How a Childhood Trauma Inspired Hulu's 'No Man's Land' (Guest Column)

No Man's Land
Sife ELAMINE/Hulu

It was the early '90s, the Soviet Union had collapsed and my family was collapsing together with it.

"The police are here, we're going to say it was suicide due to family matters," my father's business partner said on the phone. My grandmother mumbled, "They killed him, it was a coup, all of them are guilty." My mother begged me not to travel to Moscow to the funeral, "He didn't want you to come this summer, he said that since this money disappeared it's too dangerous.” My grandmother was sent to the funeral to represent the family; someone had to make sure it was really him, and no one would hurt her, a 78-year-old political-economy professor. I was almost 17, in the midst of preparing for my immigration to Israel. In a few months I would finally leave this disintegrating country and my falling apart family. One day, I promised myself, I'll come to Moscow and find out what happened.

The mystery surrounding my father's sudden death haunted me for years. At night, I had dreams of him suddenly appearing in our house, each time with a more bizarre explanation on why he had to fake his death. I kept imagining hearing his voice in a crowd, or seeing his silhouette on the street. My consciousness knew he was dead, but my subconscious refused to accept it.

In my new Hulu series, No Man's Land, the hero, Antoine, is in a similar state when the audience first meets him. His beloved older sister, Anna, died a few years earlier, tragically and suddenly, her body was unrecognizable. Despite DNA tests, evidence and absolutely no suspicion regarding her death, something in Antoine refuses to fully accept it. His life seems normal and happy, he and his family moved on from this tragedy, but once he sees a blurry image of a woman who reminds him of Anna in a TV news report about Kurdish female forces fighting ISIS in Syria, he becomes obsessed. He knows it makes no sense that Anna is alive, and even less sense that she would be fighting in Syria — a beautiful, delicate Anna, a young and talented archeologist, who enjoyed Parisian bourgeois life. But the image haunts him, it shatters the normality of his life, he has to find the woman from the video. Antoine goes on a journey and eventually finds himself in Syria. But he's looking not only for that woman, he's looking for redemption, for a permission to leave the past and go on with his life.

This is exactly what I was looking for, when 20 years after this terrible summer of 1993, now 37 years old and a mother of two young boys, I finally found courage to set my feet in Moscow — the city that used to be my favorite place in the world, but became the most feared one since it took away the person I loved and admired the most. I wasn't brave enough to go on this trip alone, armed with a camera and my younger brother, who was 7 at the time of our father's death and hardly remembers him. We rented a small flat just off the famous Arbat street. I set up meetings with my father's former friends and co-workers. I tasked my brother to film everything while I asked them tough questions about my father's final days. I was prepared to hear terrible confessions about the coup in the company, about hiring a killer to push him out of the window of the eighth floor of his best friend's apartment, or regrets about blaming him for the company collapse, investment money that disappeared, threats of jail or mafia revenge and leaving him no other choice but to end his life. They won't dare lie to two orphans; the truth would be revealed.

And revealed it was. A sad and trivial truth. There was no coup, and only he blamed himself for the collapse of the company and for the loss of money to a shady middle man. He was a brilliant economist, charismatic and intelligent, but also imaginative and extremely sensitive. The collapse of the country, of the economy and now of his own company was just too much for him to take. He committed suicide as so many others during and after the fall of the Soviet Union. His friends and co-workers were devastated by his death, he was the heart and the brain of the company. It was heartbreaking, but also surprisingly comforting to hear them telling stories about him battling with depression in the last months of his life.

The mystery was unveiled, I could finally accept his death and move on. I stopped dreaming about him coming back, but sometimes I miss seeing him in those dreams.

Maria Feldman co-created No Man's Land, which is now streaming on Hulu. Her credits include co-creating the Israeli series False Flag, and exec producing Fauda.