Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh has earned prizes, near and far, for his Oscar nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers.” Groups such as the National Society of Film Critics have singled him out not just for his film’s daring subject – he interviews the last six heads of Israel’s Shin Bet secret police force – or the movie’s artistic way of using archival news footage, animation and interviews to take a long-view look at decades of Middle East conflict.
But they’re also honoring him as a particularly dogged interviewer. A cinematographer-turned-documentary maker, Moreh was facing off with six hard-nosed men, experts in interrogation, men used to not giving direct answers to probing questions.
How did he prepare?
“For my earlier film, “Sharon” (on Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon), I spoke to your (former Secretary of State) Condeleeza Rice, a very smart woman who doesn’t want to answer a question simply, often. She was good practice.”
He knew he’d need three to four hour long sessions with the various Shin Bet chiefs, that he’d need time to come back to a question evaded more than once. He knew he had to be tricky, and persistent. And he knew, straight off, that he had a trump card.
“I didn’t force them to come,” he says. “These men are of the shadows. They don’t do interviews. But they wanted to speak, and speak candidly and openly and in a way, I think, that could be helpful to the peace process. All I had to do was push the right buttons.”
Moreh’s film is not an alternate history of Israel’s 46 years as an occupying army in territories conquered in the 1967 Six Day War. It’s a ground level exploration of the consequences of each Israeli or Palestinian escalation of the violence that has accompanied those decisions.
“What I wanted to do was approach those events from the perspective of those most closely involved with the events, from the Israeli side – people who carried out policy,” Moreh says. Those Shin Bet chiefs, from Avraham Shalom to Yuval Diskin – “understand what happened, the reality of what happened and the climate of the times…You cannot argue with them. You cannot say that they come from the far left, people preaching peace. No. They are people who understand the conflict better than anyone else, and their solution is one that peace advocates have been making for years.”
Moreh’s film takes one side, one point of view – the Israeli one – and lets those in charge of carrying out policies designed to keep Israel safe, no matter what – do some soul searching as they talk about the cost of such a tit-for-tat strategy.
“It’s not as if they’re telling us something new…All these horrible things that they had to do to maintain Israeli security they now talk about, that is what is taking people in Israel and the international community by surprise.”
As critic David Edelstein marveled in New York Magazine, “You know the Holy Land is an unholy mess when the professional paranoiacs with a license to kill come off like peaceniks.”
Moreh has his fingers crossed for Oscar night, but his eyes on a much bigger prize, in the long run. He’s working to get “The Gatekeepers” translated from Hebrew to Arabic.
“I know how important it is for this to show in Gaza, the West Bank and the rest of the Arab world.
Someone has initiated a screening of it in Ramallah, and I would love to be there for that, although I don’t know if I will be allowed to go. I want Palestinians to see the film, to maybe understand their hated enemy as we finally try to understand them…That’s the greatest reward for me.”