Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Be Tipul: A Conversation With Yael Hedaya

I have seen some episodes of the HBO version of the Israeli program Be Tipul and I have never really liked it. It seems forced and airless. There is a dead energy to the whole enterprise; it feels more like a whispered, solemn confessional than something that happens to people every day.
But tonight at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of the Pen World Voices Festival, I saw an episode of the original series Be Tipul and was blown away. The writing by Yael Hedaya was magnificent, the young female patient and the shrink were amazing actors, and the whole thing felt as if we were a fly in the wall of that room.
The Israeli production is much more bare bones than the American version, which, as Hedaya pointed out, is very elegant and has very good taste. But this makes it rather musty and inauthentic, whereas the shrink's office in Be Tipul is more lived in. Actual sunlight streams through the windows. The bookcases are cheap, the books, dogeared. The light is harsh. Flies could actually sit on those walls.
Most of the episodes of the American version are almost straight transcriptions from the original series, but then what accounts for the enormous difference in authenticity and emotional impact? I'm guessing a number of things, besides the infusion of cash: There is a tendency in American films and TV to overdramatize. The prevailing notions of screenwriting are that the writer must never leave well enough alone, everything has to be escalated and amplified until it barely resembles reality. I understand that drama needs to be extraordinary, but in the case of Be Tipul and Hedaya's writing, this is achieved by a fine ear for unadorned reality and by her great insight into human motive, rather than by forcing every single beat. 
There is a scene in this episode, in which Naama, the young patient who has a crush on Reuven, her shrink, tells him of a sexual experience she had with an older man when she was still a minor. There is so much power in what she leaves unsaid, in the possibility of what she is conscious of saying and what she isn't, that the richness of our experience of her is almost too much. She remembers the flirtation fondly and she laughs with great warmth and embarrassment at the memory of her and her lover singing silly Passover songs. This moment of naked candor took my breath away. I have not seen one episode of the American series where something like this happens. In the stateside version everything is fraught and ponderous and super acty, yet ersatz, even when played by excellent actors like Diane Wiest, John Mahoney or Hope Davis. The Israeli original has the rhythm and the breath of life, whereas the HBO version feels like staged Drama with a capital D. It all boils down to sensibility. As Hedaya said, the HBO series looks great, but it's not messy enough. Hedaya, who was very diplomatic when asked her opinion of the HBO series (she'd love to get a writing gig with them), claimed that she has seen only a few episodes, said that it was strange for her to see her work transposed, and her characters transformed, and called it "emotional plastic surgery". That's exactly what it is.
Hedaya was incredibly funny, smart and charming as she spoke of her own experiences with therapy, which she claims she loves and for many years thought that it should be all intellectual mind games, flirting and fun. Her lifelong dream was to go to therapy (here's a woman after my own heart; someone who loves the attention and who could talk about herself for fifty minutes straight to an audience of one). Her idea of a dreamboat therapist was based on Woody Allen, an intellectual, older neurotic guy. Flirtation was a must. It was news to her that the main purpose of therapy was to actually help people. She said that in Israel therapists really liked the series (everyone agrees that the therapist is very sympathetically and realistically portrayed), and it made such a splash that people started wanting to go to therapy but they all expected their shrinks to be just like Reuven, (played by Assi Dayan, son of Moshe Dayan). Therapists even raised their fees according to what Reuven charged in the program.
Rarely does life imitate good art.
Hedaya is a novelist and this seems to be a bigger source of pride for her than her screenwriting work. She said it was easy to switch from descriptive novel writing to scripts but that writing scripts has not influenced her novels, which I now want to read. I found it interesting that she was a bit dismissive of her script work, because if the episode we saw is any indication, it is top notch writing, regardless of the medium.
Since the venue was very intimate and Hedaya was very open, this was one delightful talk. The audience, comprised of both therapists and lay people, felt we could relate to her and the Q&A was fun, spirited and smart.

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