Gideon Raff has made a career of ripped-from-the-headline fiction. Showtime critical darling “Homeland” is based on the Israeli series “Prisoners of War” (“Hatufim”), written, directed and created by Raff.
Raff spoke to TheWrap following the Dec. 9 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA interrogation program and gave his take on some of the “horrific” truths coming out of it versus the fiction he creates in his work, which includes FX series “Tyrant” and upcoming USA Network series “Dig.”
TheWrap: How do you balance fact and fiction when using storylines that are ripped from the headlines?
Gideon Raff: The truth is the world is getting to a very scary place where no matter how much you dramatize and you make it higher stakes for it to be a good drama, somehow the headlines catch up with the drama not the other way around. A perfect example: When I wrote
The torture report coming out of Washington claims “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not lead U.S. intelligence to Osama bin Laden, basically debunking the premise behind film “Zero Dark Thirty.” You had to deal with torture in your show “Prisoners of War.” What are your thoughts on this report?
Because it’s from the headlines, because the world is getting scary, we’re dealing with real cases and people who have lost their lives for nothing and then people who have lost their lives because of terror and we’re trying to protect them. And the whole issue — as a liberal society, of course we’re all against torturing, but we also don’t want to necessarily know everything the government is doing to protect us, including limiting our liberties. And that can become a huge dilemma in our time.
“Prisoners of War” is a good example of that. Even “Tyrant” that I created … We’re all against tyranny, we’re all against dictatorship, but in the world we’re living in, it’s always a question of context, and it’s always a question of what the alternative is. When the Arab Spring happened, all of us in the modern, Western world were all hopeful that the Arab world was going to a more democratic place, and I think we’re all reading now that it’s actually becoming a huge mess and a more dangerous place, and the civil liberties that they were trying to protect are actually tramped upon. And you know one of the things that we were trying to do with “Tyrant”: The tyrants are doing what they do because they love their country and because they’re thinking they’re protecting [it]. Many times — in the instance of Syria, in the instance of Egypt — many times minority rights like women and gays are more protected under the tyrants.
They think they love their country, and they think they’re protecting minorities, and in many times, that’s true … You see that in the cases of Jordan or Egypt or many other countries: the rights of minorities, the rights of Christians the rights of women and homosexuals were protected more than they are right now after the Arab Spring, and that’s a scary notion, especially to us liberals who live in the Western world and see the world through our filter and think that tyranny is a bad thing. It’s a really interesting dilemma. It’s a really interesting story to explore.
In terms of torture, this report that came out — it’s horrific because you realize that people lost their lives, people were tortured and nothing was gained from it and that’s a horrific, horrific thing.
Of course we don’t want to torture. And I think as a society, we don’t want to know exactly what’s happening in the gray area to protect our liberties. It’s a very complicated issue that does not have one absolute solution. I am completely against torture, and yet I’m sure that you could give me case studies where I’m like, Fuck … it helped!
This report is very sad, because apparently it didn’t help in catching bin Laden.
Having researched the topic of torture, do you agree with the Washington report?
I was sitting at a lecture where a Shin Bet guy said we had information that his brother knows or might know. It was an anti-terror and anti-torture event that I went to, and we heard a lot of different points of views, and one of them is from a guy who said, “OK, I know a bomb is about to explode. What is my obligation to protect the innocent people on the bus? What do I do?” If there’s a 90-percent chance that his brother knows, what do you do? I think the answer is not absolute. It’s absolute when you live in a safe society without an existential threat, then you have the comfort of saying, “I’m absolutely against torture” — and by the way, I am. Gideon Raff is absolutely against torture. But if one of my loved ones was on a bus and there’s a chance that somebody knows, wouldn’t you do everything to get that information? I don’t know.
How long did you study the issue of torture when filming “Prisoners of War?”
When I did “Prisoners of War,” I went through six months of extensive research. I talked to many, many POWs who have come back to Israel after spending from months to years in captivity; all of them were tortured. By the way, the physical torture was the easy part. The psychological games that were played on them were the hardest. Unlike a prison sentence, when you’re a POW, you don’t know if it’s ever going to be over, you don’t know if anybody knows you’re a alive, you don’t have a schedule, you don’t know if that door is ever going to open again, you don’t know if you’re ever going to eat again, you have no idea of what’s going on in the world. Many of the captives in the Yom Kippur War (1973) who were in Egypt, were told that Egypt won the war, that Israel is completely destroyed and that they should just talk because they have nothing to protect anymore. And when you talk to these people, people from our side who have gone through this horrendous torture, you get mad at the torture they’ve been through. Many of them were simple soldiers who didn’t know anything. You get extremely upset, and that, of course, informs the writing of the show. And then you think, our prisons are filled with people who are going through similar experiences. People in Guantanamo Bay have been deprived of their basic human rights to a defense, their loved ones have no idea where they are, some of them have nothing to do with information that will lead us to terror attacks or to terrorists, and yet they’re still stuck there.
Do you think it’s possible the torture report is accurate? How reliable is information obtained through torture?
I’m not an expert on that, I’m just a TV creator, but I did talk to many people who went through it … Some of them, when they fell captive, they made up stories. They were simple soldiers, and the truth of the matter is all of them were broken and all of them eventually talked. We grew up on that myth of “I didn’t betray any secrets” and people killing themselves in order to not talk, but the truth is most of the POWs do talk and most POWs have to go into survival mode where they do everything possible to just continue living another day.
I don’t know if the CIA report is accurate, and it’s of course heartbreaking, but how do you know you have all the information until you ask all the questions in a particular way? And this is not to endorse torture by any means. I’m completely against torture.
You know a lot of detainees are deprived of sleep, and psychological games are used on them. One of the POWs I talked to said that he was sold from organization to organization, and every intelligence person from the new terrorist organization, they all tortured him. And he had nothing to say, nothing. And for two years he was stuck in a bathroom tied to a radiator. He went through horrific torture. And the thing that eventually broke him completely was he heard two people on the other side of the cell talking about the fact that his mother died in Israel, and when he came back to Israel two years later, he found out that his mother was alive. A lot of the people I talked to went through mock executions where they bring them out and they hang them and then the rope is torn, or a rifle is put in their mouth and the trigger is pulled but there’s no bullet in the chamber, and at that point you lose complete control over your life, and I do think that it’s hard not to talk in that situation.
One of the most horrific stories I heard was they gathered a group of POWs who’ve been in a Syrian jail for months, and they showered them, and they shaved them, and they told them a deal was struck and that they’re going to see their loved ones, and they took them in a car, and they drove around the block, and they put them back in their cell, and all of them completely broke down. When you hear these stories, all you can say is “I hope I’m not part of a society that does that.”
Why did you study torture and POWS for six months? Was there pressure to get it right?
Absolutely. I wanted to make sure I was telling the right story. And I wanted to make sure — unlike in the States, where the army is not mandatory, and it’s a big country and … people can enjoy it just as a thriller, in Israel when you deal with a case like POWs, it touches everyone. It’s a country where, when there’s a POW, it happens to everyone. If it happens to us, it happens to our brothers and sisters; we’re all very involved with these stories. We don’t want to tell a story that’s not credible or not accurate. That’s not to say that I’m doing a documentary; of course I heighten some stuff for dramatic effect, but you want to make sure you get the story right, because the human story in real life is so much more surprising and inspiring than anything you can imagine.
Did the writer and director of “Zero Dark Thirty” get it wrong? Should they have researched it more?
First of all, I think it’s a fantastic movie. And second, I think you saw the big dilemma about torture in that movie, and you also saw people talking about the government changing its policy towards torture but really, behind the scenes, not really changing the policy, and I think “Zero Dark Thirty” brought to the discussion the question about torture and the question about our methods and showed in a very graphic way that you couldn’t avoid asking yourself, “Do I really want to be a part of a society that does that?” So I think it’s a fantastic movie, and this has nothing to do with the movie. Again it’s not a documentary; it’s a movie that brought to life many, many important questions.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story identified Raff as the writer of “Homeland.” TheWrap regrets the error.