Sophie's choice reality: TV storyteller has most shocking family tale of all
There's a reason why reality show editor Ami Teer doesn't shy away from unhappy endings.
What guidelines would you give a new participant in “Connected” who comes to you for a camera the first time?
I’d say film your life freestyle − what you think is important. I then look for the stories, for what is being repressed, and steer things in that direction.
How far? Let’s say you discover from the material she brings you that her relationship with her partner is shocking. What will you ask her to do?
If she has a problematic relationship, the very fact that she is getting involved in this way means she wants to talk about it. So I send her to cope with the situation: to film a conversation about it with her partner, a girlfriend, her mother. Then, after two weeks of filming she would come here and I would show the places where her behavior was off, where she wasn’t listening to her partner.
Treatment by camera.
I didn’t study psychology, but I developed sensitivity from documentary filmmaking. I am very much aware of the things we expose and those we hide, where the story really is and the emotions that go with it.
How do you know what’s authentic and what comes from a desire to please? She came to the program to become a star, so it’s important for her to please you and have the episode focus on her.
That stage passes very quickly.
Do you feel that the “Connected” participants are in competition with one another?
Yes. The competition is about who the dominant figure will be, who will have the most powerful stories. The competition also induces them to give more of themselves. There is an insane war over image. That said, it’s not easy for them to fake their life; they will not create an artificial situation. But they will try to cut corners in order not to show weaknesses. And it’s here that I have to tell them,
“Hey, it’s alright, when you show weakness the viewer identifies with you, you look stronger to him.”
Do you really believe that?
Yes. Completely. Very much so.
How far does your intervention go?
There are people who have wild stories but just don’t know how to mediate them, don’t know how to tell the story. It’s true that we help them a little with expositions or with monologues amid the filming − “Say something at this point, so the story will be clearer.” But in the end, they’re the ones who carry the story.
Are you able to avoid being judgmental?
Our ongoing criterion in this project is not to be judgmental; to accept the characters and their psychoses, to understand. Not to try to change anything. At most to hold up a mirror or to steer the story in terms of narrative. From that point of view, the participants are part of the process, because to take part they have to believe in us.
One way that trust is acquired is by letting them view episodes long before they are broadcast. We see an interesting phenomenon during the viewing: it’s usually the other participants who come to the defense of the episode. They support it, they say it’s courageous, that a certain participant’s courage gave them strength.
You know, there is something, even at the level of the terminology you and the participants use − “truth,” “courage” − that makes me feel uncomfortable. It reminds me of the terminology of cults. What is “truth”? Which truth?
That’s exactly the point. When their truth encounters the episode after it’s been edited, it shatters. They come with their truth, but I see it differently than they thought, and there’s a collision.
But the collision always ends with a step up. Let’s go back to that bad
relationship. The girl does the filming, obsesses about the relationship endlessly, stages confrontations − it’s hyperreality. When it’s broadcast she gets a lot of love from the audience. But who sustains her? Who is the responsible adult in this story?
There’s an Arab fable about an old man in a village. Children come to him and say, “We heard that you give out candies.” To get rid of them, he says, “No, that’s happening on the other side of the village.” The children rush over there. Then he says to himself, “Hold on, everyone’s running over there. Maybe they really are giving out candies.” The place where you start to believe your own lies is very problematic.
Maybe that’s the place where people get addicted to the sense of mission and the obligation to tell the story.
Each participant takes the sense of mission to a different place. For example, I see Lior Dayan, who is taking part this season, coping with the responses he gets. It gives him a backbone; he suddenly understands that he can’t go on behaving like a little kid. But will they get carried away? I hope not.
The crew has relationships with the characters that make things happen. It’s a little like playing God. At best, you are only accelerating processes.
That’s true, it’s mostly a matter of accelerating processes. There are things that develop that would not have developed if there were no camera. That’s the price. But I know from experience that the place where things are exposed and open up is for the best.
Well, you have to believe in yourself and believe that it’s for the best, because you wield a great deal of power. You make use of actual therapeutic techniques − flooding, intervention.
That’s true. The father of [stand-up performer] Amiram Tuvim had never seen his son onstage. We more or less forced him to see a show. When I want to move things, I move them to positive places. Or Lior Dayan, who is coping with abandonment by his mother. When she came to Israel, Lior said, “There’s nothing to film − we’ve told this story in a million places.” I told him, “It’s precisely because you are afraid that I want you to try and cope. It’s important for me that you mediate this story.”
He turned on the camera and told a tough, jolting story, and his mother told her story. After the episode was pre-broadcast for the participants, Lior said, “That’s the last time I want to see that episode.” Everyone hugged him and he said, “But I do see that the episode works, precisely because it’s so hard for me. Don’t touch it.”
Are you sometimes embarrassed when you view the footage?
Of course. When that happens, I try to understand whether it’s something in me or whether the footage is simply embarrassing. But if it’s embarrassing and important, I will try to take it to a different level.
“Important” means truth, and I mean the truth of that moment. For example, Eylon Nuphar [42, the founder of the Mayumana dance troupe, who is documenting her professional life in the show, including her recovery from cancer and the question of whether she will be a mother] carries the BRCA1 gene. To avoid cancer, she has to have a double mastectomy and have her ovaries removed.
She filmed a clip in which she appeared on Avri Gilad’s morning TV show, and one of the other guests was a doctor. Eylon, all smiles, announced that she had no intention of removing anything. The doctor tells her, on air, “You are playing with fire,” and then corrals her after the show and says, “You have to have your ovaries removed, and the sooner the better.” From there she goes to her office, takes the clock off the wall and launches into a monologue about the biological clock, about how she wants to become pregnant. It looked absolutely pathetic, the monologue. Truly embarrassing.
What embarrassed me was watching the abortion undergone by Nati Kluger [a theater actor participating in the series and the mother of four-year-old twins; she and her husband, Boaz Rosenberg, documented the termination of an unwanted pregnancy]. We enter the operating room with her. She lies on the bed, under anesthesia.
Why did you feel like that?
I felt guilty watching, it wasn’t right.
It sounds prudish, but it’s just not reasonable to me. It was too much.
And if the price of showing that is to make a statement that “We women control our body, and neither the state, society or my husband will decide for me”? I think that when you pit the one against the other, it’s important to go all the way with it.
I understand what you’re saying, but I just can’t connect with it. To trade in privacy and intimacy for a “statement”? Why? Is the story more important than the teller?
I will tell you something about stories, something personal. My mother interviewed my grandfather for six years and wrote a book about him. My grandfather and his family were the only survivors of a town in which the majority of the population was Jewish. He made himself a place to hide in the forest and secluded himself there. He saw the town being burned and heard the screams of his parents and his brother. But he survived and he saved another 11 souls. His wife, my grandmother, was pregnant at the time. He delivered the baby in the hideout; he was a doctor. The plan was to give the baby to a Polish family he knew. But it was Christmas, and the Germans celebrated in that family’s home. The baby screamed and cried in the hideout. He had no choice: He was forced to kill the baby.
Words fail me.
My parents wrote the book, but they omitted this story to avoid hurting my grandfather. I first learned about it when I was 21. Over the years I have encountered many instances in which editors or directors whom I worked with had a hard time coping with emotion. They found it hard to tell the heart of the story. Well, I am not there.
Now I understand why it is so important to tell the story and understand the person’s conflict at that moment. My grandfather had 11 people he could save, and there was the baby. The choice he made is incomprehensible, but he made it, and it shaped him.
But do you know where to draw the line? How to know when the person is more important than the story?
Sometimes a participant will say, “That’s something I don’t want to touch,” and you see that if he touches it, it will destroy him − so you let it go. There are many powerful things that don’t get into the broadcast version, because in the end the person involved has to go on living in this world.
Do you like the participants?
Yes, though I sometimes have a very hard time with them. They are so anxious and frightened about their image, but I have to contain those fears and come from an approach of “You don’t realize what a marvelous episode it was.” It’s my own inner battle.
What do you do when you have no power? When you’re angry?
I go to my wife. You know, I grew up in a complex home. My mother is a daughter of Holocaust survivors. There was constant tension at home, lots of shouting. I was a genius and yet also a nothing, in the same breath. One of the first things I said to my wife was, “You and I will solve everything through dialogue; we will talk about everything.” And the truth is that my wife is the best choice I made in my life. I feel best when I’m with her, with the intimacy. I think that much of the human grace I put into the episodes comes from her.
It’s true. She is a person of grace.
How much of the work trickles into your private life? In quarrels with your wife, have you never thought: “This fight would make a great scene”?
Yes, of course. My wife also immediately tells me, “Look at you, you’re behaving like this or that person on ‘Connected.’”
So the well-worn question that follows is: Would you yourself be capable of doing what the participants do? Filming a fight between you and your wife for broadcast? Filming an abortion?
Because I don’t possess the abilities of the “Connected” participants.
I am serious. Look at our conversation. I told you a little about my relationship with my partner, a little about the family. If I had different abilities I would talk only about myself. I am more of an observer type. And that, too, is far from simple in itself. On the other hand, what looked complex five years ago is now trivial − with all the self-exposure on Facebook, Instagram.
That’s true. And in “Connected” you actually touch something deeper in the Zeitgeist − that the experience is a means and not an end − so the thrust of Instagram is really, “I will not watch the sunset, I will film it and wait for reactions.”
I will experience the sunset through other people.
Yes, and then the experience has no value per se. I think “Connected” is the same thing.
When I send the participants to film themselves, I tell them: “Say what you feel at that moment − whatever the situation brings to mind.” There’s a Bunuel film in which a couple is seen whispering and fondling each other while looking at photographs. Their children come in and are told to go away. Then the camera pans to the pictures and you see that they are just postcards of sunsets. You understand that they were talking about what they had in those places. The thing is to mediate your authentic feelings at that moment − because in another hour you will feel differently.
The series has come in for much criticism, particularly in terms of the morality of the format.
I really don’t want the viewer to see something only because he is looking for sensationalism. The moral line is something I delineate, and the feeling is that together with the difficulties I am also presenting human grace. If I expose anything about the characters, it’s in order to say something not only about them but also about the human experience per se.
In terms of all the participants during all the seasons of the program − do you have a clean conscience?
I live constantly with insane guilt feelings.
It’s from home. After the Holocaust, when my mother’s parents arrived in this country, my grandmother immediately became pregnant and gave birth to a son. What happened is that my mother and her sister were simply erased. The son received all the attention, the inheritance, everything.
That feeling always stayed with my mother. It’s enough for me to tell you that she sometimes gets confused and calls me by her brother’s name. So you can understand the guilt.
You know, at bottom we’re just talking about rationalization − of the characters, of the format, of you, of me. It’s all rationalization.
I want to tell you something. Being interviewed like this really scares me. I am so afraid to let go. But in the end, when you asked me the tough questions it wasn’t hard for me, because I understand that you want to get to the sharpest, most precise places. And I am the same.
Would you place yourself in your hands?
We’re stuck in the place of narcissism again. I will tell you something else. Every conversation I have with my mother, every phone call eventually goes to the same place: “When will you make a film of the book I wrote about Grandpa?” And I know that as long as she is alive I will not be able to do that. And if I am unable do that, I just will not be able to tell my story.