Israeli Producer’s Election-Day Risk

It’s little more than a week to the airdate, March 28, and Ofra Bikel is still putting the final touches on her hourlong documentary, “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate.”

That’s not like Bikel, a meticulous professional, described by critic Howard Rosenberg in the Los Angeles Times as “one of television’s premier documentary filmmakers … whose camera wields the power to mobilize public opinion through exposure.”

“Usually, I take seven to eight months to make a documentary, but in this case I had only six weeks,” Bikel said in an hourlong phone call from Tel Aviv, her speech a medley of Israeli, French and American accents.

One reason for the rush is that PBS wanted to release “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate” on the day of the Israeli elections, March 28.

Another reason was that Bikel (no relation to actor-singer Theodore Bikel) thought this was going to be an easy job.

The film would focus on Ehud Olmert, a close associate and likely successor to the stricken Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel.

Bikel is a long-time personal friend of Olmert’s wife, Aliza, knows the family well and had been assured of full cooperation. In addition, Bikel was born in Tel Aviv as a sixth-generation sabra and knows the country like the back of her hand.

“I thought it would be easy,” she said. “But nothing is ever easy in Israel. You learn that over and over again.”

Bikel focused on Olmert both as an individual and as the personification of profound political and ideological shifts in Israel.

“Early in Olmert’s career, no one could have been more right-wing,” Bikel said. “Remember, he voted against the peace treaty with Sadat’s Egypt and against his own party chief, Menachem Begin.”

Today, as acting prime minister and head of the Kadima Party, Olmert is at the center, or left of center, in the political spectrum. He supported Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip and has announced that he will dismantle most West Bank settlements if elected.

Bikel is not certain what caused Olmert’s transformation, but even while on the far right wing he always surrounded himself with friends and family of different viewpoints.

“Most of his personal friends are politically center to left,” Bikel said. “His four children went to progressive schools and are left- wingers.”

Bikel has boundless admiration for Olmert’s wife.

“She is a painter, a sculptor, a playwright and a wonderful, open woman,” Bikel said.

Olmert, 60, and his wife have been married for 35 years and also have four grandchildren.

After years of friendship and many hours of interviewing, how does Bikel view Olmert?

“He is a lawyer with degrees in philosophy and psychology, very intelligent, a warm person, he thinks very fast, a loyal friend and an astute politician,” she summarized.

One criticism of Olmert is that he acts too fast and makes decisions too quickly. “He counts to two, rather than to 10,” Bikel said.

Will Olmert make a good prime minister, if he is elected?

“I think he is up to the job,” Bikel replied. “But being prime minister of Israel is a mad job for normal people.”

Bikel studied in the 1960s at the University of Paris and the High Institute of Political Science in the French capital and then moved to the United States.

“My big ambition was to be a researcher for TIME magazine,” she recalled. “Then I wanted to be a journalist and wear a trenchcoat.”

But the only work she could get was as a production assistant, “the lowest of the low,” at the ABC network, though she soon switched to public television as a producer.

In the late 1970s, she returned to Israel and produced more than 30 films on political, economic and cultural subjects.

Some 25 years ago, she switched jobs and countries again, settled in New York, and started making films for Frontline. As voluble as she is about her professional activities, she is guarded about her personal life and preferred not to discuss her motivations for coming back to the United States.

Bikel came to national attention in the 1990s with the trilogy, “Innocence Lost,” which meticulously detailed charges of sexual abuse at a day care center in a small North Carolina town, and the subsequent trial of seven defendants. As a result of her dogged detective work, the guilty verdict and prison sentence of the seven were reversed and they were set free.

The three films won Bikel a raft of awards, including an Emmy. She scored another Emmy for her “Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing, Private Pain.” Her most recent production was “The O.J. Verdict,” which aired last October on the 10th anniversary of the O.J. Simpson trial.

Described by The Times as a “petite, blond-frosted, elegant, expensively turned out woman (we’ll call her ‘mature’),” Bikel does not consider herself a political activist or crusader.

“It’s just that injustice drives me nuts,” she said. “I get extremely angry when I see how people without voices are treated in our legal system.”

Despite her decades of experience and success, Bikel is still terrified before every new project.

“I love my job, but I suffer for it,” she said. “I take pressure very badly and I am sure that each new film is going to be my Waterloo.”

Frontline’s “Israel: The Unexpected Candidate” airs at 9 p.m., March 28, on KCET.


‘Camera’ Exposes Director’s Past

While growing up on his Encino cul-de-sac in the 1980s, Darren Stein made films with his father’s video camera, bossily directing the other Jewish kids like a baby Roger Corman. The sets were backyards; production was every afternoon save for Hebrew school hours at Leo Baeck and Stephen S. Wise temples. The scripts included zombie flicks, campy gay comedies and a Holocaust drama in which a bicycle pump doubled for a canister of Zyklon-B.

Today, the movies and the adult Stein and friends are the subject of an edgy documentary, “Put the Camera on Me,” which premieres at Outfest 2003 July 10-21. Narrated by Stein — who is gay and the director of several feature films such as “Jawbreaker” — it explores the power structure of a neighborhood clique through the eyes of a child auteur. The portrait is reminiscent of films, such as Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” which expose the darker side of childhood in Jewish suburbia.

The bully of “Camera” is often Stein, who relished the power he wielded over his neighbors because he felt powerless and unpopular at the formerly all-male Harvard prep school.

“I gave orders. I was the provocateur,” he said.

His “Camera” co-director, Adam Shell, noted how Stein would promise him a role, then give it to another boy.

Another friend recalls in the film: “If Darren said, ‘Dress up in your mom’s tights,’ you dressed up in your mom’s tights.”

Cut to 1999, when Shell and Stein were discussing how to restore the videotapes — then stored in a torn-up shopping bag — and came up with the idea for a documentary. The two-year production was sometimes painful because “we were forced to deal with our childhood antagonism toward each other,” Shell said.

But the process was ultimately healing. “It was profound for me to be able to ask for forgiveness,” Stein, 31, said of his years as a tyrannical child director. “But I’m still bossy.”

For information on “Camera” screenings at Outfest, Los Angeles’ gay and lesbian film festival, call (213) 480-7065 or visit Other Jewish-themed Outfest films include the feature “Yossi & Jagger,” about male lovers in the Israeli army.