'We Used Gay-friendly Eurovision to Hide the Truth, That We’re a Racist and Conservative Country'

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Israeli documentarist Orna Ben Dor. 'He was a very famous man in the academic world and I remember thinking that he was very strong and I just had to wait until it was over.'
Israeli documentarist Orna Ben Dor at her home. 'He was a very famous man in the academic world and I remember thinking that he was very strong and I just had to wait until it was over.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

Orna Ben Dor has never watched Eurovision. She once tried to watch, and all she can remember is Izhar Cohen winning for Israel back in 1978. Still, her lack of interest didn’t make her reject the offer she got two years ago – document Eurovision 2019 in Tel Aviv.

She had little idea of what she was getting into. Only when she arrived at the scene did she start to understand the scope of this mammoth event, probably the largest ever produced in Israel.

The result is the series “We Dared to Dream” on Kan 11 television, which produced Eurovision itself exactly a year ago. The series’ title is derived from the 2019 competition’s slogan, “Dare to Dream,” itself a play on Theodor Herzl’s famous saying, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Australia's Kate Miller-Heidke during the rehearsals for the first semi-final of the Eurovision song contest, 2019, held in Tel Aviv, Israel.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

The initial proposal was for a 50-minute film, a “behind-the-scenes” piece. But Ben Dor, a bulldozer of a woman and one of Israel’s top documentary filmmakers, produced three episodes of 50 minutes each.

As befits a series created for the public broadcasting corporation and documenting the company's biggest project ever, Kan’s people are depicted as superheroes fighting anyone who threatens to undermine the project, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hamas. On the other hand, episodes such as Madonna’s spasmodic performance, the modest ticket sales and the stagehand who was killed during the preparations are completely absent.

(Disclosure: I took part in the series; I discussed Eurovision’s political context.)

When I asked Ben Dor why she left the project’s failures on the cutting room floor, she replied that her contract forbade her from filming Madonna (“not a single frame”). She herself decided to leave out the stagehand who was killed; she said it would only hurt his family.

A still from "We Dared to Dream" shows Eurovision 2019 co-host Lucy Ayoub backstage. Credit: From "We Dared to Dream" on Kan 11

And what about the other problems, or any broader critical viewpoint? She admits she wanted to give credit where it's due.

“I didn’t want to be critical. There are things I’ve done that haven’t been critical. A few. But with this, I said I wanted it done lovingly, because it’s happy, and it should be happy,” Ben Dor says.

“I was infected with the enthusiasm. My only criticism was of what surrounded Eurovision; that is, the politicization – the fact that Netanyahu used the corporation and then threw it away. But Eurovision itself, there was something childlike and joyful about it.”

Didn’t you feel that you were sent to do a PR job for the broadcasting corporation?

“I became a soldier .... I think Eldad [Koblenz, Kan CEO] is the only person who can manage the corporation independently ... so I enlisted. Broadcasting Eurovision is a wonderful thing. I was part of its struggle and I wanted to give it credit, not because it’s the corporation’s.

“After I filmed hundreds of hours like a crazy person I met with Eldad and told him, ‘you’ve got a series.’ So he said to me, ‘only if it’s the best series about the corporation.’ I told him ‘I don’t know. It looks like the corporation comes out pretty well.’ So that’s what I did. I didn’t feel prostituted or sold.”

“We Dared to Dream” also looks at Eurovision’s main motif, the one that aims to create a colorful bubble of escapism, expressly gay. Still, the echoes of Gaza’s rockets tormenting the south could be heard even there.

“From my perspective as an artist – and excuse me residents of the south – it was like winning the lottery .... Documentary filmmakers are a little like vampires,” Ben Dor says. “They go where it hurts and that’s what succeeds. That was Israel in a nutshell: You come to do the most festive thing and then boom.”

How did you feel with the need to present Israel as an egalitarian and democratic country?

Eurovision 2019 co-hosts Bar Refaeli, left, and Lucy Ayoub.Credit: From "We Dared to Dream" on Kan 11

“I don’t believe there is such a need .... The philosopher [Slavoj] Zizek says that if you say again and again that you want peace, that mainly says you actually want war. Your unconscious tells you the truth dialectally. So we don’t want peace – nobody but a bunch of people on my Facebook feed. This idea, that we hate someone in an organized way, is very good for us. It fixes up our lives because we always need to be persecuted and won’t give up our victimhood.”

You say in the series that the 1999 Eurovision in Jerusalem, where Dana International danced on the Old City walls, reflected an Israel more liberal than in 2020.

“And it’s true. We’re taking advantage of this thing, Eurovision, something gay-friendly, to hide the truth, that we’re a racist and conservative country. In 1999 we were in the Oslo [peace] process, Dana went up to dance at the walls of Jerusalem, and the religious people agreed that it be held, even though it was on Shabbat. That was an entirely different era. Those were different religious people and an entirely different number of religious people.

“Listen, I’m torn up inside over this Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] thing. I’ve done a lot with Jewish women and I see myself as more Jewish than Israeli. There used to be a party here called Poalei Agudat Yisrael, and when I was young I admired them.

Israeli documentary filmmaker Orna Ben Dor, May 2020. 'There was a man whose name I won’t mention, he’s about 80 now, a Holocaust survivor. He raped me when I was 20.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“To me, that was the most radical place .... My daughter is studying in Berlin to be a Reform rabbi, so I have lots of discussions with her about it. She tells me sometimes that I’m anti-Semitic and I tell her that it’s not true and that there are things happening here that if they happened to some other minority, not Haredi Jews, we’d both sit and curse. But I’m torn about it.

“The Haredim used to be much less extreme and much less nationalist. Now everything comes together in a pretty lousy way. It recalls the dark days [the Nazis]. It’s unpleasant to say the word, the N word. They weren’t religious but they harnessed the pope’s religious anti-Semitism to their benefit.

“Even if you look at the justice system, I don’t know if the High Court was right in its ruling a week ago [letting Netanyahu form a government despite the corruption indictments against him], but it smells bad. When the justice system fell in Germany, that’s where Nazism succeeded. There should be no comparing, I know.

‘Israeli Sex’ and more

That’s the way Ben Dor is. She throws a match and then tries to put out the fire. It seems like she enjoys playing with fire. Many of the films and series she has directed move along this axis – irritating and defiant alongside angry and political.

There are her documentaries like “Because of That War” on (rock star) children of Holocaust survivors, and “Israeli Sex” and “Blonde,” which explore feminism and gender. There was also a series on the state prosecution; to former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and his colleagues, she’s now persona non grata.

On the other hand, some of her TV projects she says were a matter of making a living: a docu-reality show about dating, a series about teachers, and one unforgettable series, “Me’usharot,” on the world of Nicol Raidman and her friends in the upper thousandth percentile.

Israel's Kobi Marimi performs during a rehearsal of the grand final of Eurovision 2019, held in Tel Aviv.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

I asked Ben Dor whether she, as a woman with a social conscience, doesn’t regret turning Raidman into a popular hero, someone who chats live with Sara Netanyahu on Instagram.

“Nicol would have become famous even without me, but I swear on my children’s lives that I don’t see those live chats,” she says, adding: “I’m not allowed to respond” – the only time in our conversation she doesn’t want to elaborate. Then she changes her mind and says: “Nicol was there and it had to be captured. It was a combination of a skilled documentary eye and a coincidence.

“We’re all involved in it, in money. Our cultural heroes are made of these things. That’s not you and me. You can either document it or hate it or close yourself off in your four walls. My daughter is in Berlin and none of her friends from high school are in Israel. She went to Thelma Yellin High School; [they were] the finest. The state should have fought for these people. And they’re not here. The one who’s here is Nicol. So I documented her.”

“Me’usharot” was one of the first docu-reality shows in Israel. At the time, the website Ynet reported that one of the leads in the series, Inbar Shenhav, had been filmed in what was supposedly the kitchen of her luxurious house. But it wasn’t her kitchen at all. The scene was filmed when she was living in a rented apartment.

To what extent does this manipulation let us believe that what we’re watching reflects reality?

Journalists watch a rehearsal for Eurovision 2019, held in Tel Aviv, Israel, on May 2019.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

“It’s true that they were living at the time in a rented place, but that was a temporary home. The cooks in the scene were really her cooks, and she really did make lots and lots of money.

“There are manipulations, and there should be. The first lesson in a documentary, not even a docu-reality, is that you realize that cinema is manipulation. Where you place the camera is manipulation. Where you edit the material is manipulation, and the boundaries within the manipulation are yours. Where is the red line and ethics? That’s between you and yourself.

“In a documentary you can make the biggest lies because that’s the closest to reality. But in a news report, too, you film it and you edit it and you don’t always know what the truth is on the ground. Many times there are conflicting versions.”

That brings us to the series “Jerusalem District,” the docu-reality show about the Jerusalem police in which a gun was planted in a Palestinian’s home. It can be claimed that this was reasonable manipulation because the police do often find weapons in Palestinians’ homes.

“You’re right and not right,” Ben Dor says, “What happened in ‘Jerusalem District’ is simply illegal. On the other hand, manipulation is the way to make television. Anybody who thinks otherwise is naive or doesn’t know how to make television, or is a little stupid. You don’t want to watch a film where there’s no manipulation.

Documentary filmmaker Orna Ben Dor, May 2020. 'Documentary filmmakers are a little like vampires.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“In the ‘60s they made ‘cinéma verité’ films, supposedly without manipulation. Do you know how boring those movies were? Even when I sat with my mother and interviewed her for my film there was manipulation there, too. After all, it’s not a natural situation.

“As for ‘Jerusalem District,’ they broke the law and hid a gun that shouldn’t have been hidden. There’s a difference between filming a scene in a kitchen that doesn’t belong to my lead actress, a woman who still makes six figures a month, and planting a gun in the home of a Palestinian. If you compare the two, then you can compare Hitler to somebody who just stepped on a cockroach.”

You see yourself as a feminist. But your lead characters in “Me’usharot” didn’t make their own money, they relied on their husbands. That’s not a feminist message.

“But that’s the format. The format was originally called ‘Real Housewives.’ I want to tell you something: In the series’ third season I insisted that there be women in the cast who made their own money. And so it was. And you know what happened? The ratings went down.

“People want to see a Cinderella story; the prince chooses her and she doesn’t have to work anymore. Anybody who cut me down, like Moran Sharir, cut me down because of that – why in the world did I, a known feminist, make a series like that? But the complexity of these women could also be seen. Their choices weren’t simple. But come on, it wasn’t a series about gold diggers.”

Discovering the pills

Ben Dor certainly didn’t document only Raidman and her friends. The totality of her work is a window into understanding the divided, broken and magnificent place where she lives. Her home is in the heart of an old Jaffa neighborhood. Six huge rooms. High ceilings. A window overlooking the Mediterranean. Eclectic artwork and statues, all meticulously placed.

Her study contains thousands of books, many of them on psychology and the Holocaust, two areas that she has always explored. “I was in therapy my whole life until I discovered the pills. Instead of moving ahead by centimeters, you move ahead by kilometers,” she says.

Ben Dor is now involved in a series on Jewish women who were smuggled into Argentina from Eastern Europe in the 19th century by the Zwi Migdal prostitution ring. Like many of Ben Dor’s films, it deals with heroines with a bitter fate, but she promises that in this work as well, the heroine isn’t only a victim.

Eurovision 2019 co-host, Israeli model Bar Refaeli, during the rehearsals.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

Ben Dor was born in Kiryat Ono, east of Tel Aviv, to two Holocaust survivors. Her father, who was unfaithful to her mother, left home when Orna was 2. Her stepfather beat her and her mother, and she can’t forget the violence, or her complicated relationship with her mother. That relationship manifested itself in her 2009 film “Ima Tagidi” (“Mother, Tell Me”).

Ben Dor got her first camera from her father. “I asked for a camera to record things, even under water,” she says, adding that she was always addicted to cinema. She recalls the Oron movie theater near her home, where the mother of Israeli poet Yona Wallach sold tickets. “It cost 25 agorot [currently 7 cents] and I’d see three movies a day, from French and Italian classics that I didn’t understand to spaghetti westerns and all kinds of movies. Doris Day too. Later I got to Cassavetes as well.”

Ben Dor was a quiet child who observed the world. “There was an element of looking and not understanding the laws. They were changing all the time. Observing was meant to allow an understanding of the order of things. I was very focused on myself at the time and could be violent and feel under attack for no reason, but this was all a survival mechanism. I don’t say this as an apology.”

Raped by a famous man

Despite Ben Dor’s openness, many areas are unclear. In an interview with Yehuda Nuriel in Yedioth Ahronoth two years ago she said she couldn’t begin to describe the sexual harassment she suffered. I asked her about her choice to tell about the men who assaulted her.

She thought for a moment and said: “There was a man whose name I won’t mention, he’s about 80 now, a Holocaust survivor. He raped me when I was 20 and I wanted to be a poet. It won’t do anybody any good if I say his name. It’s not like he can hurt anybody else now.

“That was one of the harsher cases. He was a very famous man in the academic world and I remember thinking that he was very strong and I just had to wait until it was over, and to me that was a legitimate thought. When women were raped in the 17th century, they didn’t call it trauma because it was routine.

“Forty-five years ago it wasn't routine but I had no one to turn to. When I made the series ‘Israeli Sex,’ [author and editor] Atara Ofek told how she had been raped by a well-known Israeli general and the police laughed at her when she went to them. There was no law and the norm was very specific. The man who raped me was very well-known, a man whose name you wouldn’t expect to hear, yet it wasn’t very unusual.”

She says there are other stories, but she keeps most of them to herself or has only shared them with her closest friends. Still, it seems important to her to recall one of them. “Decades ago I was managing a major organization in the industry, and there was one senior official who was married. He’s still married. He flirted with me to no end,” she says.

'We Dared to Dream,' Episode 1 (in Hebrew)

“I was a divorced blonde with two children. He wasn’t the only board member who sent me messages. These were senior businessmen, lawyers. I got phone calls at home like you wouldn’t believe. I remember blaming myself, thinking maybe I was acting in a provocative way, though looking back I don’t think that’s true.

“And then the senior official and I traveled to the United States to establish a friends organization, and we began an affair. Obviously it shouldn’t have happened. This man later orchestrated my dismissal because I met someone new and the circumstances changed. He also began to smear me in the media, though nothing he said was true.

“It was ugly, and as a result I couldn’t find work. I remember discussing this with [journalist and former Labor Party leader] Shelly Yacimovich, and she asked me why I didn’t take the story to the media. I said I was afraid. After that I was in bed with depression for a year. No one wanted to hire me. This thing destroyed my life.

“It was the worst year of my life. My children saw me in bed. I almost didn’t have enough money for food. I would go look for cheap vegetables in the market Thursday afternoons. And I was alone and had to support two children.

"The ones who saved me were Doron Tsabari and Julie Shles, who took me in to work with them at Tom Communications. From there I went on to do the series that I loved most to do. A lot of years have passed since then. And I got better. After that year, I was reborn. When I emerged from that, after that huge crisis, I think I stopped being so afraid.”

A security guard stands in the main arena of Eurovision 2019 during rehearsals, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Credit: Avshalom Halutz

Did you pay a price for being a beautiful woman?

“Yes, but I liked being beautiful. When I was growing up, I was led to believe that I was ugly and fat, like some kind of ugly duckling. But then suddenly I realized that I was fine, so I celebrated that as a teenager. Then at some point I realized that this has a price. And I paid a price. But it didn’t make me withdraw or become ugly.

“Looking back, I realized it was all camouflage, because now, when I’m 65, I realize that I have a body .... One feminist once said that when it’s over, you’re simply liberated – meaning from the sexual game. And it happened. Suddenly I have a body. I enjoy it. And it’s not at all connected to the sex games or to beauty.”

So you don’t plan to go heavy on the Botox?

“Of course I will. I won’t overdo it, I won’t look like Madonna. Don’t worry, I won’t give up my facial expressions.”

The needles don’t scare you?

“Not at all. I like it. And I like working out. In the last few years I’ve taken off a few kilograms. And I like being blonde; I even did a series on it, the most political one I’ve ever done.”

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