"Valley of Tears" confronts familiar tragedies

Valley of Tears nears the end of its second episode with female soldiers in the back of a truck singing Naomi Sheir’s “The Eucalyptus Grove” as they’re driven out of the Golan Heights war zone. “The Eucalyptus Grove” gives hope in the uncertain time of war by painting a sure return to a life of serine familiarity. Though the anxiety of the Yom Kippur War cocoons every second in uncertainty for the shows’ characters, the war-drama unfolding on my screen is imbued with familiar characters and uncertainties. What is unclear, in the four episodes I was given to watch, is how the lead characters’ lives (should they survive) will be affected post-war. By playing to and acknowledging—through visuals and writing—the common obstructions arising from war, and deriving from human foibles, Valley of Tears expands the conversation of what defines familiar tragedies, and what can happen because of it.  

The show, an original HBO Max production, premiered in Canada on Saturday December 19, 2020, via Hollywood Suite. The series follows three separate yet interconnected groups navigating race relations, love triangles, and the Yom Kippur War that took Israel by surprise in 1973. From October 6 to 25, Israel battled against, and eventually gained ground, on the coalition of Arab states led by Syria and Egypt. Knowing the war ends in a ceasefire, with Israel’s victory, is not what makes the show’s content familiar, it’s the characters written by Amit Cohen, Ron Leshem, Daniel Amsel.

We have Avinoam (Shahar Taboch), the terrified and underestimated intelligence soldier, who resembles his innocent pet hedgehog Pine-nut that he brings everywhere with him, and Yoav (Aviv Alush), a handsome combat commander, who along with everyone else, dismisses Avinoam’s concerns about an impending attack because he is more concerned about seeing his girlfriend, Dafna (Joy Reiger). He thinks he knows everything, only to realize he needs Avinoam’s guidance to survive. 

Next, we follow Caspi (Omer Perelman), Marco (Ofer Hayoun) and Alush (Imri Biton). Three soldiers stationed at a base in charge of operating tanks. Marco and Alush are members of The Blank Panthers, a group fighting for equal rights for Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, a group, Caspi, and others in the series seek to dismiss. Marco is the headstrong one and Alush is the one who tries to please both sides. Before the war begins, Caspi’s ambivalence and inability to understand why The Black Panthers are fighting for equality shows he operates from a place of privilege. Caspi’s thoughtlessness turns dangerous once he becomes unit commander after his best friend dies in battle. Understandably, Caspi unravels from this loss, but he leads with a rage that jeopardizes the lives of his comrades because he is more concerned with taking care of his pain. 

Then we have our comedic relief, via a classic car road trip. The driver, Meni-Ben Dror (Lior Ashkenazi), is a writer who unenthusiastically leaves his threesome behind to fetch his son, Yoni (Lee Biran)—who he barely knows, or seems to (but actually does) care about—out of the war to send back to his mother in Paris. On his trip he picks up a hitchhiker named Melakhi (Maor Schwitzer) who is on his way to join his comrades, Marco, Alush, and Caspi. Melakhi is the jokester, who has yet to realize the severity of the war. He brings Moroccan fish stew with him thinking there will be time to eat a meal like this out in the field. On their way they pass the pick-up where the female soldiers were dropped off. Dafna, determined to return to her base, is there, and asks to join them. Unaware of the perils ahead, they, almost merrily, drive towards the war zone. 

 None of these characters are unique; versions of themselves can be found in any war drama. The complexities that develop are expected because they are ingrained in the confines of their bylines. When Caspi and Marco or Yoav and Avinoam start supporting one another, it is not a surprising development, but rather an expected progression: characters with no love lost between them end up working together. Initially, I believed the four episodes would be easy viewing. No one is challenged to think about what they’re observing if they think they’ve seen a version of the story before. However, I was wrong. I mistook the show as being driven by character not  plot. Which made me realize the characters move the plot forward because their predictable highs and lows allow the show to focus on telling the story of the Yom Kippur War.  Moving through the plot with familiar characters allows the war to take centre-stage. Viewers can concentrate on the war and not be distracted by trying to understand who the characters are.   

As the intro, and outro credits role, videos from the ‘70s are played. Were it not for the grainy and/or black and white film, the show could seamlessly transition between the primary footage and its own. Yet, events in the show remind us that film cannot always tell us the stories behind the faces or moments it captures. When Meni films scenes from the war zone on his video camera, he is only capturing the aftermath of a scene we witnessed play out. He doesn’t know what happened, just as we cannot know everything that transpired in the field in 1973. This draws attention to what primary footage and a historical drama cannot show us. As the writers show the viewer, there are horrors we will never know, and acts of humanity we will never glean. 

This is extrapolated on by the visual choices Yaron Zilberman’s direction takes (he, along with Cohen, Leshem, and Amsel, created the series) in the sight constraining world Nir Alba designed. Bunkers are cloaked in darkness, and their walls and doors let those behind them see only a glimpse of the other side through small circles barred with thin wires. Many targets can only be seen through the lens of a gun or the one in the tank. Approaching allies mistaken as enemies are killed because the shooters are too far away to know the difference—binoculars pulled out too late. These visual limitations serve as metaphorical devices addressing the prejudicial limitations humans inflict on themselves or on others. And the uncertain consequences these limitations cause, and not just during a war. 

Amidst the all consuming chaos of war, the writers manage to include tenderly poignant scenarios re-examining what makes someone the target of bigotry. Approaching the end of episode four, Avinoam tells a young Syrian soldier not to kill Pine-nut. The Syrian soldier asks “why would I kill a hedgehog?” and returns Pine-nut to Avinoam. The soldiers are supposed enemies, yet when they start engaging in small talk, it is easy to imagine an alternative life where they would be friends, where Avinoam could, as the soldier suggests, come to Syria and taste the best falafel in all of the Middle East. While they are talking, Yoav shoots the soldier dead. Sadness rather than relief comes from this act, Avinoam even exclaims “what have you done?” The soldier was like Avinoam, and the similarities they shared made the soldier familiar—revealing that we can actually share positive commonalities with those we deem as alien. In the first episode, Marco says a cat in Caspi’s kibbutz isn’t hungry, unabashedly stating, to Caspi himself, that a cat is treated better than the Mizrahi or Sephardic Jews who are starving for the same opportunities and rights the Ashkenaz are afforded. By the writers comparing the lives of people to animals, they emphasize that prejudice dehumanizes the oppressed. By recognizing Israel’s history with racial inequality and prejudice, the series shows a piece of history that some viewers may not know. But even if one does not know this history, the strength of the show allows for the viewer to understand the racial inequalities Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews still contend with today. 

“The Eucalyptus Grove” claims there is an on-going cycle of renewal and devastation. But not change. Nothing is worse than war, but the show acknowledges that when the war ends, the grove won’t be the same for all. Though set in 1973, Valley of Tears proves to be a necessary war-drama because it starts a conversation about how mistakes in war can be avoided, while looking at what informs discriminatory behaviour. Motioning viewers to examine why we are still encountering these damaging acts, and what needs to change. 

Header image design by Orly Zebak. 

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