All Tied Up

Director Julie Shles is known for her total immersion in her projects, deep sense of adventure and willingness to test boundaries. Now her all-female, docu-reality hit series 'Connected' is taking television by storm.

It's doubtful whether anyone in the large audience that filled the Tel Aviv Cinematheque one evening a few weeks ago, at the launching of the new season of the docu-reality show "Connected" ("Mehubarot"), noticed anything unusual about the director. Julie Shles, one of the best known and admired female artists in the local film and television industry, was walking around excitedly and mingling. It was hard to miss her; her mane of red curls and her red lips have been her trademark for decades, as has her amazing energy. Nobody in the audience, therefore, could have guessed that only about four years ago, Shles thought that she was about to die.

"It was diagnosed as fibromyalgia, an auto-immune disease," after a long period when she preferred to conceal it, she says. "It was a year of hell and I thought that I would never be myself again. The most difficult thing was to go to doctors and to be told that there's nothing to be done. They prescribed loads of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, painkillers. It drove me crazy, I thought I was about to die.

Julie Shles
Ilya Melnikov

"I had a close friend who was dying at the time and I thought it was somehow connected," she continues. "I have a very great ability to identify with people and that's problematic. It helps me to make films, but I think it also brought me three to four very difficult years of terrible pain all day long. I was so weak that I couldn't even lift a hand."

Shles attributes the cure to the combination of a healthy lifestyle, a strict diet and a moderate use of medical marijuana. But vestiges of the whole experience are still visible. She has to decide between delving deeply into the souls and lives of her main characters - five "connected" women, in the case of the new, second season - and maintaining boundaries, something that is largely new to her. She has to find the balance between becoming totally involved and immersed with her work, as is her wont, and participating in a less demanding way.

"This entire experience has made me think very seriously," she admits. "It's hard to accept the thought that the body attacks itself. I can't stop thinking about why it happened, and I relate it to my soul: It happened during a very bad period in my life. It's like a cancer patient, who after he recovers, still relives the disease. Today I talk about it freely, but at the time I worked hard to conceal it. I was terribly afraid. I thought that if I didn't talk about it, it wouldn't exist."

No interest in 'Big Brother'

If there is one clear characteristic of "Connected" - now being broadcast every night on HOT cable television's channel 3 - it is the fact that in such a revealing show, you can't run and you can't hide. That was the case in the first season (with participants Dana Spector, writer Miri Hanoch, the young Hanna Ratinov and bloggers Liat Bar On and Alizarin Weisberg), as well as in the season of "Mehubarim" (the male version of the show) that aired last summer (featuring writer Dudi Busi, screenwriter Ran Sarig, the editor of Haaretz Magazine Shai Golden, high-tech expert Yishai Green and the young Louis Edri); the latter series apparently broke an Israeli record with the gossip it engendered.

Uninhibited exposure will apparently characterize the coming season as well. Participants include restaurateur and woman-about-town Nana Schreier, musician Mika Karny, religious journalist Dina Abramson, Time Out magazine writer Shir Nosatzki and artist Hili Emanuel. All of the participants, as in the previous seasons, document themselves incessantly in every possible situation.

What has changed is the director: The first seasons of the all-female and all-male "Connected" series were directed by Doron Tsabari, who is one of the creators, together with producer Ram Landes. Shles, who in 2009 resigned from the documentary department of the Channel 2 franchise Reshet, subsequently joined forces with Tsabari, an old friend and partner, and directed "Connected 2."

Throughout the entire production, and now as well, she adds, she has been preoccupied by questions about the limitations of the genre and about the blurring of lines between documentary and reality, which is part of the show's format.

Shles: "This season is more of a documentary. Reactions to [the all-male] 'Connected' influenced the way in which they edited the episodes - it was edited while it was being aired. That won't happen in this series because we finished the work on it before it began to air, and in my opinion that made a huge difference."

Another big difference between the two programs is of course related to the fact that the participants are women. This was reflected in the ongoing concern over looks and the feeling that the camera is like a mirror, but also in decisions that reflected certain attitudes toward gender. Shles gives an example: "One of the problems is that if the male partner [of one of the women] was unwilling to participate, the filming was stopped. The women seemed to take their partners' opinions to heart. With the men in 'Connected,' there was no such situation. Even if their female partners were reluctant, the moment that he said 'I want to do this' - it happened.

"None of the women would have found herself in a situation like that of Ran and Idit [screenwriter Ran Sarig, who documented his relationship with his second wife, Idit, fell in love with Dana Spector during the course of the filming, and left home]. They kept their partners all the time. That caused me to think a lot about the difference between women and men."

For example?

Shles: "All kinds of things that I've struggled with myself - and suddenly they were taking place before my eyes. Feminine traits versus masculine traits. All the women had this need to protect their environment, even when it was very difficult. Even in the most extreme situation, during a quarrel [with their partners], the basis was still building things together, love, solving things ..."

Would you have done the all-male "Connected"?

"I don't feel that I've exhausted the format - it's great. But I believe that the product would have turned out differently. 'Connected 2' also turned out differently."

Shles seems to be capable of carefully analyzing the personality of each of the women on the show and the process she herself undergoes in the series. This seems to stem from her ability to empathize deeply with people, which she spoke about, and from her tendency to devote herself totally to work, to the point of total immersion and identification with the subjects of her films.

And what about the other type of reality - on TV?

"Television is a dynamic and developing thing," she replies. "What happened five years ago is not what's happening now. Even within reality there's good and bad, it's another genre. Personally, and this sounds terrible, I don't watch television and I didn't see a single episode of 'Big Brother' because I was making 'Connected,' but I'm interested in why it's popular. Once there used to be stars on TV that you admired. Today people connect with people who could be their friends, or even themselves."

Problem of boundaries

Julie Shles was born 50 years ago in South Africa and from the age of two and a half grew up in Ramat Hasharon; she has a son, Tommy, who is 21. After her army service she studied cinema at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts, and afterward worked for a while in the Government Publications Office. She went on to direct "St. Jean," a documentary about a trailer-camp site for immigrants near Nahariya, which won the Wolgin Prize for best documentary in 1993. Subsequently, she won the Israeli Academy Award for the documentary "Baba Luba," which followed singer Danny Basan who was searching for his father. She also directed "Give Us a Sign," about the disappearance of teenager Hanit Kikos, and won another local academy award for the series "Sewing for Bread" ("Daroma"), which she did with Tsabari, about the battle of women working in a sewing workshop in Mitzpeh Ramon.

Her full-length features, "Afula Express" and "Joy" ("Muchrachim Lihiyot Sameach") also won awards.

Shles is among the first rank of Israeli filmmakers, certainly in the documentary genre, and one of the few female directors working in the country. Her explanation for the paucity of other women is that "there's something in this profession that requires total commitment and [can] tear families apart. It's getting up at 5 A.M. and returning in the middle of the night, and working on Friday and Shabbat. Women prefer not to get into such a total-immersion type of work, which also involves periods of complete uncertainty between one project and the next." Today, in addition to a new work documenting life on the streets near the Tel Aviv central bus station, which she is filming for Channel 8 with Landes' production company, Shles also teaches at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers' College and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Her other activities, she says, help prevent her from getting too bound up in the lives of the characters in her films.

The matter of boundaries is critical for Shles and reflected in her work habits: When she filmed "St. Jean" she and the crew went to live in a trailer on the site. When she did the film about Hanit Kikos, she slept in her house and helped with the housework. The main character of "Sewing for Bread" lived in Shles' house and her life changed completely. Shles says that she felt tormented because of the situation that evolved: "I wondered if I pushed her into places that harmed her later. After living with me, she was unable to return to Mitzpeh Ramon, her family fell apart. Bad things happened. She went to live in Dimona, she suddenly saw options for another life, but they couldn't be realized."

Professionals who worked with Shles on "Connected" tell of a director whose method of work is "total." In past articles about her, people who worked with her described her as a director who doesn't understand why the photographer wants to go home after 12 hours of work, or why the crew shouldn't work on weekends and or during most hours of the day.

Today, things are somewhat different: "I'm always 'total.' When crew members, photographers for example, talk during filming days with other producers about other productions - that really annoys me. But I think it has improved. I invested in some good psychologists," she smiles. "The problem was what happens after the project is finished, when you simply fall apart. It's so total that you don't exist without it. Today I take better care of myself."

Can that work with the format of "Connected"?

"There's something about the format of 'Connected' that makes you live the lives of others. During the first six months they film themselves all the time, and then all day long, night and day, you see the footage. I would fall asleep with the laptop on. I begin to 'live' the lives of others and it takes over. Everything becomes looser - where it's me and where it's them, whether it's something that happened to them or my real life.

"The line becomes a broken one, for example, when the main character comes and tells me about a crisis in her relationship with her partner. As a friend I feel like telling her, 'Tell him such-and-such.' As a director I prefer to allow the conflict to develop. As Julie I feel like telling her to get rid of him. Halil Efrat, the editor, tried not to judge and not to interfere. After all, it's their life and they have to make their own decisions, but it's a problem. You become the person to whom they're most exposed and with whom they share the most."

Shles' production of "Connected" was filmed over the course of about a year, during which the emotional price exacted from all the parties was high; indeed, after the first season ended several of the participants said they experienced a profound breakdown.

Shles identifies with that: "There is a terrible emptiness. Everyone tells me to rest [afterward] and take a vacation, and that terrifies me. I just have to become involved in something else. I believe that there's a type of leave-taking for both sides. It's impossible to go through 'Connected' and stay in the same place. Huge things happened to everyone during this period, certainly to me. And these are not dependent relationships where they're angry at you when you end them. We went through a long process of saying goodbye."

Tempestuous character

It's hard to escape the feeling that Shles herself could be an excellent and colorful candidate for the program. To date there are some who remember her as a prominent figure in the 1980s nightlife, and as a wild and somewhat tempestuous young woman with a variety of experiences and partners in her past.

At the beginning of that decade, she spent time with a gang of friends including Boaz Turgeman and Ayelet Menahemi, who later went on to direct "Crows" ("Orvim") and other films. It was a group of young people from outlying areas, living in a commune consisting of apartments in which they squatted, and involved in artistic installations, shows - and partying.

"We spent time together in the same circles," Shles recalls, "although I was two or three years older. In the 1980s this was a fascinating and defiant sort of phenomenon; I felt very connected to it. The whole scene seemed new and right to me. Every outing and every party was an event for which we would dress up and wear makeup and dance ... We knew each other well even when I was already 20-plus and was studying cinema."

Even now she seems to know every other person on the Tel Aviv street where the cafe in which we have met is located. She reacts with a half-smile to being described as wild.

"As far as I'm concerned, if I go back to those years, [I was involved in] a search for identity, and wanted tor belong to something. If it was wild, the reason was major restlessness. It involved testing boundaries, which is characteristic if you're a tempestuous person. But even this wildness is considered quite trivial today - drugs, parties, examining sexual identity. There is almost no human behavior, perhaps with the exception of pedophilia, that is strange to me ... Maybe that's what allows people to connect to me. It makes no difference what they tell me about themselves; whatever it always seems to be part of the human whole."

Because you experienced such things yourself?

"Certain things yes, others, no ... I will almost always be more curious than alarmed. I've always felt, from a very early age, differences and separateness, and therefore I always have been able to identify [with people], instead of being deterred by them. There's always something I can connect to from inside myself. Really there's nothing that can shock me."

After listening to Shles speak, that statement sounds logical. She describes herself as a fearless person who at a young age was looking for danger.

"In the army I got into trouble, I was in jail and they prescribed lots of psychiatric pills for me because they were trying to repress me - but I only took half," she says. "Dealing with cinema constitutes a kind of legitimacy for dealing with extremes without being extreme ... Part of the reason why I got into trouble before was that most of the time I was in some kind of fantasy world. In many ways I'm a much more balanced person today. Less on an emotional merry-go-round, less moody."

Such declarations lead one to conclude that perhaps in each of the women in "Connected," there are qualities which Shles identifies in herself. For example, she says she's very familiar with Hili Emanuel's emotional ups and downs: "In the morning she's on a high and at night she's in the doldrums. What people forget is that it's the person herself who suffers most ... People forget that the pain of someone going through this is great. For a large part of my life I was like that. I'm not a depressive person, but I was able to live in such a merry-go-round. When you manage to straighten things out - when [dealing with] every new morning doesn't look impossible - things look different."

In "Connected" Emanuel's emotional instability is revealed, as well as her eating disorder. Indeed, the subject of eating disorders, body image and appearance plays a prominent role in two episodes that are not easy to watch. Shles, a tall, thin woman, dressed in jeans and greenish sneakers, says that while she herself never had an eating disorder, almost everyone she knows does - or has a problematic body image.

"For example, we had a discussion about the number of photographs of legs taken by the participants" who were documenting themselves. "This woman goes to work and doesn't video her face, but rather her legs. The women are constantly examining their bodies from all directions. Another big story is aging. They tell you: 'Accept yourself.' All right, I do ... but a week from now new things will pop up."

Does this preoccupy you a lot?

"In the past year I've felt a big difference. Suddenly I need glasses for reading. I have to take care of myself much more, physically. There's also been a lot of illness around me in recent years. I guess I've reached the age. This makes you confront the fact that you're like everyone else and it makes no difference where you are in your own mind."

Do you find it strange that you have a son of 21?

"Yes. This business of age is often more related to how you live and not really to your age. I also look the same and people tell me that. I haven't changed my hair or my appearance, I haven't changed in any clear external way. There were times in my life when I tried to disguise myself or toe the line, and it never worked. I once had a partner who was living in Israel after many years in New York and his closet was full of tailored clothes. It was a Tel Aviv summer and I was wearing a hot-pink tank top. When I told him I couldn't imagine him wearing them, he said that when he put on a suit he changes. And then he said, 'But you - it makes no difference what you wear because that Julie will always be stronger. Your hot pink will always emerge.'"

Not for the camera

At the event celebrating the premier of “Connected 2,” Doron Tsabari, the director of the previous all-female season and of the all-male version of the show, was noticeably absent. Even before the final episode of the latter version was aired, Tsabari announced that he wanted to leave. Again, now, he refuses to talk about it.

Shles: “Leaving was his decision. I know Doron very well and believe that that’s what he felt. There are people who can’t see their ‘exes’ experiencing a new life, who can’t face it. Doron is a very authentic person and I believe he had a powerful need to get away from the series because maybe it was too much for him. ‘Connected’ took over everything."

Whatever the case, the combination of Shles and editor Halil Efrat seems to have affected both the look and language of the second season. As opposed to Tsabari, the two decided not to reconstruct situations that were not filmed, and not to impose tasks on the participants. This is also reflected in the editing.

“We made sure not to explain too much and chose to have the theme and the emotional context lead, rather than the situation itself,” explains Efrat. “We tried to make a documentary in very contemporary language and that’s what emerged, without any explanations. It turned out that it’s not in chronological order and that there was no continuity, but the story is still strong."

Weren’t you afraid of mixing documentary and reality?

Efrat: “I’ve done reality, too [he was the editor of the first and second season of “Project Y,” and chief editor of “Big Brother VIP”], and what has absolutely been preserved here is the absence of manipulation. We made sure not to make the characters seem ridiculous. We didn’t do things for the camera, we didn’t tailor the story to order.”

The result is often exhibitionist. That seems to be a necessary trait of every participant in the programs.

“It’s strange that we didn’t think so. We picked interesting people with a profound inner world. We didn’t get involved in why they want to be filmed. Today, in this world, people are exposed so much and in so many places that it’s no longer such a big deal.”

A mix of characters

Regarding the casting for “Connected 2,” director Shles says: “It was extremely complicated. You have to look for people from entirely different worlds. We wanted to get out of Tel Aviv, so our series wouldn’t be a Tel Aviv-based one like the first [all-female] season and the men’s version of the show. We went out into the religious world and that meant women of a different kind. And then there is this game involving the ‘human combination,’ where we aim for a mix: age, status, children or no children.”

The result is a more varied cast than that in the first season. Nana Schreier seems to have taken over the lead from Dana Spector, and emerges larger than life. She documents herself running her business high-handedly, raising her daughter and trying to become pregnant again ‏(and succeeding‏) at the age of 42, while searching for her own biological mother. Mika Karny is raising three young daughters with her husband, musician Miki Shaviv, in the Galilee community of Amirim, and is dealing with her 21-year-old son, who was born when she was 17.

Dina Abramson, religious, divorced and a settler, insists on living a lifestyle that does not conform to her environment, and includes relationships with men.

Shir Nosatzki, 27, documents the totality of life with her partner and attests to an unfulfilled need for attention, love and sex.

Hili Emanuel, the youngest in the group, is, according to Shles, “a veritable geyser of talent and creativity,” who is unable to fulfill her potential.

You once said that your choice of characters, women in your case, stems from falling in love with them. Did that happen here, too?

Shles: “I think I fell in love with Nana. She’s a cinematic character, from another world. With Mika there was immediate chemistry and I’ve known her husband Miki for years. We’ve had similar experiences, we were in the same places and have sons the same age. With the younger women the love is of a different sort, in each case for a different reason. Hili became our daughter and that’s how I relate to her. I feel a need to take care of her.

“The connection with Shir comes from a place of vulnerability, she’s extremely vulnerable. I’m not familiar with those places in myself; the only thing I can identify with is a total relationship that swallows you up. I admire and related to the fact that she’s very connected to her sexuality.”