A lion in winter
"What are you running away from, Moti?" Yaron London asks Moti Kirschenbaum, interrupting the flow of "Lateref Nolad" (born for prey). Kirschenbaum's fifth nature film on Africa focuses on a herd of gnu in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, near the Kenyan border. The question from Kirschenbaum's co-host on their eponymous current affairs program on Channel 10 television is an annoyance, like the others in the film. Kirschenbaum did not write them but it was his idea to have them in the movie.
"I assume people are asking 'What's his deal?," Kirschenbaum says about the one-man Greek chorus in the film.
"The Palestinian issue, struggles, war in Georgia - and I keep filming Bambi, each time in a different pose. Of course it's escapism. I'm escaping from current events and the pressures of reality. I do it twice a year. I love nature, I have the opportunity to travel to Africa and after each trip I only want to travel more."
Africa is known for its physical beauty, but also for the suffering of its inhabitants. "I'm less interested in the corrupt politics of Africa as a subject for a film," Kirschenbaum says. "It's important and I deal with it on the program, but these are also subjects from which I try to escape."
Animals are not his only interest in Africa. Next month he is going to Ethiopia to film tribes in the south of the country. "That too is a world that is disappearing," he says.
At the end of "Lateref Nolad," which is scheduled to be broadcast tonight on Channel 10, the camera focuses on two old lions. In his characteristic voiceover style, Kirschenbaum says that someone may yet decide "to give these two old lions a television show."
Are you hinting that journalists are also an endangered species?
"Yaron and I are lions in winter. We joke about it in the office and on the show itself. We're approaching 70. I saw the two elderly lions in the bush - they require assistance, food is brought to them. There's something slightly pathetic about it. I knew that I would do something with that scene.
"In general, I can't free myself of the thought that we are animals. We have Internet and cell phones and can go to the moon, but in the end we die, we simply die. The older you are, like me, the more you understand that you're an animal, flesh and blood, that the clock is ticking. We can only fantasize about reincarnation. I look at the animals on the savannah, I see myself there."
Later, in a conversation at Channel 10 headquarters in Givatayim, a few hours before "London and Kirschenbaum" is shot, he mentions his age again. "I'm quite nostalgic about the 'old Israel,' which shows my age," he admits. "As the years pass my feelings only increase. I cry easily at nostalgic things. It's enough for me to see "The Way It Was" on Channel 1, it really moves me. I totally admit that I even miss that time.
"When commercial [as opposed to state] television went on the air I said, 'Friends, there's great value in exploding the monopoly of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, decentralization is good, it will contribute to creativity,' but you must know that the tribal campfire is gone. This thing that everyone watched, that everyone talked about in the corner grocery the next day, 'The Forsythe Saga', Dan Almagor's 'Sharti Lach Artzi' music show or the [early-1970s] satirical program Nikui Rosh is gone. Channel 2 is not a tribal campfire. At best it has audience ratings of 20-plus, 30 percent for the finals of 'Kochav Nolad' [the Israeli version of 'American Idol'). 'Nikui Rosh' had 90 percent."
Kirschenbaum, who was awarded the Israel Prize for "Nikui Rosh" is satisfied with his lot. "Yaron and I consider ourselves lucky to have a daily TV show with teeth after retirement age." At last month's television awards ceremony Kirschenbaum presented a lifetime achievement award to actress and media personality Rivka Michaeli. She gave an ironic thank-you speech in which she quoted a participant in the Israeli version of "The Beauty and the Geek," saying, "What does it matter what happened 70 years ago." Michaeli added, "That's my motto." A Channel 10 news item aired a few days later clearly implied hat she would gladly exchange the prize for a daily show, like the one she was to have presented on Channel 2.
"I think she's very happy with the award. She's hurt by the cancelation of her program on [Channel 2 franchisee] Reshet, and she gave expression to that," Kirschenbaum said. "She gave a push to many people, from [actor] Moni Moshonov to [singer-songwriter] Yehudit Ravitz. There was a time when anyone searching for the address of [recording company] Hed Artzi tried to get on Rivkaleh's show. No host did what she did, for years. And I'm not talking about the things she did as an actress on television, in the theater, in comedy. As I said at the ceremony, she's the greatest comedienne I've ever worked with, and I've worked with many.
"There's a paradox on commercial television," he says, referring to the reluctance to hire older people in the medium. "It speaks to the pocketbook, and the pocketbook is usually found among older people. Older people also watch television more, they have few entertainment alternatives. And nevertheless, television caters to the young."
The same week that Michaeli received the prize, longtime news anchor Sari Raz, in an interview to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, mentioned the difficulties she faced as a woman in the early days of television in Israel.
"I think there's something to it," admits Kirschenbaum. "Television was very macho. I was among the founders and there weren't many female journalists: Dalia Shehori, Sari Raz, I don't even remember if there was another one. There was definitely typecasting. We said, Sari will be a fashion reporter. There was no Ilana Dayan at the time, or the wonderful female journalists that one hears on the radio now. Nor were there many female reporters on Israel Radio. In the media there is actually a major influx of women. On Channel 10 I see more and more women working as reporters."
But there aren't many female executives.
"Wait, you'll get the whole world. Tzipi Livni will be prime minister."
"Lateref Nolad" focuses on the gnu, an animal with no ratings, or as Kirschenbaum puts it, "the most nebbishy animal in nature." About a previous Kirschenbaum movie, "Bekhol Zot Seret Teva" (a nature film after all), the late Haaretz culture critic Ehud (Udi) Asheri wrote that Kirschenbaum "is head over heels in love with every random four-legged and winged creature."
"Udi was my favorite television critic," he says, adding that while he agrees with Asheri's description there are some exceptions. "I have cats in my house, which I don't like. There's one that does her business only only in the house. She can play outside, but she does her business inside."
Earlier this year Haaretz writer Gideon Levy went after Kirschenbaum. "Maybe it was too much to expect Kirschenbaum, of all people, to admit that the Israeli media are no more objective than Al Jazeera," Levy wrote about a show on which London and Kirschenbaum hosted a journalist from the Arab network, "but what we got was a barrage of screaming propaganda from the mouth of Israel's 'Mr. Liberalism.'"
Are you really Mr. Liberalism?
"Yes. After his critique we went on radio and television and fought it out. Gideon is a friend and I admire him very much. My liberalism was not affected. I'm definitely very liberal. I'm a liberal who is living in the Israeli setting, and although I'm a liberal I'm a Zionist too. How does that work? For me it works. I think there's a good reason for our being here, but we're making every possible mistake. No one can accuse me of not pointing out these things. I've made a career out of these mistakes, in satire, in reports, in criticism, in a thousand and one ways.
"Apropos liberalism, when we did 'Nikui Rosh' every cabinet meeting began with something about the show. They didn't know me, because I came to the show after studying in Los Angeles, and they knew all the others from radio or the press. [Prime minister] Golda Meir asked Simcha Dinitz, the director of the Prime Minister's Office, 'Who's that Moti Kirschenbaum?' He checked, and at the next session - the recording in the archive - you can hear her saying 'We checked, Kirschenbaum is a liberal from Los Angeles.' [He imitates Meir's American accent]. "So you understand, I'm a liberal, I have proof from Golda."
Regarding bias in the media, Kirschenbaum says, "Being in favor of the country gives good ratings. If you're critical, only Meretz voters will watch you." In truth, "London and Kirschenbaum" is critical and has relatively high ratings, largely due to young viewers. "In general, young people like the young world. But they have sympathy for two alte kakers who fool around, casual, cool guys," he explains. Kirschenbaum's cool image was reinforced several years ago when the NRG Web site chose him as the coolest person in the country. "That's not true," he says dismissively, "I'm not that cool. Apparently I managed to hide my Polish genes. I'm a hysterical type."
The coolness doesn't extend to his areas of interest. "The problem is that young people don't watch the news. Although Israel is a fascinating and important country, and every day you have to listen [in order to know] whether to pack your bags and head for to the border, they still don't watch." When he was interviewed for Yeshayahu Ben Porat's book "Conversations with Moti Kirschenbaum" (in Hebrew), he said that Israeli society is falling apart. "I was more or less right, wasn't I?" he says. "I couldn't ignore the disintegration, which bothers me a lot. For members of my generation, the glue, which was also reflected in the tribal campfire, is important. For people of my generation establishing the state was glue. People don't understand that it was a miracle."
But he understands that "there is life beyond current events. What am I lacking? I'm crazy about sports, crazy about nature, love the country and work as a common laborer in the media."
Nature is being destroyed, athletes run on steroids, people no longer read newspapers and they don't watch the news, and you yourself said that the country is falling apart.
"You have to find the good in everything. About a week ago there was a wonderful item about the discovery of 125,000 Western Lowland gorillas in an area of the Congo they hadn't been in before. We knew there were only 50,000 Western Lowland gorillas left, and suddenly there are another 125,000. We haven't discovered everything on this planet yet."