In July 2007, five physicians from Spain - Maria, Borja, Carlos, Raquel and Daniel - spent three weeks at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. The five, all non-Jews on their first trip to Israel, were the stars of a television reality show that documented their professional and social integration at the hospital. Mostly, though, it was an attempt to upgrade Israel's image in Spain.
Herve Hachuel, the creator and director of the two-part series, "Rambam," says he got the idea for it when he read about an academic poll on Israel's image in the European Union. "Spain ranked a dishonorable first among the anti-Israeli countries," he related. "I knew then that I had to do something to change the situation."
The director, who is Jewish and describes himself as "the first Hachuel to be born on Spanish soil after 500 years of exile," notes that the Spaniards' hatred of Israel "stems in part from traditional anti-Semitism, and there is not much I can do about that. However, it also has to do with the Spaniards' ignorance about life in Israel. They get their information from media outlets that provide superficial, one-sided coverage. The only thing they show on Spanish television or write about in the papers is dead or wounded people, shooting and suffering Palestinians. All the rest - life outside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - simply does not exist for them. My goal was to show this human and civilian reality without any political propaganda."
He decided to send a small group of people to Israel and capture their experience on film.
"At first I couldn't figure out who to send, but when the idea of physicians who would work in a hospital came up, the ideological concept and the television format blended together perfectly," the series' chief producer, Ana Pinos, says. "Hospital series have been successful all over the world in the past few years, mainly because the intensive human experience that takes place in the operating rooms and in the corridors creates dramatic television moments. A hospital is a microcosm of society. Different people with different stories come there, and the viewer can easily identify with them."
For the Rambam staff, though, this perfect television blend was not so natural.
"When they came to us with the idea of shooting a reality show here, I thought it was a very bad idea," the hospital's spokesman, David Ratner, admits. "Rambam was still recovering from the rough period of the Second Lebanon War, and I was certain that Hachuel was one of those hallucinatory messianic types who show up here every so often with a brilliant idea to bring salvation to the hospital and to Israel. But after a few meetings I was persuaded he was serious, and his enthusiasm was infectious. We had to cope with many ethical problems relating to the presence of cameras in the operating rooms and to the lives of doctors and patients, but in the end we achieved a good balance between the needs of the series' creators and the hospital rules."
"Rambam" is not like any of the usual reality programs. There are no barwomen in bikinis or beekeepers in body-hugging underwear. Nor is there a competition to the death for a cash prize or SMS voting, and none of the participants are kicked off the show. In addition, it is unlikely that the five physicians, however photogenic they may be, will be offered fat advertising contracts after the series is broadcast on Spanish public television later this year.
The series shows revealing situations directly and elegantly, without artificial dramatic effects, even at peak moments that possess tremendous saccharine potential. It deals mainly with the medical procedures in which the Spanish physicians are involved, and shows them in detail, sometimes in excessive detail that borders on the tiresome.
The stories of the five physicians are juxtaposed with the stories of five patients. For example, Dr. Carlos Alvarez, whose specialty is orthopedic surgery, treats Julian, a young Argentine soccer player who is in Israel for tryouts and is injured while training. Alvarez helps operate on Julian and accompanies him, as a physician and an interpreter, during his rehabilitation, until the sweet-sour end of the story: Julian recovers and plays in a Hapoel Be'er Sheva training match, but the team decides not to sign him.
Meanwhile, Daniel Serralta, a general surgeon, meets Nava, an army classification officer who is about to retire from service. She is obese and undergoes a stomach stapling while the camera is rolling. The series follows her in the months after the surgery as well, as she sheds more than 40 kilograms.
The creators of the series say they wanted to leave the "situation" outside. But the persistent "situation" comes in through the backdoor. Borja Merry Del Val, also an orthopedist, accompanies another kind of patient as he rehabilitates: Dubi, a reserve soldier who was wounded in the Lebanon war and is fighting to save his leg. On a different floor of the hospital, Ziad, a Palestinian boy from Jenin in the West Bank, undergoes surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his head. Ziad is treated by Jewish and Arab physicians, as well as the anesthetist Raquel Iglesias, who was offered a job at Rambam after the shooting ended.
Maria Santillana, a radiologist from northern Spain, said that before she was asked to take part in the series, she did not take much interest in politics.
"I knew there is a war in Israel, and naturally I identified with the weaker side, with the Palestinians. When I told my friends that I was going to Israel, they thought I had gone nuts and tried to persuade me to stay home. I was afraid, too, but I had no intention of giving up the opportunity to work in Israel, which is known for its high standard of medicine," she says.
The experience was "excellent from every point of view," Santillana says. "Professionally, I learned in three months what would take me two years to learn in Spain, and just as important, I learned not to make do with information I get from television or the papers. The story of Israel is much more complex than I knew. I saw that it is a normal, modern country and that besides its violent side, it also has many other, very human sides."
"Before the trip, the physicians were afraid that they would be brainwashed in Israel," Hachuel says. "They thought we wanted to make them goodwill ambassadors for Israel, so at the beginning they got uptight whenever the political issue came up. Most of them had pro-Palestinian views, but by the time they left the hospital and the country, they had changed. I know that this series will not cause a drastic change in Spanish public opinion about Israel, but it is a small grain of sand that I can add to Israel's image effort, and it is not a bad start at all."
That start has already generated interest from Catalonian public television, which suggested that Hachuel send five Catalonian physicians to Rambam for the series' second season. It's a tempting idea, but the Rambam staff was quick to cold-water it.
"We told them that we needed to rest a little before we let more camera crews in here," Ratner, the spokesman, said. "We need time to recover."