Oscar Watch: ‘The Gatekeepers’ Pops the Lid Off the Israeli/Arab Conflict, Dror Moreh Q & A (VIDEO)

Oscar Watch: 'The Gatekeepers' Pops the Lid Off the Israeli/Arab Conflict, Dror Moreh Q & A (VIDEO)

Things aren't getting any easier in the Middle East. Filmmaker Dror Moreh decided to look at the Israeli/Palestine conflict from another angle. He went to the six living men who have run Shin Bet, Israel's Secret Service, from 1980 through 2011. Backed by Israel, France, Germany and Belgium, "The Gatekeepers" (February 1) was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and has been a hit on the festival circuit from Telluride to Sundance. It is a strong Oscar contender for best documentary feature.

The movie is a chilling shocker because these powerful men– Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Avalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin– who we expect to be hardliners, are smart, sane and reasoned about the sources and solutions for Israel's 45-year security problem. They know about it first-hand, because they have had to deal with it every day, unlike the politicians who come and go, for whom they have little respect. The one Israeli leader who did make a difference– Yitzhak Rabin–was felled by an assassin's bullet.

Each Shin Bet chief is different from the other and strongly holds his own views. But they keep saying the same things with the benefit of hindsight. In this movie, the money quotes keep coming:

  • "I don't take politicians seriously anymore. They can't be trusted."
  • "We should have reached an agreement and got out."
  • "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
  • "There's no problem building trust with the Palestinians."
  • "We are making the lives of millions unsufferable."
  • "We've been cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupation population, using the excuse of the war against terror."
  • "We win every battle but we lose the war."

The film played a week in NY and LA for Academy consideration. (Here is the NY Times and LA Times review.) After a limited release on February 1, the film expands nationally later in February and March. Clips from a Telluride Film Fest Mideast Director's Panel including Moreh, Ben Affleck and Michael Winterbottom are below.

Anne Thompson: This movie blew my mind. I'm not someone who is an expert in Middle East relations, so it served as a valuable history lesson. How much were you keeping that function in mind? The film is clear and accessible to anyone.

Dror Moreh: From the beginning, I searched for a long time for a way to do things that were very understandable, so it would be accessible to an international audience. The last president they know is George W. Bush. They don't know before that. At certain points I knew I had to pause for a little bit and give more explanation of the broader context.

AT: Did you think that the Shin Bet leaders were going to agree so much with each other?

DM: I knew from the beginning how I would construct the film. I knew I would want things in the movie, which would follow — I knew there would be thematic structure to the film, but within each thing there would be a chronological story.  I came with up with those things, I spoke with them about things that would be inside the film.

AT: What was your entry point, your opening? What made you think you could get these guys to talk to you?

DM: I knew that I wanted to create a film that nobody could dispute that comes from the professionals. The then-head of Shin Bet said, 'why do you want to make this film with us?' So I said, 'Listen, if I was sick I would go to a doctor, if I broke my leg I would go to an orthopedic surgeon to fix my leg… If I want someone to speak about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, who will I address? The people that are the most professional, this is what they did all their lives, this is their job, they have to explain to me what went wrong. 45 years but it always seems to me that it's getting worse so I want to understand why? What happened there?'

AT: One sad moment was how much the Shin Bet chief in charge when Rabin was assassinated loved him, and how he was blamed for the security breach.

DM: I have to confess to you: I saw the film around a million times. Every time that comes up, even now when I'm speaking to you, that shot from above and you hear his voice, I have tears in my eyes, I want to cry, it shattered my life. It was my birthday, it was one of the happiest days of my life, the 4th of November 1995. I was there with my wife, we had then two young children, we went in the trolley, sitting in a restaurant, I'm telling her I'm so happy we have light at the end of this dark tunnel, there is someone that I trust that can lead Israel to a better future. And the night after that was the most horrible night of my life. The most horrible night of my life.

AT: I'm so sorry. I felt that in the film. How did you get these guys to talk to you? There must have been a chink in the armor. Who was the first one in?

DM: Ami Avalon, the last one that speaks, the one that finishes the movie with 'we win every battle but we lose the war.'  He's the one from the Navy. That came after Rabin was assassinated. I said I have to find one who will open for me this inner-sanctum of a place. And I really thought hard of who to address first because I felt he would understand what I want to do.  He's a friend of a Palestinian pro-peace activist, one of the Geneva Accord… I thought he would be a good point of entry for me.

I called his aides after a moth and a half, managed to arrange a meeting. I told him this is what I wanted to do, to make a film that will resonate. To speak with people who were in power at the time who know what happened in the most intimate place of decision making in Israel and to speak in hindsight now, if what they did served the greater cause of Israel or no, did not serve?

I saw an amazing film, 'The Fog of War' by Errol Morris, when I saw this film I was really shattered to see this intelligent guy speak so well about the consequences of war with hindsight. And he said, 'I saw that film. It's an amazing film.  It should be taught in every war academy in the world. If that is what you're aiming, I'm in that film.'

AT: How did you go from there?

DM: So I said, 'please can you give me the phone number of whoever you have and can you please call them and tell them.'  Then the process started slowly and slowly.

AT: What about the oldest guy [Avraham Shalom]?

DM: He was the toughest guy. He was the hardest.

AT: He was the money get. He was ruthless and brutal and bitter and smart.  They each had strength, wiliness and political acumen. That one though, he scared me.

DM: Ooh no no. I like him very much, he was one of the most intelligent of them all, one of the most left wing of them all. You know that after the screening in Jerusalem, he wanted to speak. Avraham Shalom is someone who personifies for me the Jewish voyage, and only 2% of the interviews were inside the movie. One of the most hard things I took off from the movie was his childhood story. He was born in Vienna in 1930, he grew up as a boy, he saw Hitler coming into Vienna, he was on the balcony as a boy seeing Hilter, he was beaten after that by his classmate as a Jewish person and felt firsthand what it means to be a Jew in a racist society. And when he says we are treating Palestinians the same way that the Germans treated the Jews in 1938… He wasn't in the Holocaust, his father managed to get him out on the first day of the Second World War, but he says that he witnessed first hand what racism means.

AT: In the photographs when he's young and vibrant he radiated power.

DM: He was a security guy. Everybody talked about him with great respect and great feeling, all the heads they said he was terrifying.

AT:  That's the thing, it's such a paradox, as the right wing and religious groups are the counter-force against everything you want to do. We feel that in in this country as well.

DM: You have it here also, in the South.

AT: Were you expecting the reaction you got in North America?

DM: No, I was overwhelmed and blown away. The response is amazing and I'm interested in politics. A lot of what shapes our world, what shapes us through the smallest parts of our being, our existence, is politicians. We give them so much power.

AT: But we expect them to take care of us, to give us leadership and direction. What you describe is this rudderless ship with no one taking responsibility.

DM: There is nothing that I will agree more with Ami Avalon said. When he was young his parents said in Jerusalem there is a place where there is a corridor and there is a door and behind the door this is a wise man who is thinking for me, and when he grew up he went into that place and saw that there is no door and behind there there was no one thinking.

AT:  They agreed that no politician that could be trusted. When are you going to show this in Israel?

DM: We are thinking about this for a long time.

AT: You have found such credibility, such authority. Some of us want someone to do the American version, the heads of the CIA. Might is not right.

DM: The response I got from Jews: 'you know if you release this, over time when they speak those words they say, you will be considered anti-Semitic.'

AT: Many Jewish Liberal Americans don't like to criticize Israel.

DM: There is a lawyer here, I met this wife, she came to me and said, 'I saw your movie. Israel is right.' I said, 'you don't understand: if you don't criticize Israel you are doing wrong to Israel.'

AT: It must have been hard to edit this down.

DM: It was. You can take movies in so many directions especially with six people speaking in interviews.

AT: You had a lot. You can put it online.

DM: First I will release the book, first of all going to be a book, at the beginning of next year.

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