Under the Miley Cyrus Influence: Are Israeli Kids Too Americanized?

A new TV series finds American culture everywhere in the lives of five Israeli teens.

The high point of the new TV series “Selfies,” which follows five teenagers during their first year of high school, is the end-of-year bash. The documentary’s creator, Idit Avrahami, has made the prom, a sign of America’s cultural penetration, a parable of contemporary Israel. It’s a peephole into the new generation.

American culture is evident everywhere in “Selfies”; cinematographer Uri Ackerman pays homage to ‘80s classic films “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club,” both by John Hughes.

This made it necessary to choose a high school that looks like an American high school. The school is the Yehud Comprehensive High School, which Avrahami says has students from fairly diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

In this series for Hot cable TV, Avrahami and her team use five very different kids to tell the story of Israel’s socioeconomic classes.

“This is where the American style comes in, because America is what all Israelis want to be,” she says. “They want to earn as much as possible and accumulate as much money as possible. In this high school there are kids whose parents have no money, but they still buy a suit for the prom because they have to.”

It’s a new kind of Israeliness, Avrahami says. People buy iPhones and name brands but have no money to pay the rent. “Teenagers are being brought up on this,” she says. “They are being brought up in this insane capitalism.”

Born in Tel Aviv, Avrahami, 36, studied film at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem. After making two documentaries, she worked on the series “The Journalists” for Yes satellite TV, which documented the decline of Israeli print journalism and the burnout of journalists.

“We wanted to show the links between money, government and the press, and the fact that certain newspapers were shelving investigative reports while others were firing top journalists,” Avrahami says. “I think it took a lot of courage for Yes to do a series like that. It’s much easier to do a docu-reality show — let’s entertain the masses and make them laugh.”

The woes of docu-reality

The first series she made for Hot was “Plastic Dreams” — on plastic surgery. Even though “Selfies” is being made as a docu-reality series, Avrahami has pulled it in different directions.

“Docu-reality is synthesized, formatted and lazy,” she says. “Instead of good research and direction with patience, these formats tell people what to say. It isn’t creative and it isn’t interesting. I find it more interesting to create intimacy with the person, go on a journey with him and get to know him.”

Avrahami says she finds docu-reality a “scary genre,” much worse than reality. It’s destroying the documentary.

“Even the children I filmed aren’t innocent anymore, since they’ve grown up with reality television. So it took a lot of time to convince them they didn’t have to provide ‘testimonials,’ to tell the camera what was happening to them all the time,” Avrahami says.

“It’s much more interesting to document their lives than have them give commentary on them. I find that it’s becoming more and more difficult to make real, non-formatted documentaries in Israel.”

Avrahami strongly identifies with the teenagers she filmed, but she was surprised to discover how much had changed since she was in high school.

“The peer pressure that comes from the big use of Instagram and WhatsApp is insane. When we were in high school there was peer pressure and we were very jealous of the most popular and prettiest girl in class. And we were upset because we didn’t have brand-name clothes,” she says.

“But in the afternoon I’d go home and have a life beyond that with my family and friends. Now, because of the social networks, the kids have to deal with peer pressure and compare themselves to each other all the time. Everything goes through an unrealistic filter. It’s the social networks' image.”

Avrahami says life on social networks increases the helplessness of parents, who appear in the series, too.

“The parents of teenagers are in a complex situation,” she says. “This is a generation that very much wants to be their children’s friends. They want to make amends for the fact that their own parents were tougher and set more limits. Today you’re worried all the time that you’re going to offend your kid. You’re thinking all the time about what your kid is going to think about you and what he’ll say about you in therapy.”

But the kids in “Selfies” aren’t one-dimensional.

“On the one hand, they’re very grown-up. I think I was much smaller and innocent at that age. When we were growing up there was hardly any television, and now 15-year-old kids are watching porn. We didn’t have porn — maybe just in secret,” she says.

“Now you can get porn on your iPhone, and they’re growing up with this. On the one hand, there’s something insanely adult about them, but on the other, they’re still innocent, basically. Your first love is still your first love.”

Staying out of the bedroom

Despite teenagers’ access to pornography, sex is conspicuously absent from Avrahami’s series. The kids talk about love, some are in relationships, and their physical appearance is the most important thing. But “Selfies” stays out of their bedrooms, even when it comes to conversation topics. Avrahami says she based this choice on ethics.

“In the documentary genre in a puritanical and conservative country, it’s very hard to film things like that,” she says. “I also very much wanted to protect them and not cause them any harm. The idea was to create real scenes from their lives, and I don’t think I can go into their bedroom with a camera.”

Still, sex is there.

“It has become a trend that all the girls have to wear shorts even if they’re not really flattering, and upload the photo that conveys sex the most. But they’re actually a lot more conservative than we were in high school,” Avrahami says.

“When we were in high school, people began having sex at a very young age. And again, that’s something that represents society. On the one hand, we’ve become much more conservative and puritanical, and on the other we create a false image for external consumption. It’s amazing and depressing.”

So is that an unequivocal answer to whether Miley Cyrus and people like her are influencing young people?

“It has an influence, without a doubt, because it’s the only model to emulate. Eating disorders, peer pressure — we had them, too. But everything has become much more extreme, much more exposed,” Avrahami says.

“And I think parents have a much more important role in protecting their children from these things. It seems that all the social networks and increased exposure to porn, nudity, revealing clothing and erotic poses from such a young age messes up the mind. It creates a lack of intimacy, and there’s no way to know what will happen to the person in a decade.”

By making the series, there’s no end to what Avrahami has learned about Israeli society. This includes, she says, “a sense of apathy toward others” and a lack of interest in politics in favor of making money.

“When you bombard society with reality shows, it’s clear that this is what kids are going to want to be: a famous person who appears on reality shows,” she says. “This is a very unidealistic society. On the other hand, these are good, smart kids.”

Eldad Rafaeli
Eldad Rafaeli
Daniel Tchetchik
Owen Sweeney / Invision / AP