Done Kidding Around

To kids’ TV guru Giora Hamitzer, making the leap to mainstream programming is more than just growing up.

Ten minutes after the start of my interview with Giora Hamitzer, a woman from the next table approached our table at the cafe in central Tel Aviv. The two, it turns out, met when Hamitzer and his wife were living in New York a few years earlier.After some small talk, the woman guesses that Hamitzer is involved in art. Television, he dryly replies.

Television producers usually do not receive much exposure. Most of them are keyboard jockeys who remain behind the scenes and leave the stage to the actors.

Hamitzer, who is now producing “Foxes.” Yael Engelhart

Hamitzer is no exception. But he is far from being in the shadows. Among television producers, especially in his chosen field, programs for children and youth, he is considered almost an institution. Already in the past he defined his approach to the field as "television entrepreneurship," and now he talks about his work in terms of "project management."

That includes creating, selling and developing an idea; involvement - which according to colleagues is liable to be obsessive - in every detail of producing and directing, close supervision of editing, responsibility for integrating the music on the soundtrack and public relations for the final product.

That is how he created series such as "Hashminia" (The Octet ), the Ur of Israeli children's TV, and "Ha'i" (The Island ) and even the first days of "Sheshtus," a children's game show that has been broadcast for the past two decades on the children's cable channel.

About two weeks ago the airing of "Shualim" (Foxes ), a new sitcom for children and youth, began on the Yes Comedy channel, following the end of "Maatzar Bayit" (House Arrest ) with Eyal Kitzis and Tal Friedman.

It's not hard to guess that "Foxes," his present project, is almost a relief for Hamitzer. The series tells about four young people who work during the day in a fast-food restaurant and at night create low-budget Internet horror films. It has lots of slapstick jokes, rubber eyes mixed into carrot juice and artificial vomit sprayed in a jet.

It seems that for Hamitzer, who is married with two children and will turn 40 this year, it means standing on firm ground. Certainly safer than that in "House Arrest."

"You can sell an amazing new idea, but afterwards you have to deal with it," he says of "Foxes," which, like "House Arrest," he wrote with Noa Pnini. "For example, with 'House Arrest,' the moment we came with the original idea of 'We open an amusement park and celebrities are killed,' everyone to whom we presented the idea was enthusiastic. From that moment began three years of suffering to make a series of it, because it took lots of time until we discovered how to do it well."

Were you aiming at the foreign market in "Foxes"? The atmosphere was very un-Israeli, the scenery, even the surroundings.

"No, we really weren't aiming for that. What we did want was to make a series that was not 'Israeli.' It doesn't come from an intention to sell it abroad. In every project I try to define what will be new about it. This field of studio-made sitcoms is something that has rarely been done in Israel. That was the great fun. There were 'Pajamas,' 'Shemesh' and "Life Isn't Everything.' Three examples that can't be said to have covered the spectrum of what can be done with the genre. I also believe that in children's series you can get away from realism to some degree. I didn't want it to feel like 'Here's the gang in the cafe and we're filming them.' I wanted it to be some kind of crazy universe, in which Israeliness would be only incidental. We rejected quite a number of story lines for that reason."

Why was that important?

"If I'm 14 or 15 years old now, I'm exposed to so much. When we grew up there was only Channel 1, and our exposure to content from abroad was very limited. Today on the Internet, with a million channels, things work differently. You can't ignore this context and you have to give them a world in which this escapism will still work. Some of the entertainment value of what we're trying to do is also to provide some kind of escapism."

Hamitzer apparently possesses the Midas touch when it comes to programming. When he was still at the start of his career, says a former colleague, he claimed that the series "The Octet" would completely change the attitude toward programs for kids.

But the attempt to do something similar in adult television did not bring the response that he expected. It's clear that the experience is not simple. Even though 'House Arrest' is not considered a failure, Hamitzer finds it difficult to get over its lukewarm reception.

"In 'House Arrest,' there was an attempt that I'm very proud of to make a series of a new kind, in its level of sophistication and sarcasm and lack of niceness," he says. "But it's very hard to do such a thing for adults. Maybe I'm talking out of bitterness."

Do you feel it wasn't well received? "Certainly not the way I expected. It's much harder to come to adults, certainly on Keshet, certainly right after a game show [the series was aired after "Al Tapil et Hamilyon" - the Israeli version of "Million Pound Drop"], and to tell them 'We're about to hit you over the head, be patient and come on some journey with us. It will be hard.' However, when you work with children you can do much more difficult things and take them much further, and the reward in the feedback is much greater. When you want to challenge yourself and to do something that takes some time to develop, you need an audience that will go along with you. It's a very delicate game, because you can lose this audience in a second, as I felt happened in 'House Arrest.'"

The conclusion is that anyone who does come to see it is coming deliberately. Isn't that success?

"My problem is that if there are 10 critiques, nine positive and one not, that's the only one I'll be preoccupied with. It's a trait shared by many people in this profession and it's terrible. What amazed me in the reactions to the series is not the reactions themselves, which were good for the most part, but that we were unable to create talk or buzz. For example, we had an episode, the best in the series in my opinion. The episode about the Holocaust with Friedman's grandmother. We felt great about it, we thought that it was funny and also had something to say, it dealt with our treatment of the Holocaust, the cynicism of the memory industry in Israel. There were several provocative parts and I remember that we fought with Keshet about how much they would show Hitler in each frame here, and the guy from the SS there. This thing was aired and nothing. Silence. There wasn't a single phone call to Keshet. According to the ratings, 300,000 people saw this episode. In other words, it's not that it was broadcast at 7:00 A.M. on Shabbat, people saw this episode. That caused me to ask questions."

Reality vs. drama

It's hard to avoid thinking that Hamitzer tends to overdo the self criticism. But the questions that he talks about are likely to lead to interesting and even far-reaching insights, about the future of television, far beyond the focus on children.

"It's possible that something has changed," he says, scrunching up his eyes. "We aired 'House Arrest' at the height of the popularity of the reality show 'Mehubarim' (Connected ). It's very hard to compete with something that is written and dramatized ... I asked myself why anyone should get excited about Friedman's grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, when they have Ran Sarig's dick five times a week waving around in every newspaper. It's not out of condescension but out of a profound questioning."

Which brings you to what thoughts?

"What's the place of drama here? Every episode of 'House Arrest' went through about 20 versions. On average we worked for half a year on an episode, every scene went through filters, it's the most thoroughly prepared thing I've done. You ask yourself what it means that you worked for half a year on an episode and everyone's talking about something filmed by someone with a hand-held camera."

So what does that mean? Is drama dead?

"That's a good question. It's as though the era in which we find ourselves now is not even the reality era, it's post-reality, total pornography of the emotions, total undressing of objects on the screen."

Will you do other things for adults?

"There's a lot of talk about things that may happen and may not. The most fun is to really create a world and the characters in it, to find actors who live the characters and to go wild there, but this experience will influence me a lot. The problem in Israel is the budget. ... You don't really have money here to build a set. In children's television people are more forgiving. I can fool around with a million new ideas, but it would never work for adults, in terms of the level of the production.