The Academy Awards' Best Documentary category is always so difficult to predict, but this year seems especially so because of the gravitas associated with several of the nominees, with the exception of the apparent frontrunner, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN, which is a perfectly told story in its own right. But put in the same arena as films like THE INVISIBLE WAR, 5 BROKEN CAMERAS, HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, and the entry from Israel, THE GATEKEEPERS, it's tough to see the odds on SUGAR MAN winning based on anything more than its box office success.
Among my personal favorites of this fantastic list of nominees is THE GATEKEEPERS from director Dror Moreh, who entered the documentary world as a cinematographer before writing and directing a 2008 behind-the-curtain look at Israel's controversial former prime minister Ariel Sharon (who has weirdly been in the news lately after seven years in a coma because he's been showing signs of significant brain activity in recent weeks).
The complete access he was given put Moreh in the company of some powerful political leaders and positioned him to make THE GATEKEEPERS, in which Moreh interviews all six surviving heads of Shin Bet, the nation's highly secretive security agency. The film acts as a crash course on many of the troubles (both long-term and one-off) Israel has had in the last few decades, and provides a vantage point unprecedented in this or any other country.
The other shocking revelation in the film is that all six of these men (including one who was the active Shin Bet chief when his interview was conducted) are eager to keep peace negotiations active regarding the situation in the West Bank. Moreh is not afraid to be critical of the people currently leading his government, including the recently re-elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose election occurred the day after this interview. It should be noted for contextual purposes that the TV was on in the room where our interview took place, the sound muted, showing President Obama's recent inauguration to his second term.
As a rule and practice, I tend to over-prepare for most of my interviews, but I don't think I've ever done as much research and general prep work as I did for this interview. I wanted to understand as much about Israel's history in the last 60 years and what exactly Shin Bet would have been dealing during that time. Hopefully, I sound like I know what I'm talking about. Please enjoy my talk with current Oscar nominee Dror Moreh…
Capone: Hi Dror, how are you? It’s good to meet you.
Dror Moreh: I’m fine. It’s nice to meet you as well.
Capone: Thank you very much. You just came from Sundance, right?
Capone: I guess they played it over the weekend so you could be there for the premiere.
DM: We have five screenings. There are going to be three or four screenings that I won't be there for.
Capone: Got it. They actually showed us this movie late last year. Just so I understand--I’m sure you’ve been asked this question many times--Shin Bet is responsible both for internal intelligence but also security to a certain degree, correct?
DM: Yeah, security, espionage…
Capone: So in America, there wouldn’t be a direct corresponding agency.
DM: No, there isn’t one.
Capone: A little Secret Service, a little CIA…
DM: Exactly. This is the definition: a little Secret Service and a little CIA, both compiled into one body. There’s a little FBI also.
Capone: So the difference then, as opposed to the external secure intelligence group in Israel that most of us are more familiar with…
Capone: Mossad, yes. Thanks to Mr. Spielberg’s movie, we know that one. So it would seem on the surface that getting these gentlemen to talk would be a difficult thing. I would imagine one of their primary jobs is not to do interviews. Was it a difficult process?
DM: It was. I knew that I would need someone that, through him, I would manage to penetrate this group. Although they are not a group, they are not friends or meet socially, quite the contrary. But they are former heads of Shin Bent. It was Ami Ayalon, the one that finishes the film, the bald guy who says, “We win every battle, but we lose the war,” he was the one, for me, the key opener. I met with him and I explained to him what I wanted to do. I basically used THE FOG OF WAR from Errol Morris when I met him. I said what I wanted to do and then I said, “I saw an amazing film, which was a source of inspiration for me, and it’s FOG OF WAR by Errol Morris,” and he saw that film, this guy, and he said, “Wow, it’s an amazing film. I think it should be taught in every war academy around the world to understand the fallibility of humans when they come to deal with war.” At the end of that long conversation, he said, “Okay, I will be your in.” Then I said, “Can you get me the numbers of the rest?”
Capone: Did it make it easier then once one of them signed on?
DM: He vouched for me, which was very important. When he said, “Talk to this guy. He’s okay,” it helped. When someone says “It’s okay,” then it means something, and after that, all of them met with me. All of them interviewed me intensively.
Capone: That interviewed you?
DM: Yeah. At the beginning, I had to explain. They asked me where I am, what I want, why di I want to do it with them. They wanted to know, but the minute he said yes and then another one said it and then another one said yes, the rest were quite easy to get.
Capone: Was there any concern about national security issues?
DM: No, these are the guys that are arresting people for injuring the national security. These are the guys. The heads of the Shin Bet are the ones that if you were, let’s say, a national security advisor of Israel and you spoke in a way that injured the security of Israel, the head of the Shin Bet would order you to be arrested.
Capone: Did the people currently in Shin Bet have to see the film before it was released?
DM: No. I would never give that. By the way, the last one that spoke, Yuval Diskin, he was the head of the Shin Bet when I interviewed him.
Capone: Oh, that’s right. He was still in office.
DM: Yeah, but because it took me three years to finish the movie, he was still in office. Completely amazing.
Capone: I had read some interviews with you late last year, right when the election was announced in Israel, which is tomorrow. Was that kind of unbelievable to you? Has the film played there?
DM: Unbelievable. In Israel, it opened two and a half weeks ago.
Capone: Is that enough time to make an impact?
DM: I think that it did make an impact. A lot of people are coming to see it. Documentaries aren’t so mainstream in Israel.
Capone: Here either.
DM: But it opened in two art-house cinemas in Israel. After one week, we were in seven, and now we are in 13, even in the multiplexes, which have never played documentaries before. And every show is full, completely sold out.
Capone: I know you made the SHARON documentary as well. Did that give you a taste for looking behind the curtain and seeing how things worked
Capone: I know you made documentaries before that. Were those the kind of subjects you were tackling before SHARON?
DM: No, no. SHARON is what started this. These people, they are the ones who make decisions about our life, even yours, believe me. You see what’s on the television behind you? The inauguration of Barack Obama. They are the ones who decide how your life will look like, how much money you will pay in taxes. They are sitting in those rooms and deciding who will die and who will live. These are the guys, and if you have a problem and you want to understand the problem, you better address them, if you can. You better address what’s going on, “Why are those decisions being made? How come we didn’t follow a path that would have served us as it should?”
So my film about Sharon dealt mainly with why this guy moved basically from being the father of settlement into the one that approved all of the settlements in Gaza. How did the change come into him? When you speak with those advisors and you understand the intensity of power that those people have in their hands, it’s nice to know and to learn first hand, if you can, what happened there in those rooms, the decision maker’s rooms.
Capone: Did making that film gain you any clout in getting these interviews for GATEKEEPERS?
DM: Well yes, some of them saw it; some of them didn’t,. Like everything else in life it’s timing. I felt that I came in at a time when they wanted to speak and they wanted to speak openly, because they felt after all of those years that they have spent trying to defend Israel, trying to protect the security of Israel. And when they look in hindsight, let’s say 45 years that they spent dealing with the security of Israel, is Israel better on now because of what they did and sacrificed? They definitely answered it themselves with “NO,” with capitol letters. And they're worried. I
There are a lot of people that try to portray this film as leftist, as an anti-Israeli film, and it’s not. I think to say that these people are “anti-Israeli” is really not to understand or to look the other way. These are the people that spent their lives protecting the state of Israel. They have sacrificed almost all of their life for that, and this is the reason why I think they came at the end to this movie.
Capone: There were two things that really struck me about the interviews themselves, one is that I believe everybody that you asked was very much in favor of keeping peace talks going on this Palestinian issue, and that they all believed that peace was still possible. Can you speak to that? Was that a surprising revelation to you?
DM: It was even surprising to the extent of how much they believe in that and to the extent that the public in Israel is sometimes mislead by the government. Basically when they say that there is no partner in the other side, and these men said that there is a partner in the other side. You don’t have to look very hard for that. We just need to want that. We just need really, from within, to understand what it means. And coming from them, from the point of view of someone who understands the conflict, who understands all of the consequences of the conflict is significant.
There were people in Palestine, and we drove them out. We came back to the land of our ancestors, and all of which is right. But at the end of the day, there are two people on this land, the Palestinian and the Israelis, and the earlier we compromise, the earlier we will understand that we cannot keep it all. This is what they said; I'm not speaking for myself. The better it will be to the security of the state of Israel, which is what they are concerned about.
Capone: I wasn’t as surprised by it, but really moved by how deeply these men felt their failures. Anytime something went wrong, they were crushed, A) because they hadn’t done their job, or they felt that way, and B) they were sad for the country. It surprised me that they were willing to be that open about it.
DM: The thing with them, and this is something which is a motif in the film, is they weight strategy vs. tactics. Sometimes their failures, although seemingly tactic, had a huge strategic impact on all the region. For example, the tactic failure of protecting the life of Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin had a very, very significant strategic impact until today. So of course they know that when they fail, sometimes it costs big strategic impact on the region. I can give you a lot more examples of that, but that’s the most significant one, a failure to protect the life of the Prime Minister.
Capone: With their views on negotiations and their views on peace, how much impact do they have on policy? It seems like that’s not really their job, but does the Prime Minister in any way hear what they have to say on the subjects of peace talks?
DM: He hears what they have to say, but he is the one that decides at the end of the day. When you see the current Prime Minister Netanyahu, everybody told him from the security forces, “You have to try to continue with the peace process and negotiating with the Palestinians. It will lead to a third intifada [uprising] if you will not do anything.” Did he listen? No, because he’s a politician. And as a politician, although Netanyahu was a completely different creature in my point of view from the politicians that I have seen and I saw very intimately politicians in Israel, Prime Ministers, he is a completely different breed, which I cannot decipher or understand.
Really, it’s something that… What is that? “Where is your center? You as a leader, what do you believe?” Everything can happen, and this is something that’s very troubling for a lot of Israelis. When you don’t know where the center of that person is. How can a Prime Minister three or four months ago create the coalition with the center left, and four months after, that he creates with the extreme right wing? “Who are you? What are you?”
It’s something that I’m completely puzzled or mystified by. I would rather have a Prime Minister who is an extremist right wing, but I know who he is, so I know I can say “This is the guy.” I can respect that, and I can go against it, but “This is the guy. This is the center of the guy.” But Netanyahu, it’s like a hyena--one day he’s here and one day he’s there. Wherever the wind blows, he’s there.
Capone: Yet he seems poised to walk away with things tomorrow.
DM: The problem now in Israel is the lack of leadership on all sides. I’m not talking “left” or “right” or center or up or down; there’s a total lack of leadership.
Capone: How many parties are there in this election? Dozens?
DM: Let’s not go into that.
Capone: Like most great documentaries, you try not to walk in with expectations and try not to guide the interviews to places you want it to go, you just let it…
Capone: Flow, right. Overall, what did knowledge to gain with this film?
DM: At the end of the day, I wanted to create a film from the professionals. If there is someone in the Israeli spectrum or landscape of decision making who can testify about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which no one can doubt, it’s them. This is what they do. If there is someone who understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on all its subjects--Jewish terror as well, because we have quite a bit of Jewish terror even now, and Palestinian terror--understanding Hamas or what it means to be a Palestinian and to understand the Palestinian from their point of view, it’s those people, the heads of the Shin Bet, and I wanted to create not one, not two, all of them. All of the living heads of Shin Bet are inside that movie, and I think that it forces the people in Israel--also the international community--to look at what they sa,y and it forces you to look down deep into yourself. What is the first thing that you see in the morning? You see yourself in the mirror, right?
Capone: Unfortunately, yes.
DM: [laughs] You say “unfortunately,” but if someone stands in front of the mirror, and the mirror tells him a story, and as you say “unfortunately” and you don’t like it, you have two options. Either you say, “The mirror is crooked. I don’t like this mirror. I will change this mirror,” which if you are as a person, you see the bigger picture that the six heads of Shin Bet give you, and you say “I don’t like this mirror, I will go away. I will look at another mirror.” Okay, that’s up to you.
But if you are a true person, someone who sees the mirror and sees that the mirror doesn’t lie to you, it forces you… maybe it’s a long process, but it forces you to do something with yourself which is not easy: to change, to shift what you believe is true. It’s a very, very tough task, but if you are true to yourself and you say, “Okay, this mirror is telling me the story which I know and I really look like that, and those people really understand what they are speaking,” it forces you to change, and this is what I wanted to do.
Capone: It occurred to me about halfway through the film that these six gentlemen would have to be master interrogators, masters of the language.
Capone: Is that intimidating for you to interview them for that reason?
DM: What the hell do you think? [laughs]
Capone: Did you feel like you were being manipulated while you were interviewing them?
DM: No, but it's exactly what you said: these are the masters of words. These are the masters that have to convince someone to betray, to turn, to give up his brother up. At the end of the day when you are interviewing, and I did a very long and extensive interview with each one of them. It was really long, like three or four hours, sometimes six or seven hours. You cannot play. I’m interrogating them. I'm confronting them. At the end of the day, your persona comes out and it has to.
Capone: ou mentioned Errol Morris before and THE FOG OF WAR. Were there any documentarians that you admired as you were…
DM: Errol Morris.
Capone: He was the one?
DM: He was the pivotal point for me and for that movie. When I saw FOG OF WAR, it blew me away completely. What he achieved there was unprecedented and amazing, and it gave me the understanding that if you manage to bring someone who walked in those corridors of power, who sat in those rooms where decisions were being made, who advised the president first hand and sat near their ear and said “Do that,” or “Don’t do that,” and also is intelligent enough to look in hindsight at what he did then and ask “Did it lead his country to a better place?” or “What was their reasoning for taking those decisions?” I said, “I have to do something like that. I have to create something which will come from those rooms with those people who are taking the decisions,” which I can look in retrospect. There are numerous movies that have been done on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, numerous. None of them succeeded to really shift things. Well, it kind of shifted, but…
Capone: I’m legitimately nervous to see what Morris has got with Donald Rumsfeld. The events he'll be talking to him about are much more recent than they were with Robert McNamara.
DM: Absolutely. I met Morris at the Telluride Film Festival. He saw THE GATEKEEPERS and he hugged me after that and said he approved of the film.
Capone: He saw a kindred spirit I’m sure.
DM: He’s really an amazing director. I think he’s one of the strongest, most important documentary directors operating now in the world, if not the one.
Capone: When you were sitting down to interview these gentlemen, were there any ground rules established with any of them? “You can ask me about this, but not about this.”
DM: Just with the older man. He said in the beginning, “I don’t want to speak about 300 Line [The 1984 Bus 300 incident, in which Shin Bet members executed two Arab bus hijackers, immediately after the hostage crises incident ended and they were captured], and I’m not going to speak about it.” And I said, “Okay, if you don’t want to speak about it, don’t speak about it.” Then I got into the first round of interviews and I finished the first at the beginning.
And then I did the second round of interviews with the five, and then before the last, I came to him and I said, “You have to speak about it. It will be in the movie. They will speak about it. You never spoke about what happened that evening, what happened that night when you gave the order to kill those two handcuffed terrorists. We’ve heard everybody besides you. Everybody spoke about that--the supreme judges, the operators on the ground, the people that killed them. All of them spoke, and only you didn’t speak. I want you to speak.” And he said, “I will see. Let’s see how it goes.” That was the toughest interview that I did in my entire life and believe me, I’ve done some quite tough interviews with Condoleezza Rice, with Ariel Sharon. I did a lot, but with him… [Laughs]
Capone: But you got him to speak about it.
DM: He spoke about it, and I think he’s really happy that he spoke about it. Look, in Israel always the executive branch, the people that are on the ground doing the job, the security forces, are paying the price. The politician always gets away, always. They never pay the price, never. They are always getting away with that, and to the killing of those two terrorists on the ground, he was authorized to do that by the Prime Minister. He paid the price; the Prime Minister didn’t.
The incitement and the insurrection against Rabin, which I showed in the film, there were people that were behind that, people that are now working within the corridors of power in Israel, people that are now prominent figures in the Israeli establishment, who incited for the murder of a Prime Minister, and they are now in power. They didn’t pay the price--rabbis, politicians. I have names. They are still in power now, still leading people, still teaching very young people.
Capone: That seems more like the rule than the exception in any country.
DM: That the politician will always get away with that? I don’t know.
Capone: Or that the perpetrators of that will remain in power.
DM: I really hope that it’s not. In another country, I really hope that it is the norm, in my country as well, that if you fail and you fail miserably as Prime Minister, you should evacuate your seat and go away and not only blame the security forces for what you did. But it’s too much to expect from them, really. I never saw that.
Capone: I think there is this misconception by a lot of citizens that government is a machine that runs by itself. But what your film reminds us of is that there are human beings making these decisions, and they are as fallible as any of us.
DM: Some times even more so, because if there is something that is unanimous to all of them, it’s an ego the size of the moon. Each one has one.
Capone: You forget that sometimes that these men are just as prone to mistakes as the rest of us. I want to talk a little bit about the visuals that you use, especially some of the really unique--I assume it’s CGI that you use when you don’t have a representation like a video or photo. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided on that?
DM: I knew that most of the operations that they would speak about, basically I wouldn’t have anything. They are secret operatives in secret operations. Basically, I wouldn’t have anything about that, and I knew that I would have to construct a way visually to tell the story, because I’m doing movies; I’m not writing articles in the newspaper. I am doing movies, and the visual aspect of that is very important for me. A pivotal point for me was the 300 Line, to try to create, through those three or four photos, a visual experience, which will be video, which will be cinematic. This was something that we devised. It has never been used before in terms of cinema in the world, never ever. This is the first time that you take two or three photos and you recreate all of the surroundings based on those photos. Basically we took the 300 Line, based on those photos that I had, including the capturing of those two terrorists, which basically brought this episode into the light. If it were not for these two photos, nobody would have known.
Then we decided to build, based on those photos, all the terrain. We have the photo, but all of the rest of the terrain of what happened that night is recreated in the computer. Black and white, because it was shot black and white, but the camera could move in that terrain that I created based on those photos in whatever manner that I chose, and I chose a documentary. The photographer is running through the space, but it had all been done in the computer. I shake the camera. This is one things we did.
Also, all of the inner mechanisms of the Shin Bet we had to recreate, which came from words, like some of them said to me, “We are a huge factory of information.” So you see those long lines of cabinets. “How does a big factory of information look like in the '60s and '70s, before there were computers?” So it all had to be kind of reinvented in a way. Also some of the aerial shots, some of those drawn views that you see have been created, but based on exactly how the house of the perpetrators was at that time. The cellular phone bombers, you know the one? That drawn view is exactly how his house looked in reality if it was being shot from a drawn view. That means if a Palestinian who lives there and who knows the house of where he was, he would say, “Yes, they had a drawn view there.”
Capone: The GATEKEEPERS is about many things, but in the end it is a profile of a nation that is still very much an isolated place geographically and politically.
DM: And mentally also.
Capone: I’m assuming that that’s not the desired living condition. I assume that people want to be part of the global community, but it feels like what we are watching here is a series of decisions that were made that further that isolation.
DM: Absolutely. You touched a very delicate point, and it’s a very long answer to that.
Capone: They just gave me the five-minutes sign.
DM: I will try to make it as short as I can. After the Holocaust, the Jews said to themselves “Never again. Never again will something like that happen, never and rightfully." We will do whatever we need, to make sure if there is someone who wants to annihilate us as a race, it will never happen again. That’s why the state of Israel was established. And the feeling amongst the Israelis, rightfully, is that the tough neighborhood that we live in doesn’t want us. They wish that it will be finished as soon as possible to throw everybody into the sea. This is the terrain that we are speaking about.
In my point of view, it lead to a wrong conclusion. This is what they say also: “You have to speak.” And I’m not putting the blame on the Israelis. I think that the Palestinians have had their share of mistakes dealing with that conflict, if not more than the Israelis. I've heard it said, “The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” and I can say that this is true for both sides. The Israelis and the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
But this is the region in which we live in, and we have to assimilate into that region. You cannot continue living on force. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t want you there. You have to try to make amends and be there. This is what I feel and this is what [the former heads of the Shin Bet feel as well, and they say that there is a partner in the other side to speak to, to try for a compromise.
Capone: I should have said it at the beginning, congratulations on your Oscar nomination and good luck. In some people’s eyes, you seem to be the front runner. Hopefully we will see you up on stage in a few weeks.
DM: Thank you very much. It was nice talking with you.