TBI deputy editor Mark Layton talks to Dafna Prenner, co-CEO at Tel-Aviv-based Artza Productions, about loveless marriages and chasing IP rights ahead of the launch of epic Israeli melodrama The Beauty Queen Of Jerusalem.
While Israel may have become synonymous with cranking out taut action thrillers as global hits in recent years, Artza Productions’ latest series is a different beast, a highly local period melodrama spanning multiple decades, yet which also seems tailor-made to travel.
Sarit Yishai-Levy’s 2015 epic novel The Beauty Queen Of Jerusalem was a massive success in Israel and internationally, and Tel Aviv-based Artza was determined to option the rights.
Artza co-CEO Dafna Prenner, who exec produces the series alongside production partner Shai Eines, tells TBI: “I read the book and my partner Shai is good friends with [Yishai-Levy], so I told him to reach out, but the rights were already taken for a feature. So we waited for two years and the minute the feature rights finished, the next day we optioned the book.”
Artza was founded by Prenner and Eines in 2006 and The Beauty Queen Of Jerusalem falls very much into its forte, with the company that is behind crime drama Street Justice, as well as Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot’s Israeli movie debut Kicking Out Shoshana, typically preferring to work from existing IP when it comes to scripted content.
“So either a historical story, a book, a play or somebody’s memoir, so everything we have is based on something that has happened,” explains Prenner. At the time of the interview, the company was just wrapping up shooting on the fourth season of comedy series Miller’s Crossing, with Prenner revealing two new action-dramas based on true events are also in the works.
Debuting its 10-part first season on Israel’s Yes TV on 7 June, The Beauty Queen Of Jerusalem spans the early to mid-20th century and follows the lives of three generations of the Ermosa family, Spanish Jews living in Jerusalem, who are all fated to marry and live without love due to strict religious and social pressure.
From 1917 to 1942, the series takes in the end of the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and the establishment of the Jewish state through the eyes of the Ermosas, who all experience their fair share of passionate clinches and violent encounters in the city’s ever-changing landscape.
“We were very committed to the period drama aspect of the show,” says Prenner. “There are very few period dramas that have been shot in Israel over the years and this is one that is focusing on a period that, I think, has never been covered or shot on Israeli TV. It’s not that we don’t want to shoot period dramas, it’s just that we don’t [usually] have the budget.”
Yes TV is going all-in on the series, fully funding a two-season commission, for a total of 20 x 48-minute instalments, making it the broadcaster’s largest financial investment to date. As a result, The Beauty Queen Of Jerusalem, which is being distributed by Yes Studios, is set to be one of the most expensive productions to ever come out of Israel, while the international sales process is just beginning.
Season two of the series is currently being written and Prenner expects filming on the sophomore run to begin later this year, with the full story potentially unfolding over several seasons.
Prenner believes it was the Artza team’s passion and connection to the project, coupled with the popularity of the novel – not to mention some A-list talent attached – that convinced Yes TV to make such a major commitment.
“Everything kind of fell into place. My head of drama, Ester Namdar Tamam, brought to the project Shlomo Mashiach, he’s the showrunner of the Israeli version of Your Honor, that’s been doing well internationally. She brought him on because the book deals with a very special Judeo-Spanish community and he’s a member of that community, so he felt very connected. He felt he knew these people, what they wore, what they ate, how they talked.”
She continues: “Then we brought in one of the top directors here in Israel, a guy called Oded Davidoff, and he’s from Jerusalem. Ester is also from Jerusalem, so it was really a bunch of people who really connected to the project on a personal level, whether they knew the society or the city.”
The on-screen talent should be familiar to international audiences too, including Shtisel star Michael Aloni, Fauda’s Itzik Cohen, Hila Saada from The Baker & The Beauty and McMafia’s Yuval Scharf. Newcomer Swell Ariel Or, meanwhile, plays Luna, the titular ‘Beauty Queen’ in her first-ever screen role. “I’m very proud of her and what she brought,” says Prenner.
While Jerusalem is, of course, central to the show, the series could not be shot entirely on location within the city because, as Prenner explains, “the Jerusalem we were looking for is no longer in existence from a visual point of view.” Instead, much of the filming took place in the Tzfat, which due to Covid was “a ghost town,” she reveals. “We were the only people there, so it was kind of like a studio for us.”
While Prenner says she was thinking “first and foremost” of Israeli audiences when producing the show, she believes the project has “so much truth and honesty” that it can resonate internationally.
“It’s a story of a family, but it’s also a story that is filled with passion, violence and a lot of history. Everything that happened in the first half of the 20th century was such a tumultuous period here. Everybody hated everybody – the Arabs hated the Jews that hated the British that hated the Arabs and everything that was a problem here is still an issue today.
“I think that when you have a very strong local flavour to a show, there is a seed of truth to it and people all over the world can recognise it and connect to it.”
There is indeed a current trend towards highly authentic local content being well received by global audiences looking for that realistic viewing experience. The Beauty Queen Of Jerusalem, for example, includes dialogue in Hebrew, English, Ladino, Turkish and Arabic to accurately reflect the time and location it was set. In this case, Prenner also believes that the subject matter of the story is of universal appeal.
“It’s about people who want to be loved; sons who can’t handle their mothers; a man who can never marry the woman that he loves; a woman who wants to prove her independence or break out of structure that she was born into. All of these things are still relevant today and I think people can connect to that.”
The story is also a feminist one, notes Prenner, who says that the way women are perceived has changed over the years, with the show examining issues of the time through a modern-day lens.
“Feminism didn’t really exist in that society at that time. I think what we tried to do is bring stories of women, because almost all the main characters are women, and to look at it through a modern feminist prism. So we’re trying to give this woman a very feminist attitude in a not very feminist period of time.”
On a personal level, Prenner adds that working on the series also allowed her to indulge her “huge” fandom of period dramas and movies from the 1930s and 40s. “I especially love musicals, so the writers of the show they wanted to indulge me, although I’ve never asked them for that. They created quite a few scenes with dancing, like Israeli ballroom, kind of outdoors on a big patio. It was very visual and atmospheric. The fact that we were able to do that is something I was very proud and happy about.”