Producer-Creator Maria Feldman Discusses New Hulu Miniseries NO MAN’S LAND
A young engineer in France is beginning fertility treatments with his partner when he sees — or seems to see — his missing and presumed-dead sister in a televised news bulletin from Syria. Choosing against accepted fact and common sense to investigate, he delves into No Man’s Land: both a war-torn milieu populated by complicated factions of soldiers, mercenaries, spies, refugees, and especially female Kurdish fighters (apt title), and a new miniseries dropping November 18th on Hulu.
Just as No Man’s Land is a truly international production — combining talents from Belgium, France, Israel, and the U.S. (with production in Europe and Morocco) — so is its producer and co-creator Maria Feldman truly international. Her previous work includes two of Israel’s most popular series: Fauda, and False Flag (Kfulim), the latter to be remade (currently as Suspicion) for Apple TV, with Uma Thurman. I spoke about Hulu’s No Man’s Land with Ms. Feldman, opening with its origins.
“It started with me watching a news report a few years ago, at the height of the Syrian war,” she reveals. “We were kind of obsessed, me at least, with news from Syria. One day I was watching a news report of a war journalist who joined Kurdish forces in Syria. There were two very young Kurdish women in camouflage uniforms: one was holding a huge sniper rifle and shooting it, and the other was sounding this ear-piercing noise. I thought: ‘What is happening? They’re exposing themselves!’
“After that, one of the women explained that the reason they’re doing it is very simple: [the opposition’s soldiers] are not afraid to die in battle. On the contrary, they think they will go to heaven, and get 72 virgins — unless they are killed by a woman. Then there is no heaven, no virgins, they’re simply dead. That’s why, hearing this noise, they know that women are shooting at them, and they simply freak out. Sometimes they drop their weapons and run away.
“When I heard that, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is an amazing scene! And who are these women?’ I started researching and reading about it, and I discovered this whole phenomenon of all-women battalions of Kurdish fighters, and mixed battalions, and sometimes women are in charge of all-male battalions. This is the only army organization in the world where women are completely equal to men. I found this whole world fascinating: I discovered that there are European and American volunteers who come from all over the world to join this fight against the evil. So I thought, we need to show it to the world.”
No Man’s Land, fiction built on a foundation of fact, evinces the sense of “based on a true story,” so much that its characters feel pulled from recent history. Its primary brother (Félix Moati) and sister (Mélanie Thierry) are both influenced by the complex Sarya, a standout played by Souheila Yacoub, a French actress whose gift for dialect is so strong she was actually mistaken for being Kurdish. Sarya’s mettle drives much of the narrative.
“Sarya went through a lot of turns,” explains Ms. Feldman. “At first she was supposed to be British, and then she became French. But we always knew that we wanted this one Kurdish fighter: through her eyes we would understand the tradition, and we really wanted this character to speak English or French. Our whole idea was to make this as attractive as possible to the international audience, and to really get them into the story, being able to identify with this character.”
Referring to series co-creators Amit Cohen, Ron Leshem, and Eitan Mansuri, she continues: “We always knew she was going to be somebody who’s Kurdish but grew up in the West, and through her we will understand the appeal and the beauty of this Kurdish way of life.
“I always like this duality. Me, myself, I grew up in the former Soviet Union, and then I emigrated to Israel, and I lived in Israel half of my life, and now I live in the U.S. I like those characters — I also had them in False Flag — where you say: ‘Well, who is she? What is her nationality? What is her tradition?’ If I’m talking about myself: ‘Who am I? Am I Israeli? Am I Jewish? Now I feel like a New Yorker.’ Sarya has this quality, but also she made a choice: she is Kurdish. She says this to Antoine in episode three very clearly: ‘I’m not one of you’ — because he thinks she’s one of the volunteers. It was a lot of back-and-forth about this character, and I’m very happy with how she came out.”
Directed by Oded Ruskin (aided by cinematographer Stéphane Vallée), No Man’s Land is imbued with a you-are-there, almost vérité quality. Having worked previously with Mr. Ruskin on False Flag, what can Ms. Feldman tell us about his process?
“Oded has this amazing talent in being very emotional in romantic and family scenes and drama, and in action he’s very good with suspense. It’s very hard to find a director who combines those things, and it was very important for the show.
“There were a lot of discussions between Oded and Stéphane. It was very challenging also, as they come from very different approaches, and I think this combination and those discussions in the end worked out amazingly for us. It was like this tension between them — and then they were finding the thing that works for them both, and that’s why it looks so good.”
As for the score, by Rutger Hoedemaekers, Ms. Feldman adds:
“For Oded, the music and the sound are as important as the visuals. He comes from sound, he used to be a sound engineer before he was a director, so he’s totally obsessed with with sound. And he hears things that we don’t. What I learned from my experience working with him is that I need to just let him be and do his things. He tried so many composers, with our French producers, they were offering a lot of people, and he was saying no, and I was like, ‘I’m not getting involved. We will find the right one eventually!’ And I’m happy we did. He deserves all the credit for the music.”
When asked about researching the People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel), Ms. Feldman elaborates: “It was very important to us to stay true. The Kurdish fighters, you see from the first episode that they’re not angels, they’re fighting a war. We did a lot of research, and thankfully there are tons of documentaries, and news reports, and these people are tweeting, having Instagram pages, so it’s really easy these days to get to know people. We also got to know some Kurdish people who live in Belgium and France, and in Morocco. It was fascinating.”
While No Man’s Land works as an expansive series (with a second series in development), was it ever considered as a single feature film?
“From the beginning I thought it should be a series. I think it’s easier for me to think about the story in terms of a TV series. I love feature films, but in my mind when I have a story, it feels to me that it will be too dense to be a feature film.”
And was it ever planned to be a finite eight episodes?
“We always intended that it will continue. But we had so many ideas how it can continue, in so many different ways. For at least eight characters in this first season I feel we can have spinoffs in the second season. We always knew we wanted to explore more of these stories and these characters, but only now we are starting to decide like, okay, so what’s it gonna be?”
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Images courtesy of Maria Feldman, and Hulu.