Moshe Zonder, best known for political thriller Fauda, once again tries to keep his audience at the edge of their seats with eight-part espionage series Tehran.
Fauda saw an Israeli Defence Force unit infiltrate Palestinian militant group Hamas, and in Tehran, Zonder sends his Iranian born Mossad computer-hacker agent Tamar Rabiyan (Niv Sultan), a novice, on an undercover mission to dismantle Iran's nuclear reactor. The assignment goes awry and Tamar goes rogue, sheltering herself from her superiors desperately on her tail. Every scene is thick with tension, will she or will she not get caught?
Both shows broach the subject of Israel's tensions with its neighbours through the respective journeys of their primary characters. Zonder's experience as an investigative journalist helped bring a broader perspective in illustrating these complex relations. "I loved to cross borders, mentally and physically, to the West Bank and Gaza strip and meet, for example, the leaders of the Hamas Islamic movement, Israel's greatest enemy in the region. Interviewing them, meeting their families and hearing their life stories, impressed me. It was much different than anything I knew before and what was published in Israeli press. It led me to write the first season of Fauda."
Niv Sultan as Tamar Rabinyan | Apple TV+
Executive producer Dana Eden calls Tehran "a global story about identity, immigrants, family, and loyalty."
When it comes to dealing with geopolitical representations in cinema and TV, one side is often favoured over the other. We have seen it in Hollywood's war/spy dramas and in the ultranationalism of Bollywood films. With Tehran, Zonder says he has attempted to draw parallels between the lives of common, young Israelis and their cross-border peers, researching for which took him and his team over two years. While politics are important, humanity takes precedence in storytelling. "We wanted to show the lives of those young people that I adore " protesting and demonstrating against the Ayatollah regime, risking their freedom and lives," says Zonder.
"One of the most beautiful things about this show is that we have put in a lot of effort to show both sides of the conflict without leading the audience to choose one side over the other. There is no one clear enemy," reiterates Iranian-American actor Shaun Toub, who plays Faras Kamali, head of the Revolutionary Guards, a branch of Iran's armed forces, "As a viewer, your feelings are changing in every episode. You can relate, but also hate both sides."
The show tries to subvert stereotypes of Iran being a restrictive Islamic state with no space for self-expression. We see Tamar seek refuge at her long lost aunt Arezoo's home, and soon befriend a local hacker and student activist Milad (Shervin Alenabi), who introduces her to Iran's underground culture. Arezoo's daughter, on the other hand, represents the conservative side.
The world of espionage and action thrillers is usually dominated by men, so choosing a female protagonist was a political statement for the makers, an important step toward diverse media representation. Besides, writing a female character and designing difficult situations for her to tackle was "more interesting and freeing" for Zonder and co-writer Omri Shenhar.
"The fact that we chose a woman and not only a woman, but an immigrant from Iran, who comes back to her homeland as a spy makes everything more complex and more nuanced," adds executive producer Dana Eden.
Tamar is inexperienced and nervous as an on-field agent, and sentimental upon returning to her place of birth. Though her self-defence training kicks in when she is in peril, she is still susceptible to rookie mistakes, endangering herself and people around her. Selecting the right fit for Tamar involved a fair amount of auditions, until Eden suggested Sultan, whom she had worked with before.
"I want to say about Niv that she has a quality to be tough and soft at the same time. That's what she brought into the character. We didn't want the character to be only tough or only soft and vulnerable " we wanted both. Niv embedded both of those qualities in her acting," says Eden.
For Sultan, preparing for the role involved learning Farsi, mastering the pronunciation and mouth movements, which were completely different from Hebrew and Arabic, the two languages she has been exposed to in Israel. The actor immersed herself in Iranian culture, even refined her physical skills by learning Krav Maga (Israeli martial art). Most dialogues in the show are in Farsi, with fragments of Hebrew and English. Sultan reveals she took over four to five months to learn her lines.
Tehran's cast also includes Navid Neganban (Homeland), Liraz Charhi, Menashe Noy, Shila Vosough Ommi.
Tehran is now streaming on Apple TV+.