‘Special Interview’ is exceptional entertainment

A new Channel 2 documentary chronicles the evolution of two disabled Israeli journalists and their daily struggle for acceptance.

JOURNALISTS EFRAT DOTAN (left) and Matanel Biton370 (photo credit: (Courtesy Asaf Finkelstein))
JOURNALISTS EFRAT DOTAN (left) and Matanel Biton370
(photo credit: (Courtesy Asaf Finkelstein))
Israel’s most charming and appealing journalists, Efrat Dotan and Matanel Biton of Ynet, who have an impressive series of interviews to their credit – including of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and even Bar Refaeli – are now the subject of a documentary, Special Interview, that will be broadcast on Channel 2 on September 19 at 9 p.m.
The extraordinarily entertaining film, directed by Nitzan Rozenberg and produced by Reshet, chronicles their journey, two years ago, to get an interview with President Barack Obama and plead for him to secure Gilad Schalit’s release.
The fact that the two 20-somethings are developmentally disabled is a central part of the story, but it isn’t the entire story.
Even the fact that they were able to secure an interview with Gilad Schalit – the most moving five minutes of television you will see this year – is just a part of the story.
Schalit made an extremely rare public appearance at a festive screening of Special Interview at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque earlier this month, and it was clear, as he spoke of his desire to see more inclusion in the community for people with special needs, that he felt that Efrat and Matan were kindred spirits – people who were caught up in a drama due to circumstances, and who have come into the public eye to plead their case with grace and honesty.
“The inspiration to make the film was when we saw a survey saying 50 percent of Israelis don’t want to live anywhere near people with mental disabilities,” says Asaf Finkelstein, the film’s producer and director of public relations at SHALVA, the Jerusalem-based Association for Mentally & Physically Challenged Children, which was founded by Malki and Kalman Samuels in 1990. “I felt we had to do something about this.”
Efrat, who has Down Syndrome, and Matanel, who has developmental disabilities, had already begun their career as interviewers for Ynet, where clips of their interviews with famous politicians, musicians and leaders in every other field had started running regularly on the front page of the site. Assisted by Ynet reporter and editor Shlomit Sharvit, they were given press credentials (critical for getting close to politicians) and with the blessing and assistance of Ynet editor-in-chief Eran Tippenborn and Yon Feder, the former Ynet editor in chief, they began interviewing everyone important they could in Israel.
“The interviews started running and we would get calls from people, I won’t say who, but politicians, who would say, ‘I’d like to be interviewed, too,’” recalls Finkelstein.
It’s interesting to see the interplay between the celebrities and Efrat and Matanel. You’ve never seen some of these luminaries so unguarded and sincere, because they are inspired by the interviewers’ lack of guile. But what the film chronicles is not only the evolution of Efrat and Matanel as interviewers, but the development of their self-confidence and their daily struggle for acceptance.
There are scenes of Efrat crying over taunts from strangers, and Matanel tells Meir Goldberg, a SHALVA volunteer who has become a mentor to him and who helped get the film project get off the ground, that he has no friends at all. As the mother of a teenage boy with autism, I could relate to the challenges they face and understand deeply their daily battle with cruel insults (my son has been called a “stinking retard” and worse) and perhaps worst of all, with society’s perception that they are less worthy than others and incapable of achieving anything meaningful in their lives.
“We hoped that seeing this film would help change people’s perceptions,” says Kalman Samuels. He felt that their quest to try to meet Obama was worth investing in, and he found partners in Jay and Shira Ruderman of the Ruderman Foundation, Shari Arison of the Arison Fund, and the Shalem Fund.
Accompanied by Shlomit Sharvit, Meir Goldberg and social worker Elliezra Jesselson, who had developed a close and nurturing relationship with the two, along with a film crew, they set off for Washington.
Part of the pleasure of the film is seeing the US through their eyes and watching them enjoy the journey.
While they have their heart sets on an interview with Obama, in the end, says Finkelstein, “they did achieve their dream – they got an interview with Gilad Schalit, and that was the impetus for speaking to Obama in the first place.”
He also speaks affectionately of the many personal moments captured in the film, particularly those that show Efrat and Matanel’s growing self-awareness and maturity.
Finkelstein notes that while many Ynet readers were charmed by their interviews, there was a troubling undercurrent of negative talkbacks, where some wrote hurtful comments, suggesting it would have been better had Efrat and Matanel been aborted.
“We thought it was important that those talkbacks not be taken down, that people should see this reaction for what it is,” says Finkelstein.
But while any change will flush some naysayers out of the woodwork, Special Interview makes a strong case for bringing people with special needs out of the shadows and into the mainstream of Israeli society. The film will make you laugh and cry while it makes its case and in the end, you will be left with memories of two very remarkable young people.