Prof Ori Sivan

Israeli students are more preoccupied than American students, says visiting Wesleyan prof.

MIDDLETOWN — Ori Sivan is the head writer and co-creator of “BeTipul” – “In Treatment” – an award winning, five-night a week Israeli television program about therapist Reuven Dagan, his patients, and his own therapy. “In Treatment” has been adapted by HBO, which has won several Emmy Awards for the series. Sivan is a long-time friend of Ari Folman, creator of “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated film about memories of the war in Lebanon which was nominated for an Academy Award. In the film, Sivan is the voice of himself, an Israeli filmmaker. Sivan and Folman collaborated on the Israeli films “Sha’anan Si” and “Saint Clara.”

Sivan is currently a visiting professor in the Jewish and Israeli studies program at Wesleyan University, where he teaches the course “Israel In Therapy: Society Under the Influence of TV.”

Wesleyan University will feature Sivan as part of its “Israel in Shorts” series. On Thursday, April 23, Wesleyan screened episodes from the first season of “BeTipul.” On Thursday, April 30 at 8pm, the university will screen episodes from the second season of “BeTipul.” Each screening is followed by a discussion with Sivan.

The Ledger spoke with Ori Sivan recently about Israeli television and his experience at Wesleyan.

Q: Tell us about your work at Wesleyan this semester.

A: Wesleyan is so quiet and peaceful. It is like a retreat. I am able to concentrate better here. I don’t have a car or a cell phone. I am able to read, write, think, walk and look around. And people have been so nice. This semester, I am teaching a course, “Israel In Therapy: Society Under the Influence of TV.” We look deep into the characters of “BeTipul” – “In Treatment” – and we research a different character each week. During the Monday class, we “meet the character” and explore what the patient feels and what therapist, Reuven Dagan (played by Assi Dayan), feels about him or her. In Wednesday’s class, we look into the drama and the psychology and try to figure out “what’s Israeli” about each character. The students also read screenplays and articles, including academic writing by Israeli psychology professors about the series.

Forty students from all departments take the class – we have creative writing students, as well as psychology, religion, film, and history majors.

Q: You arrived just prior to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. There has been much reported about anti-Israel feelings on campuses both in the United States and Europe. It has been particularly difficult for Israeli professors. What has your experience been?

A: I have not experienced any bad or negative reactions at all. I have only experienced good feelings toward my being here. Everyone I meet at Wesleyan is friendly. Dalit Katz, a colleague in the religion department and my host, has been kind and friendly. Professor Jeremy Zwelling, the department chairman, has been helpful in every way. And I have enjoyed spending time at Hillel on Friday nights. They have invited my family and me to join them for seder.

Q: Tell us about your various jobs and projects in Israel.

A: I am an octopus! I am more distracted in Israel. And everything moves fast. I teach, write and direct – and I have a wife and five children. I teach film and screenwriting at Sapir College in Sderot. I am the head writer and co-creator of “BeTipul.” I am currently working on a six-episode epic about kibbutzim. I recently co-wrote a TV series about Beit Chabad in Katmandu, Nepal, which was on Israel’s Channel 2. It is a fictional series that follows the life of Chabad emissaries in Nepal.

Q: How are American students similar to and different from your Israeli students?

A: For Israeli students, there is so much interference; there is so much on their minds and they are tense. At Sapir, we often have to leave the classroom once or twice a class and go to shelters due to bombings from Gaza. Even in peace times, Israeli students have a lot on their minds. For that reason, I let them keep their cell phones on in class and even take calls. My only rule is that, if they are on the phone, I direct the other students to listen to the conversation, since it is a screenwriting class and students have to become attuned to dialogue.

The students here are more concentrated on what’s happening in the class than are my Israeli students. The students are very respectful; when they call for “Professor Sivan,” I think they are calling my father, who is a professor at the Technion. On the other hand, they can be quite informal. I tell them to call me “Ori.” They often come to speak with me during office hours. They are much quieter in class than are my Israeli students.

Q: Tell us about “BeTipul.” Aren’t Israelis generally reluctant to discuss issues of therapy / treatment? What has been the reaction to the show in the general and therapeutic communities in Israel? 

A: BeTipul is a five night a week show in Israel. Four episodes focus on the therapy sessions of ten of therapist Reuven Dagan’s patients. The fifth episode focuses on Dagan’s therapy sessions with his own therapist. Season one won many Israeli Academy Awards for a drama series. The show was adapted by HBO, which has thus far produced 78 episodes. A new season started on April 5. This is so interesting, given the slow start for other therapy shows.

In 1996 or ‘97, there was a series in Israel called “Florentine.” The star, Ayelet Zurer (one of the patients on BeTipul), had ten minutes of therapy in each session of this wonderful series, but Israelis were not ready to see people exposing themselves in this way. Therapy was always a taboo and people would never talk openly about going to therapy. Now, in the last seven or eight years, Israelis are more open and willing to share. I’m not sure why this has changed, but the curtain has opened.

Hagai Levy, the creator of BeTipul, studied film with me and Ari Folman. My parents read the play and said it will never work; it will never be good enough or accurate enough. My father said, “The therapist is anemic and a coward.” He told us, “A good therapist isn’t afraid to express what he hears and understands.” We wrote his words in big letters and posted it in our office for inspiration. My father was right, and his comments lead us to rework the scripts.

The response to “BeTipul” in Israel has been fantastic. BeTipul became the first Israeli show exported to the U.S. Someone from HBO told us, “It is so American – we should have thought of it first.” It was a very good fit for American TV and American audiences. The show has been adapted by HBO and is now in its second season.

Q: Do you have special training in psychology or therapy?

A: I am not a therapist and do not have formal training in psychology. My mother is a clinical psychologist and her clinic was next to our house. I have memories of my sister and me looking out the window and watching the ‘crazies’ go into her office. As we got older, we realized they were just normal people who needed care. My father is a professor of electrical engineering. He decided to get a second degree in psychology, and he practiced psychology for ten years. All of my parents’ friends growing up were therapists and our house was always filled with therapists. It is not easy to grow up with parents who are psychologists. You feel they know too much and I felt transparent. There was always a psychological tone in our house. I think that being a screenwriter is not so different from being a psychologist.

Q: You were the voice of yourself in “Waltz With Bashir,” recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film Tell us about your relationship with its creator and director Ari Folman?

A: Ari Folman and I are both from Haifa. There was only one place to go to see quality movies in Haifa when we were kids and that was the Cinemateque. As teens, we were always hanging out on the high stairs of the Cinemateque, and we became friends. We then each served separately in the army and traveled to different places after the army. We met in film school in Tel Aviv and did two films together. We have been best friends for 25 years.

We are very different people but we are a very good match. We have more or less the same understanding of cinema. We usually have the same vision of how to tell a story, but we argue a lot. It is okay to argue. How do we decide who is “right?” Whoever is more insistent usually gets his way!

The screening of the “BeTipul” will be held in the Goldsmith Family Cinema on the Wesleyan campus in Middletown. Admission is free. For more information, call 860-685-2288.

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