Gideon Levy, now a reality TV star
The Haaretz journalist explains why he doesn't regret his decision to bare all in a docu-reality TV series.
I lay on the treatment bed, clad in a narrow suit tailored to my measurements and with a glowing tie to my taste. The location: the offices of Nova Medical, a sophisticated institute for hair removal, situated in an equally sophisticated place called − in the best Hebrew − Airport City. Four other men lay on the beds beside me, my colleagues in humiliation and ridicule. One of them wore a pink suit, another a yellow one.
The photographer told us to raise our chin; the photographer told us to lower our chin. Submissively, we obeyed. I was then draped in a white doctor’s robe and told to stick my face to the window, express panic and give a loud shout. Again I obeyed. That, I was told, was for the “traditional” cover photo of Pnai Plus, an entertainment magazine which, to my shame, I have never read.
A few days earlier, in a spacious photography studio in south Tel Aviv, I had been told to disrobe. The photographer then instructed me to hold my private parts with my right hand. I obeyed him too, without a word. Barefoot, naked and humiliated, wearing only underpants, I exposed my scarred and used body for all to see. All? An army − photographers, PR people, gossip columnists, stylists and female dressers, producers and interviewers − stood nearby. That pic, I was told, was for the billboard campaign. I was promised that something would hide my body.
Welcome to the world of glory; welcome to the world of reality TV. Hats off − you’re going to be a star (for a moment). In two months it’ll be over, almost a year after it all started. Back then, a young producer invited me to a meeting about “Mehubarim” (“Connected”), a docu-reality series made by HOT (the cable television network), in which the participants document their lives with a home camera for a few months.
Passion for adventure
An avowed fan of the series and hung up by previous refusals to appear on “Big Brother VIP” and “Survivor VIP,” this time I decided to accept. A small majority of the few close people in my life was against. The opponents, let it be said, were far more forceful, aggressive and persuasive than the proponents. One of the former, perhaps the closest to me of the lot, threatened to boycott the program, and has done just that. Not a word is said about “Connected” when we meet for coffee every morning, as we have done for the past 40 years.
Most of the more distant circles were also incredulous. They asked me at almost every opportunity “Why did you do it?” and “What do you need it for?” I had no good answer to crush the objections and trump them one by one.
I tried, in vain, to compare the series to “Diary,” David Perlov’s episodic cinematic autobiography. I talked about my passion for adventure, which had sent me to the siege in Sarajevo, the war in Georgia, the earthquake in Japan, the jungles of Cameroon and, for almost half a century, into the occupied territories in times of danger and otherwise. It was the same before all those trips, too, which are the essence of my professional life: “What do you need it for?” And then, too, I didn’t know what to answer, other than, “I don’t need it − I want it!”
Afterward I tried to mumble something about the aspiration to present a human face and image for the person who was titled (justly?) by the all-knowing Independent newspaper in Britain as “the most hated man in Israel.” And maybe also to present the quintessential “Israel hater” as he is: far more of a patriot and a lover of Israel than people imagine. I had this notion that after “Connected,” my stuff and nonsense might get a better hearing, even if it never crossed my mind to try to get across a few radical messages − covert or overt − from my living room and bedroom, even if that’s the way it’s done these days.
I admitted that my desire for publicity − part of the DNA of almost every media person − certainly contributed mightily to the decision. All those things went through my mind. All the answers were amazingly correct and true, but even so, a mixture of determination, tinged with no little embarrassment, shame and fear, coursed through me and has continued to do so. But not for a moment do I regret the decision − so far, at least.
Almost a year has gone by since then, and the camera has become part of my life.
Together with my comrades in arms − the commentator-settler Hanoch Daum; the celebrity DJ Skazi (Asher Swissa); the stand-up comic Amiram Tuvim; and the playwright and writer Jason Danino-Holt − I embarked on this pitfall-strewn road. If you haven’t experienced it, you can’t imagine what it’s like. The ties between us were and remain purely coincidental, though a few common traits − after all, that’s one of the goals of “Connected.”
As with every adventure I set out on, I barely knew how it would start and had no idea how it would end. Even now, as I write these lines, in conjunction with the start of the broadcast of the 35 episodes, each 25 minutes long, I don’t have a clue how it will end from my point of view. After all, that is the inherent nature of an adventure, every adventure, “Connected” included.
The accursed camera became part of my life. In a few cases it went with me to places I never dreamed I would be in. An example? The bar mitzvah of Yehuda Daum, Hanoch’s son. The other guests included five Likud ministers, Sara Netanyahu and numberless armed and bearded settlers. “I want you to meet Oshi,” the proud father said, introducing me to his armed brother-in-law from the Yitzhar settlement. A week earlier, Oshi had been filmed shooting at Palestinians with live fire.
Hanoch, the endless provocateur, went from guest to guest and uncovered their hidden pistols. He missed no opportunity to introduce me to them. The most incredible thing is that, of everyone in the “Connected” group, that settler, Hanoch Daum, became the closest person to me. Peace now: not a day goes by without a batch of text messages between us, some of them so funny they bring tears to the eyes, in which we lament our bitter fate together.
Another example? I, moi, behind-the-scenes of a performance by Skazi in Helsinki, where we both happened to be on the same weekend. A dark, turbulent world, alien to me. The “Connected” camera will reveal my ignorant questions and my great dismay in the presence of these noise-making DJs, together with their yellow-haired groupies, in the darkest hours of a cold Finnish night. Connected? You bet.
The camera will show me in my intimate moments and also my most embarrassing. It was with me in my times of happiness and sadness. In domestic quarrels and in soulful conversations, in tears of sadness and joy. It accompanied me through tear gas in Nebi Saleh; demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox in Beit Shemesh; and the social justice protests on Rothschild Boulevard. Even to my family meal on Rosh Hashanah, in Ma’aleh Adumim. Would you believe? Also in bed, and occasionally out of it.
Surrendering to the camera is, of course, the very essence of this act of adventure. I wasn’t always sure when to turn it off. Or, for that matter, when to turn it on. I was sometimes sorry when I turned it on and even sorrier when I turned it off.
Charm and color
Life became a living movie, but never for an instant changed course because of it. Intimate discussions and minor dramas were part of life at home before the camera arrived, and will continue to be after it disappears for good. No, this small Panasonic HDC-SD800 camcorder did not change my life; it added only accompanying charm and color, enriching life for a bit by its sheer presence.
My Swedish partner and my son, who was recently discharged from the army, were exposed to it more than I was, with much courage; my elder son preferred to stay behind the camera, a decision I found just as honorable.
Dreary moments of everyday life, tear-jerking dramas and some grotesque moments, too. Catrin, who first came to Israel as a dreamy girl, in the wake of the Palestinians (and also partly in the wake of the Jewish roots of her great-grandfather), irons the army uniform − the uniform of the occupation army − of my Uri and even sews on his sergeant’s ranks. Would you believe? That’s what happens when you meet your love at Erez checkpoint: a love story that starts there, against the backdrop of the outcries of the Palestinian workers who are herded cruelly onto the “carousel,” (also) ends in tears.
In fact, there was plenty of crying in “Connected,” but regrettably (or happily) not by me, other than when the soldiers teargassed me. It’s been a long time since I cried: not before the genesis of the camera and not upon its arrival. I took it with me to the grave of my son, Tom, and to the sickbed of my brother, Rafi (who, happily, recovered). The camera mirrored a face that was sometimes pleasant, sometimes less so. I wanted a face that was more innocent, handsome and younger, but it seems to me that I saw and showed truth, albeit not always the whole truth.
Momentarily, I did not like the self-portrait that the camera provided, but who am I to judge? My human milieu was revealed and my fear for its well-being; and I exposed myself, up to a point. I tried to set a limit, after all. Sometimes I regretted it, other times I was pleased at its existence. I discovered some things about the people close to me, and mainly I discovered one amazing thing about myself: I am a great deal more introverted than I thought.
The person I had always believed to be open, who easily revealed his emotions, turned out to be a scion of his yekke (Jewish-German), emotionally-blocked heritage. That was a big surprise for me, maybe the biggest revelation about myself in my dotage. The director-editor, Ami Teer, and the producer, Ram Landes, often scolded me: “Give us more of yourself.” To their credit, they did not try to manipulate me emotionally, in order to advance their ambitions for documented life dramas. In their hands, many hundreds of hours of video became moments of television, sometimes leaving a feeling of missed opportunities, but that is the nature of the medium.
Thus, the portrait that will be seen on the screen is of course only partial − but true, for good and for bad. There are ups and downs in the storyline, unexpected shifts and also banal moments. Some episodes are more exciting than others. Only the viewer will be able to judge why he needs all this. Contrary to what is usually bad-mouthed, the staged scenes needed to fill in details were minor and mainly technical. Similarly, most of the few assignments we were sent on would have come to pass in any case, even without “Connected.” I think I can say in all honesty: we spoke truly.
Is all this of interest to anyone? Should my life interest others? Skazi’s life? Or the lives of Jason, Hanoch and Amiram? It’s not for us to decide. This week, Menash − who owns the convenience store in my neighborhood − stuck a copy of “Pnai Plus” in my hand: on its cover is a photo of the five “Connected” participants, dressed as doctors. “What’s this, a new theater play?” Menash asked in amazement. “I didn’t know you were an actor.”
The comments on the Internet have also begun, God help us. The first of them, and definitely not the last, goes like this: “Levy’s girlfriend is a fly. Only a fly is attracted to shit.” But I’ve long since become used to that.
The July-August heat is already here in full blast, and the streets of the big city are filled with billboards that carry my photograph. Sometimes, when I stop at a red light or am stuck in an endless traffic jam, I stare out the window − and who do I see in front of me, larger than life? Why, it’s the fellow who went on “Connected,” the upper half of his body bare and a dumb sign in his hand. Is it me? It can’t be, no way. It’s just a summer-heat hallucination; momentary, transient, whether I like it or not.