that would symbolize what something meant in the local language.
Then other decisions were practical, such as “I have an actor who speaks Hebrew, he doesn’t speak Arabic.” I don’t want to make a show that is not balanced. I also had a big cast of actors. Waleed Zuaiter is Palestinian and grew up in Kuwait; Alexander Siddig is British; Nassim Si Ahmed is Algerian from France. There are so many dialects and languages, and I wanted to include a very big cast and not limit it too much because of language.
Do you have a preferred language when it comes to writing?
I don’t. I think both English and Hebrew are such rich languages and so different. Some expressions are so wonderful in one language and it’s hard to translate to the other. And thankfully I am fluent in both. I also loved directing scenes in Arabic for Prisoners of War because I think it’s such a beautiful language. [POW was part Hebrew, part Arabic.]
That was such a local, Israeli/Middle Eastern show and I loved how beautifully it was accepted in the world.
The Spy we shot in Morocco and we had a Moroccon crew that spoke Moroccan Arabic and French; half of the producers were French, then we had some actors who were Israeli, so we communicated in Hebrew and others we communicated with in Arabic. It was a fascinating cacophony of languages and each one of them is so beautiful. So, it’s all about communication. That’s what storytelling is. Even when I didn’t understand every word that was said, I understood what was happening from the musicality of it.
I grew up in Jerusalem and moved to Tel Aviv after the army. Even those two cities, only 45 minutes apart, have their own dialects and their own way of speaking. I find this fascinating. I am in this business because I love reading and I love believing.
Do you feel industry pressure to make your projects broadly appealing or have you noticed a shift in Hollywood’s openness to foreign content?
Personally, I have not been pushed either way. There have been discussions, of course, “will the show be in this language or that language,” but I think Hollywood is a lot more open to local languages. Language is culture and international formats in their original programming have proven to be a success in America, so executives are less nervous about making films that are not in English. I also think that audiences are more savvy in terms of wanting the credibility of the real actors, the real locations. It’s hard to shoot Afghanistan in Burbank.
Finally, a fun one: what is your favorite word?
Udi in any language: the name of my husband.
One thing Gideon said in our interview that really stuck with me was that “language is culture.” It’s something I have always known and believed in, but it resonated in a new way after our conversation. Language is so much more than words. It’s also the sounds and spirit (the “musicality,” as Gideon would say) that come together to create the cultural fabric of a community. There is perhaps no greater way to experience a new culture or to build meaningful bonds with those communities than by learning their language. Language is one of the greatest gifts we possess, it’s what makes us human.