Fast talk with Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan
Talking to: Ilana Dayan, 47, journalist. Lives in Shoresh, near Jerusalem. Married to Harel, mother of Yael, Zohar and Gonen. Wants to promote: The concluding program of ‘Uvda’ (Fact), the story of Osama bin Laden’s assassination.
I can’t believe you were in Pakistan. I’m envious.
I brought back manifestations of hatred. None of the people I met knew I am an Israeli, including the photographer and the producer who worked with me. I spoke English with them and they heard me speaking Spanish on the phone with Irit, the researcher. The story was that she was a Colombian producer and I was an Argentine journalist and that we make documentaries. She was the only one who spoke to me on the whole trip.
The truth is that it was exciting. Really. This was the first trip in which I was completely alone. There was no way to take anyone along. I interviewed a journalist who had met Osama bin Laden, and as we were shaking hands he said, “My name is Jamal Ismail, and I am from Palestine.” My instinct, of course, was to ask him from where in Palestine, but then I remembered I was an Argentine journalist and this whole Palestine thing isn’t supposed to interest me. And then, naturally, I got very scared. Scared to death. If he is from Palestine − and I don’t know how long he has been in Pakistan − maybe he will identify me. I immediately asked, “How long have you been in Pakistan?” “Thirty years,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief.
It’s a fear that makes you feel alive, no?
Yes. Though it’s different from other situations that demand true courage − such as the blitz of threats against us by aides of [the tycoon Lev] Leviev – but there’s no fun to it. In Pakistan, the adventurousness overcame the fear. The peak was when we got to the city where bin Laden was assassinated [Abbottabad]. Suddenly Haroun, the producer, says to me, “There is someone here who wants your passport.” I understood it was someone from the security services. And in fact they took me into a side room, questioned me and photocopied my passport. I was scared. I didn’t know whether he had spotted the camera or not. Haroun told him that we were taking pictures for memories from Pakistan and that I was a tourist. It’s a good thing I was carrying business cards portraying me as a lecturer on law.
My heart was pounding. Truly. We got into the car, because he agreed to let me go on condition we got out of there right away, and Haroun said to me, “If you had an American passport it really could have been a problem.” And at this stage the photographer is already shooting, from inside the car. I watched it yesterday, with Eyal, the editor, and it’s clear to us that there is too much involvement with myself. That it won’t make the final cut.
Do you think about that all the time: Am I overdoing the self-involvement?
Why? Where does that come from?
Because you are constantly meant to be looking at it the way the viewer will look at it, and also to consider who the viewer is. It might be of interest to your neighbor; you yourself will look at it with a rather jaundiced eye. And let’s admit it: the TV critic who will write about it tomorrow morning is also at the back of my mind.
I’m surprised you are concerned by what people will say. Do you read, say, comments on the Internet?
Yes, but only in genuinely difficult moments of weakness. I try not to. I find wickedness, malice and lies in them.
There are no bad commenters, only commenters who feel bad.
That is really a grief you can spare yourself. With me, let’s say, there is a balancing factor. The commenting in the physical world is just the opposite.
And are you capable of taking pleasure in that?
Yes, very much so. I can take great pleasure for at least 17 minutes. It could be a woman who comes up to me in the street and tells me what an item did to her, or a cab driver who says, “You are prettier on TV, but you’re fine anyway.”
And the television critics. You once said you cried because of a bad review. I was stunned.
It’s true. For example, it happened to me a week ago. We broadcast Roni Koben’s film about the Maoz family [referring to a current murder case]. We made the film with a great deal of love, especially for Tamar Maoz [whose brother Daniel is on trial for the murder of their parents], though only a tenth of what she’s like came across on the screen. True nobility. And the process of making the film was extremely wrenching. The need to tell the story as it really was, in the face of the need to ensure that Tamar and her brother Nir [the twin brother of Daniel] would be able to live with the film. And then I get up in the morning and read a review in the paper. It wasn’t about the film.
It was about you.
Yes. About pomposity and being over-dramatic, with remarks about the program that it was in a tailspin and had lost the ability to renew itself and was satisfied to interview celebs. This season alone we had Motti Elon [a rabbi accused of molesting boys], Meir Dagan [former Mossad chief], the lobbyists, and items about Lev Leviev and Shabtai Kalmanovich [an assassinated KGB spy]. So I ask myself: What’s going on here? And yes, there were tears in my eyes again.
But it’s easy to cope with a remark like “the program is in a tailspin.” You rattle off that list and know inside that the allegation isn’t true. But what hurt you? Maybe you felt you had done something to Tamar?
No. We all waited for a text message from Tamar. That was the meaningful critique and we received a text message and an e-mail that I will keep all my life. It’s not that.
Then why did you cry?
Because I am so emotionally involved in the program, so identified [with it]. So intense all the time; everything is bare, I am
Stuck with the image
You are very sensitive.
Yes. I thought I was past that stage. When I had tears in my eyes I said to myself, “Hey, aren’t you past that stage?”
That’s a very interesting question in terms of your public image: you are always tough Ilana Dayan, and you are fair game. The softness I feel from you, the vulnerability − that just doesn’t come through on the screen.
And if it came through, would they write differently?
No, but it’s still interesting. Maybe it has to do with your being a woman in a man’s world. Do you feel you are paying a price that a man in your position would not have to pay?
Of course there are all those episodes that I don’t have the strength to talk about, but when I was at the center of things I really asked myself whether the same amount of fire would be aimed at me if I were a man. I often say to myself: “If I were a man, people wouldn’t get angry at me for asking such a brazen question.” And I wouldn’t get labeled with this aggressive image.
But over the years, it’s become deeper than that. First of all, something’s changed in me. I have learned to be at ease. It’s true that for many people I am still stuck with that image, and it makes no difference if I conduct an interview in a relaxed way and lean back − people will still see in their mind’s eye something that is not really happening on the screen.
You don’t make use of your femininity as a tool. It’s not in your arsenal. The opposite, even. Excuse me for saying that to you.
No, no, it’s all right. To begin with, you are right. You also formulate it very flatteringly. You are perhaps saying something harsher than that.
Well, I feel I get the reinforcements for my femininity in the places where I should get them, and I don’t look for them elsewhere. Not long ago I interviewed [veteran actress] Gila Almagor. We talked about her beauty when she was young, and I said to her, without having planned it, “I never had that weapon. Not even if I wanted.” I don’t remember if I injected the true load of that question, namely “I am not as pretty as you or as sexy as you.” But it got her to a place where she understood that that weapon had worked against her. I almost didn’t believe I had actually said that. It was a very powerful moment.
Do you think you have become dulled? Is what happens with the protagonists of an item on your program still important to you?
I have not become dulled. I am convinced of that. I think about “Seeds of Summer,” the film I made three or four years ago about “Benaya’s crew.” The four members of the tank crew − Benaya Rein, Adam Goren, Uri Grossman and Alexander Bonimovitch − were like a crew born under laboratory conditions. [All four were killed during fighting in the Second Lebanon War, in August 2006.]
Like in Joshua Kenaz’s novel “Heart Murmur,” where each new recruit represents a segment of Israeli society.
Precisely. The kibbutznik from Maabarot, the Russian from Netanya, the left-winger from Mevasseret and the settler. Obviously, in the end each of them is more than a stereotype. That film really grabbed me. In part, because of the connection with David [Grossman, the writer, who is Uri’s father]. When my father died, on the second or third day of the shivah, Hagit – Benaya’s mother – came in the morning. And in the middle of the day Alexander’s mother and Adam’s mother came from the north, and in the evening David came with Michal, his wife. It moved me very deeply that they all came, and on the same day. When I made the film I was totally with them.
They understood that.
Yes, they understood that. It’s a period that has remained with me very strongly.
And they looked for a way to repay you.
Smart and warm
Your father seems to have been a very special person.
Very much so. You have no idea how special. And my husband is a champion at impersonating him. A kind of South American accent mixed with Yiddishkeit. Let’s say we’re traveling abroad and we get lost and it’s dark and we haven’t arrived, Harel will say, “Who in the world neeee-ded this?” Which is what my father used to say to my mother when she dragged him to all kinds of places.
He was a very funny man. And a devout follower of Bibi.
No one’s perfect.
He had a right-wing worldview that didn’t take itself seriously. In fact, he didn’t take himself seriously, even though he loved himself very much and made no secret of it. And he understood people. You have no idea how precisely.
Let’s say, after [the communications company] Telad lost the tender, I didn’t know what would happen. All I knew was that I wanted to keep doing “Uvda.” It was also far from clear to me whether Avi Nir would head Keshet [a rival company]. My father asks me what’s going on and I tell him who I met with, and my father, who was not in the industry, said, “There is one Jew on whom everything depends, and that is Avi Nir.” And I remember Avi calling me and saying, “On Tuesday I will know where I am going, and then you will also know where you will go.” He called on Tuesday, but only to set up a meeting. He didn’t offer me anything. But my father said, “Ilana, if he promised to call and then did call on that day, everything is good.” I didn’t even know Avi. I had spoken to him on the phone maybe twice. How could I know we would reach an agreement − I didn’t know.
But your father knew.
To him it was obvious. And the truth is that I feel a kind of personal alliance between me and Avi. It’s no small thing to always have that backing when we deal with such explosive material. I talked about that a lot with my father. He would say, “The relationship of trust you have with him − that is your greatest asset.”
He seems to have been very curious about people. People who like people are the most interesting types.
Just so. Even if it was just a neighbor who took the elevator with him. What interested him was people. “Mr. Harel,” he would say to my husband, “nu, tell me something new.” He was so smart. So warm. Very, very warm. Would you like to hear something I wrote for him on his last birthday?
“Something that’s with me / In the old picnic basket / Which he filled for us slowly but was persistent. / It has what there was between him and Wilma / What I saw between them always / And what we have in the family / Between Ari and me / That’s in the basket too / An answer to that ancient query / That Bialik also asked over and over but didn’t find an answer / But I got it from my dad / Forty years back. / Thanks to him, thanks to the touch of his hand, his lips / Thanks to all he said to me across the years / Thanks to what his eyes say / Thanks to all that / I can say with great pride / Thanks to them I know that love abides.”
It was your great privilege to have been raised by him.
And I miss him terribly. It’s so hard.
You grew up in a very good, very supportive home.
He was a widower with two children when he met my mother. And she was his salvation. That’s how he spoke about her all his life. They created a rare situation, in which each of them felt that the other was giving him the stage. She was sure that he was carrying her and he was sure it was the opposite.
An original way to cope with the whole complexity of a relationship.
Exactly, and also, by the way, without any space. There was no space. He stuck with her for every checkup in the clinic, and she stuck with him for every treatment in the hospital.
Are you like that, too?
No, we gradually found that we are not able to conduct a life like that.
And in your essence: Was the relationship you saw at home a model?
I can’t ask myself that question, because so many things in my life are so different. But you’re right: there is something. I think especially of the depth of the connection.
The way it was assimilated by you.
And the place it has in the order of priorities. But it’s a different life.
Exactly − technically. But the technique becomes a type of essence. It’s not possible otherwise.
I’m interested in knowing what kind of a mother you are.
It goes back again to the dominance of technique over essence, because in essence I feel I am a total mother − but how total can I be when on some days I see the kids for seven minutes?
So you feel that quantitatively, it makes less of a difference.
In the end, quantity has significance. But let’s say that if Gonen is playing in an orchestra of 80 kids, and I stand there and watch, I see only one child. What I find truly amazing is how you manage to develop a connection of a completely different color with each of them. The dialogue with Gonen is completely practical, the dialogue with Yaeli is a dialogue with myself, with an offshoot of myself, which sometimes makes things harder, more problematic, but also amazing. Liberating and enriching. And Zohar is a boy who is all cinema and writing, who looks at life differently from me. He does not look at life in the practical sense at all. He’s capable of connecting something he read about U2 and something he read about the British Mandate and something else that he read in the paper yesterday. He starts reading the paper from Galeria [the Haaretz culture and entertainment section].
He is not a child you have to teach, but one who teaches you.
Exactly. So, motherhood is truly a thrilling experience, but I do feel that I don’t have enough time with them. In the face of that totality, there is constantly also the totality of work.
And you think, afterward, about what you truly regret. Probably that party in the kindergarten, when the mobile phone was glued to your ear the whole time.
Yes. The peak was in last season’s concluding program. We did an item about Unit 504, which handles [intelligence] agents, and there were all kinds of censorship problems − really, at the level where at some stage the censors slash half the item, and the slashing became extreme. The program was scheduled for broadcast on Thursday. At midnight on Wednesday we went back to the editing room after filming leads. We edited the report until 5 A.M. At six I had to leave with Harel, from Shoresh to a parents’ day at Shizafon, in the Arava, where Yaeli, who is a tank instructor, is stationed. At a quarter to five, Gilad [Tokatly] the director, records my voiceover and I head home, because Harel is waiting for me. Ten minutes later I am already at Hakfar Hayarok [near Tel Aviv], when I get a call that the sound came out distorted and I have to go back to the studio. I go back, rerecord and head home, but I don’t even go inside. Harel is ready with the picnic hamper, we are going to Shizafon. And in any case the deal is that I will leave Shizafon at 3, take a taxi to Eilat and then a plane to Tel Aviv, to the studio.
It sounds like a James Bond movie.
Really. So we are in Shizafon, but I am not really there. Fortunately, Yaeli does not resent it, at least not outwardly, but things got increasingly complicated with the censors. I am constantly on the phone, screaming to beat the devil. I didn’t even go into the simulation rooms. I saw a bit of the exhibition and flew back. I get to the studio, we recorded the whole thing from the start and made a lot of changes.
The program is scheduled to be broadcast at 9 P.M., and at 8:15 we start to put it onto a tape, and then we see that because we tried to get out of the mess with the censors, the first minutes came out like a big mess. We look at one another and say: Can we save it? Gilad says, “We will go into the broadcast room with two tapes. We will broadcast the first minutes from one tape and then switch.” We work on it like crazy, get to the broadcast room and it’s like a movie. They broadcast the first tape, do a countdown with the second tape, and do a cut on the air − which the viewer doesn’t notice − to the second tape. Then he turns around to us, the guy from the broadcast room, and says, “People, go get some sleep.”
But all the mothers at Shizafon have time to enter the simulation rooms.
Not just go in − they also bring jachnun.
Which they prepared with their own hands. And what is your feeling?
I am already past feeling guilty, I think. What remains is envy – envy pure and simple.
That other people...
Have a life.
It’s not even a life, maybe more a kind of quiet.
One thing that does come with time is [the insight] that it is possible to live the moment. In that sense I do know by now how to extract that hour and a half and the world around is dead. I was once invited to a talk show, and Mariano [Idelman] from “A Wonderful Country” was also a guest. I’m in makeup and the producer tells me I have to go on right away, and then Zohar calls. He is having a problem with something or other and I start to explain it to him, and the producer says, “You have to go on. Now!” I sneak into a side room and go on trying to explain to him, and everyone around is getting uptight. The producer says, “Ilana, if you don’t go on now, Mariano will go on first.” That became a saying. Whenever there is a problem involving the kids, I say, “Fine, let Mariano go on first.”
Is your daughter doing combat service?
It’s not combat, she is a combat auxiliary. She completed a year as a tank instructor in a field unit.
Is it scary, dangerous?
Now she is in an officers’ course. I don’t know what she will do after she completes the course.
Will you agree to her serving in the territories?
Yes. Not that she will ask me.
I want to talk to you about fears and anxieties − which also didn’t fit your image as I saw it.
But it does now.
Now, yes. But we’ve gone through something in the past two hours.
That’s something I see with a great many “successful” women − they are certain that in another minute someone will uncover the bluff.
Yes, the impostor syndrome.
True, but with me it’s already a soup made of this and a great many banal things: if I get through the next project, if I get through a great many tests I have to go through in the next 72 hours.
Do you also have fears about the top floor? The fear, let’s say, that suddenly it will all end?
It probably exists somewhere, but it doesn’t broadcast steady signals. I have also pretty much come to terms with the notion that at some stage it will all end. That’s something my father always told me. It’s something you are aware of: that this profession, television, can’t last forever. Every year Helen, the makeup woman, puts a little more makeup under my eyes.
Every year a little more concealer.
Exactly so. But that doesn’t move me very much, I think. Possibly the moment when it ends will be very moving for me, but it will be genuinely moving thanks to what there was, and not because of what will not be.