New Israeli Reality Series Gives Viewers a Glimpse at Hospital Life From Behind the Stethoscope

The reality TV series, directed by an Israeli husband-wife team, follows overworked doctors as they cope with the medical challenges and personal dramas of a Tel Aviv hospital.

Not long after her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Ruthie Shatz encountered pregnancy complications. While her mother was being treated in the oncological ward on the ninth floor of the Ichilov Hopital, she was in the women's ward on the third floor.

Shatz and her relations moved between extremes, between the struggle against cancer on the ninth floor and the expectation of new life on the third floor. Two months later, Shatz's mother passed away, and she and her partner, fellow movie director Adi Barash, embraced their first son.

Tuesday evening, almost eight years later, Yes Doco will air the documentary series that was conceived during that difficult time.

“The families made their way between the floors, and I remember thinking that if we write such a story it won't be considered credible,” says Shatz. “For a long, intensive period, from the moment mother's disease was diagnosed up to her death – including the time I was interned – we practically lived in the hospital.

A story to tell

This complex experience found its way to the small screen, albeit through the stories of others. The series “Ichilov” is the result of a two-year documentation following young doctors from different wards in the hospital. Each chapter follows the doctors as they treat a different group of patients.

“The idea was to tell a story through doctors' eyes. A story experienced over their shoulders, through their eyes, through their experiences,” Shatz says. “We wanted to show what it’s like to be a surgeon and the burden one carries after picking inside human bodies all day long. One must deal with these changes, between looking a person in the eye and being human and compassionate and being focused enough to save his live. If you're not the best at this job, you cannot continue doing it.

“A hospital is similar to an isolated city, which demands you be focused at all times,” says Barash. “This constant demand eventually creates a huge conflict.”

In depicting the long work shifts and constant fatigue of the medical crew, the series raises questions as to the burden on Israeli hospitals and the level of medical care they can provide. In one episode, a pregnant doctor collapses after being verbally abused by patients, a disturbing moment she must overcome swiftly.

“I believe the series succeeds in showing the other side of the story, which we, as patients, never see,” Shatz says. “We focus, understandably, on our objective distress. For their part, they're so busy that there's no chance they can offer excellent medical treatment while extending human empathy. It rarely happens that a doctor can do both, since in most cases they are under daily pressure to manage dealing with everything, under very difficult conditions.

“Of course there aren't enough doctors to deal with all the patients,” Barash says. “The result is a process that if they manage to smile or be nice, it might deflect them from the course of cold-blooded, fatal decisions that they must make all the time.

Getting personal

Barash, 43, and Shatz, 40, have been creative partners for 14 years and are the parents of three boys, aged 8, 6 and 2. They live in a pleasant house in Rishpon, and despite long successful careers, they are hardly recognized in Israel beyond documentary film circles. This is also partly their choice, since they chose to focus on the international film market.

Their first film, “Diamonds and Rust,” shot immediately after they completed their studies (Shatz at Sam Speigel Film & Television School in Jerusalem and Barash at Camera Obscura), was an incredible 90-day documentation of the daily life of an international crew on a rusty diamond mining ship – which sank a year later – off the coast of Namibia.

Premiering in 2001, the film was a huge international success, garnering its creators several international prizes. International documentary film foundations subsequently gave them support and helped them establish contacts with leading documentary directors and producers.

The couple's 2004 film, “Gan,” told the story of teenage male Palestinian prostitutes working in Tel Aviv’s Hashmal Park. The film, supported by the Sundance Fund and several European television channels, also won several international prizes and was screened at major festivals.

Another film created by the couple was “The Collaborator and His Family,” which followed the life of a former Palestinian collaborator and his family struggling to live a normal life in a poverty stricken neighborhood in Tel Aviv. This film, too, was funded by several international bodies (including PBS) and was critically acclaimed.

“We decided early on that we want to do everything,” Barash says. “We were never willing to have anyone else make decisions, tell us which direction to take the film in or how it should look, who to talk to and who not to talk to.

Asked whether “Ichilov” is their first work dealing with strictly local matters and less with issues of human rights, Shatz says, “Our films are characterized by documenting some distinct world. In “Ichilov” too, there is an extremely defined distinct world, like a desert island. It holds relationships that ultimately do deal with human rights, but much closer to the world of the average viewer. Our earlier films dealt with worlds that had less to do with our specific world but were important to us for ideological or personal reasons. That exists in this series as well but on a rather different level.

Ethan Barnett
Noa Yaffe