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How ‘The Human Factor’ Looks Behind the Closed Doors of Mideast Peace Talks

For once, the White House came through to help a documentary filmmaker finish his movie.

“The Human Factor”

Sony Pictures Classics

No filmmaker is better at unraveling the complexities of Middle Eastern turmoil than Dror Moreh. In the Oscar-nominated “The Gatekeepers,” the director looked at the Israeli/Palestine conflict through the eyes of the six living men who have run Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. We expect Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Avalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin to be hardliners, but they turn out to be 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 on November 4, 1995.

Moreh adopted a similar approach with “The Human Factor” (January 22, Sony Pictures Classics), which looks behind the scenes of three decades of the Arab-Israeli peace process via the veteran diplomat mediators and negotiators who put in obsessive hours of legwork and travel to inform and support the front-line U.S. presidents and Israeli, Palestinian, and Syrian generals, politicians, and prime ministers who take credit or blame for often disappointing results.

With the benefit of hindsight, these civil servants reflect on what happened behind closed doors with surprising candor. “The Human Factor” is a celebration of professional competence, something that has been sorely lacking in Washington for the past four years. In the Trump era, “diplomacy was run by Twitter,” the Jerusalem-born Moreh said on the phone from Berlin, “not by political persons who are well-informed in the world. It’s a more dangerous world all over, and the chances of solving these problems, from my point-of-view, have diminished to almost nothing. It’s not diplomats, it’s all a reality show and a Kim Jong-un photo.”

Ever since “The Human Factor” debuted at Telluride 2019, Moreh has been tweaking the film in the editing room, because SPC’s planned June 2020 release kept being pushed back by the pandemic. “I was interested in understanding the problem from the point of view of the professionals,” he said, “not the politicians. Here, I wanted professionals to speak, the American negotiators who tried to reach a mission of a peace deal between Palestine and Israel. At the end of the day they take what the Israelis want, as well as the Syrians and Palestinians and try to create a deal. That’s how diplomats work.”

Normally, when the deal is done, the outcome is reduced to a photograph. “All you get to hear is the press briefing and the photo op,” said Moreh. “I wanted to hear what happened inside the room, to help us understand what a huge effort America put through as these diplomats worked for almost three decades. We don’t see that.”

Moreh was seeking to find out not only why the peace process had so often failed following the devastating murder of Rabin, two years after the famous 1993 handshake on the White House lawn. Clinton and his U.S.negotiators were able to craft a peace deal because Rabin and Arafat had come to respect each other. “Why are we where we are now?” Moreh said. “The biggest question throughout this project was what would have happened if Rabin had not been assassinated.”

To that end he spent 10 or more hours interrogating each of his subjects. It took some convincing. “It was a voyage trying to explain to each one why I want them and what is the purpose of the movie,” said Moreh. The toughest to persuade was mediator Gamal Helal. “He was an amazing man, an interpreter, from the time of George H.W. Bush through Clinton, Bush, and the beginning of Obama,” Moreh said. “He was the eyes of the president through all those times, and one of the closest persons who danced with the Arabs all over.”

Negotiator Dennis Ross submitted to 35 hours of grilling. What emerged in the editing room as Moreh dug into the interviews was the film’s title — “The Human Factor” — which he felt other projects on the same topic lack. Most films that focus on larger-than-life leaders “place them somewhere on Mt. Olympus,” he said. ‘We forget they are human beings like us who interact to each other on a human level. Trust in the other leaders is how they operate, with huge-impact outcomes.”

FILE - In this Sept. 13, 1993 file photo President Clinton presides over White House ceremonies marking the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, in Washington. Two years after the groundbreaking handshake on the White House lawn between the two men, Rabin was killed by an Israeli extremist opposed to peace negotiations with the Palestinians at a rally promoting the accords. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File)

President Clinton presides over White House ceremonies marking the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, in Washington.

AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

Moreh has grown to admire Clinton’s diplomatic prowess as well as George H. W. Bush ally Jim Baker, “who knew how to use the tools he had as Secretary of State in order to push sides to reach a deal,” said Moreh. “Some negotiators think if Baker had stayed in office with George W. Bush, there would be peace in Israel and all of the world. He always just managed to get the parties to speak together. The job of America as mediator was easier with Baker as Secretary of State.”

Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher brought another personality, but “something changed in Clinton after Rabin’s assassination,” said Moreh. “All the responsibility falls on Clinton’s shoulders. The Israeli leaders that followed, like Shimon Peres and Bibi Netanyahu, were not remotely close to caliber of Rabin, and gave Clinton a tougher, harder path. Basically, after the collapse of Camp David they were all giving lip service to a dying peace process.”

Illustrating the negotiators’ stories was tough. “How was I to tell all these amazing stories visually, from inside the room?” he said. He wanted to capture certain  dramatic moments, like Clinton hugging Peres at the funeral of Rabin, or Arafat’s defiant choice of a military costume for the big photo op.

Then Moreh remembered that the White House photographers were always shooting behind the scenes. Through the Freedom of Information act, he filed for photos on 12 specific dates, including Rabin at the White House when he met Arafat. He waited nine months until the package arrived in the mail with 40,000 contact sheets. “They had pictures from all the stories I had heard,” Moreh said. “I was a little boy who found a treasure jumping up and down going through each of the photos.”

Next Up: Moreh is almost finished with the five-year project “Corridors of Power,” for which he has interviewed almost all of the living U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense and National Security Advisors about America’s singular relationship to the world.

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