‘Shtisel’ Producer Abot Hameiri Unveils Fremantle-Sold ‘East Side,’ With Yehuda Levi (EXCLUSIVE)

Fremantle has acquired international distribution rights to “East Side,” the latest series from “Shtisel” producer Abot Hameiri, starring Yehuda Levi, a Series Mania 2022 best actor winner for “Fire Dance.”

Taking 100% ownership of Abot Hameiri last year, Fremantle, which also co-financed the series, will bring “East Side” onto the  market at this next week’s Mipcom trade fair and conference in Cannes.

To debut on Israel’s Kan 11 channel, “East Side” turns on Momi,  a former Israeli secret service agent hired to take over a Palestinian neighbourhood, one home at a time. He attempts one last sale in order to set up for life his 18-year-old daughter Maya who is on the autism spectrum. The challenge is to wrestle ownership of a grand hotel which dominates entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. Whoever controls the entrance controls the City, Momi is told. But the owner, the new Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, says he is not for selling.  

Created and written by Yael Rubinstein-Nitsan, a writer on “Srugim,” a screenplay and drama series winner at the Israeli Academy Awards, “East Side” is directed by Evgeny Ruman. It is inspired by real events. 

Since occupying East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has battled to maintain a 60:40 of Jews to Arabs in the city. Strategies include construction of settlement homes in Palestinian neighbourhoods, revocation of residency rights and covert purchase of Arab homes, via middlemen posing as Arab buyers or offering exorbitant fees. Such sales carry heavy sentences, such as life imprisonment, from Palestinian Authority courts on the West Bank. 

In June, Israel’s high court upheld a Jerusalem District Court’s recognition of a lease agreement to the Imperial and Parla hotels held by Ateret Cohanim, an organization supporting the creation of a Jewish majority in the Jerusalem’s Old City and East Jerusalem. This opens the way for the eviction of the two hotels’ longtime Arab tenants. The establishments’ original owner which sold the lease was the Greek Orthodox Church.   

Founded in 2006 by Eitan Abot and Guy Hameiri, the company has grown a robust non-scripted business, accounting for a significant part of Israeli prime-time entertainment, by producing original formats such as “Power Couple” and “Hear Me, Love Me, See Me” and Israeli version of global formats from “X Factor” to “Got Talent,” “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Beauty and the Geek” and “The Bachelor.”

In the run-up to Mipcom, Variety talked to Abot Hameiri CEO Guy Hameiri, Dikla Barkai, its head of drama and “East Side” co-creator, and Rubinstein-Nitsan. 

At the emotional core of the series, it seems from its very early stretches, is what parents will do, however, misguided, for their children. Could you comment?

Dikla: Yes, the parent-child relationship is a motif which repeats itself throughout the series: Parents caring for their children and the mistakes they make. I’d add that they act in a highly political context.

Rubinstein-Nitsan: The issue of parenthood is the emotional core and the issue that the series seeks to investigate, and its subplots are also a reflection of certain aspects of parenthood. So your sense is correct – but as one part of a wider array. Parenthood is, to me, a dyad that creates the most complex and fascinating spectrum of emotion in a person’s life. The axiom stating that parents love their children unconditionally is romantic and reductive; it narrows a wider parental experience that sometimes contains content that is not so simple, and can even be painful and ambivalent.

”East Side” also seems to be classic contemporary upscale TV in that all the characters are nuanced. This is not a story of good versus bad….

Rubinstein-Nitsan: “East Side” tells the story of regular and normative people with whom it is easy to relate and identify with what they want and what motivates them. But at a certain point, they are driven to extreme situations that push them into a corner, forcing them to make difficult choices, which are sometimes practically life-and-death emotionally and practically. The most optimal form in which human complexity is expressed, in my opinion, is when regular people act in irregular situations. 

One early series highlight is the performance of Geffen Kaminer, who plays Momo’s autistic daughter and is herself on the spectrum. She really does act….

Hameiri: For us, it was a very special decision. We wanted to look for a real autistic actor to play the role. When Geffen came in – and she’s really special, she did play a role, she didn’t play herself – watching her audition, we just couldn’t see anyone else in the role. We’d tried professional actors playing autistic but it just didn’t feel as reliable and authentic.

“East Side’s” setting – the titular district, the Old City – is spectacular….

Hameiri: Jerusalem is a very special place. Standing there, seeing the Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods, everything happening in the Old City, you can’t be cynical about it. There’s a reason why it’s the most conflicted few square metres in the world, given it’s holy for all three religions. If you can tell characters’ stories –  their family life, relationships – in these surroundings, you have a special series. 

The series also touches on true-life and hugely conflictive cases of the dispossession of Arab families of their homes and may be inspired by the legal wrangle over the Petra and Imperial Hotels….

Rubinstein-Nitsan: ”East Side” does indeed draw inspiration from the true stories of the Imperial Hotel and Petra, and from the unique world that is eastern Jerusalem, but it does not deal with politics, despite its super-political location. The series focuses on the behavior of people who have been thrown into a conflict, and their attempt to survive and make the most of life for themselves and their loved ones. 

Having Fremantle on board as a parent company gives you a large international distribution clout. Did you make “East Side” with one eye on the international market?

Dikla: We have a chance in TV to deal with small details and use them to build a world and tell a story. I’m very happy that Fremantle has found international elements in this series, but when we started working on it, we didn’t ry to make it for the world, we just went with the story. There were these worlds building in front of our eyes. We weren’t very familiar with East Jerusalem, even though we’ll read about it in newspaper headlines. Working on the series, we learned so much about this world and a life that we thought we knew.

One key question which will no doubt be debated at Mipcom is production volume: Should companies be ramping that up? How does “East Side” fit into your scripted production strategy?

Hameiri: We’re definitely ramping up and on all fronts. We can do that being 100% owned by Fremantle and its believing in our scripted business. We’ve proven international successes. Obviously, “Shistel” was sold to Netflix and travelled really well. “The Attaché” was sold to 20 territories, including Starzplay in Europe and Acorn TV in the U.S. Hopefully, we will have big news of international partners [on new shows]. Definitely, we are working to increase our drama [portfolio].

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