A creative force behind the hit Israeli series “In Treatment,” Nir Bergman is presenting his latest drama “Just for Today” in competition at Series Mania festival in Lille. Produced by Endemol Shine Israel for Yes TV, “Just for Today” follows Anat, an idealistic social counsellor who is dealing with the shutting down of a halfway house for former inmates where she’s worked for a long time, while Niko, a former lover she took care years before, unexpectedly comes back into her life.
Bergman, who wrote and directed “Just for Today” (co-created with Ram Nehari), spoke to Variety about the genesis, themes as well as political and social resonance of the series which is being represented internationally by Yes Studios. Besides co-creating “In Treatment,” Bergman has also written multiple episodes of the successful Israeli drama “Hostages.” Bergman’s film credits include “Broken Wings” which won awards at the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, as well as at Berlin and Jerusalem, among other festivals.
What’s the genesis of “Just for Today”?
The series began with a question. What would have happened to me if I had found myself in jail by mistake. I think this is a primal fear common to many people, but I didn’t want to make another crime or prison series. I wanted to create a series with elements of suspense and rehabilitation, a psychological drama.
The first pitch for the series dealt with normative people who found themselves in jail by mistake, released and found it difficult to return to functioning in society. But then we started the research and it led me to new ideas, resulting in only one normative character in the story. Through our research we reached a prisoners rehabilitation hostel in south Tel Aviv and immediately I knew that I wanted to set the story there. The atmosphere was very cramped, in an apartment not particularly large, 15 inmates lived in conditions reminiscent of a boarding school. The staff included a hostel manager and two young social workers, three women versus a lot of men who until yesterday or the day before had been in jail for several years.
The hostel was an alternative home for the released prisoners, but I saw that it also filled the life of the caregivers and significantly constitutes an important part of their lives. We were exposed to a new language, to a new and fascinating world, and the writing derived from it. The intriguing relationship between the treating staff and the prisoners constituted the fertile ground for this drama. In the end, the series has drama and psychological elements, but even more important, it has a social message.
One of the main themes of “Just for Today” is immigration in Israel as well as discrimination. Why did you want to address these issues? In which ways do you think that the series resonates with current events in Israel but also around the world?
Naturally, the series deals with disadvantaged populations and immigrants are usually part of that group. But the series doesn’t deal only with immigrants, it also deals with people who were caught up in a crime, as opposed to criminals who grew up in crime families. Many of the criminals who went in and out of prison had a better chance for rehabilitation if the state redirected more resources towards them from the beginning. In these cases the inscription is always on the wall and it appears at a very young age. This is a route that if at any given moment someone was taking responsibility for, would have been avoided.
During the research, I was exposed to many stories of Russian immigration in the 1990’s and of immigrants from Ethiopia who immigrated during that period. Many of the new immigrants children suffered from racism, prejudice and discrimination, which eventually led them to a life of violence and hatred towards the establishment. Israel is a country created entirely of immigrants and it seems that we have never learned the lesson and we leave every generation of new immigrants with the same wounds and scars experienced by the generations that preceded them. In the past, you would find in prisons a majority of immigrants from North Africa, today most of them are Ethiopians and Russian immigrants and of course Arabs – they always lived here with a sense of discrimination. Lack of belonging often leads to anger, frustration and loneliness that can lead to a life of crime. Any country that neglects its immigrants, who raises them without equality of opportunities that leads to emotional neglect, economic deprivation and alienation, will find itself taking care of those people in a few years in the prison system.
The series is also about an impossible love. What are you trying to convey through this romance?
It began when one of the social workers we interviewed told us about a ex-convict who had returned to prison. Her tears did not stop even though she spoke eloquently and professionally about what had happened to him. She said he did not meet the strict rules of the hostel, and there was also a feeling that she had blamed herself. It made me think of the great intimacy created between social workers and former prisoners, an intimacy familiar to me from the world of psychological therapy.(…) In the plot I try to convey the illusory connection between a patient and the manager of the hostel. The story asks what love is and whether it exists and how it differs from therapy, and perhaps in fact it is love. Through my main characters I try to answer questions that concern me and in this case, I remained without an absolute answer, maybe on the next season.
Would you say that “Just for Today” is a political series?
In the second chapter of the series, when a religious argument arises between two patients, the hostel manager says: “There is no nationality here, there is no race, no religion, there are only prisoners on parole.” Just for today” is a social and political series. It does not deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but it has a strong social criticism. 50% of released prisoners in Israel will return to jail. A brief research of the data in many countries around the world is quite similar. States invest heavily in rehabilitation inside the prison – it may help prisoners to spend their sentence in a productive way, but it’s like learning to swim via correspondence. Rehabilitation is something that must happen outside the walls of the prison, and instead of neglect and violence it requires love and rehabilitation.(…) The state must change its perception regarding rehabilitation. I hope that the series will also help change viewrs perception and attitude towards former prisoners.
How realistic is the series? What kind of research did you make prior to writing the series?
“Just for today” is a very realistic series, supported by a large-scale research, but st the same time it is completely fiction. The research included many visits to four different rehabilitation hostels, personal interviews with many former prisoners and rehabilitation workers in different positions. Finally, in order to understand our characters in a deeper way, we opened a 3 months long acting workshop in prison with convicts who have been imprisoned for serious crimes.
How similar/different is “Just for Today” from the rest of your work?
Naturally, a creator brings his themes to wherever he goes. My work is always personal and the writing of my characters passes through my personality structure, through my fears and ultimately changes me a bit as my heroes change as well. What differs “Just for Today” from all my other work is the social element of the series, which stemmed mainly from the deep research that taught me so much about rehabilitation in Israel. I try to convey this knowledge through the series, using dramatic means as to not come across as didactic or boring, in order for the audience to comprehend how hard it is to start over.