Earlier this month, I met in New York with the Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, who was in town to show his most recent project, The Gatekeepers, at the 50th New York Film Festival. The film, which had its world premiere at the Jersualem International Film Festival in July and its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September, offers an amazing look at the inner-workings of the Israeli government and national security apparatus through unprecedented on-camera interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency. It has quickly become one of the most critically-acclaimed docs of the year and a leading contender for the best documentary feature Oscar.
Moreh, who will turn 51 next week, is a member of the first generation of great Israeli filmmakers -- a group that has, among others things, managed to score four Oscar nominations for best foreign language film in the last five years, a streak matched by only two other countries in history. He grew up on American movies of a sort far removed from the Israeli experience -- Westerns, gangster movies, and fantasies -- and, after completing his mandatory military service, gave up the study of philosophy and psychology to pursue an education in cinematography.
Moreh's film school classmates included several future standouts, such as Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir) and Hagai Levy (In Treatment). Fortunately for them, they graduated at roughly the same time that the demand for Hebrew-language visual content in Israel exploded, thanks to the introduction of the equivalent of cable TV to Israeli society. Consequently, there was plenty of work -- and, today, there are more film schools per-capita in Israel than in any other country in the world.
Cinematography held a very specific appeal for Moreh: it allowed him to focus not on actors or lines of dialogue, but rather on telling a story through visuals. He became one of Israel's go-to lensers, and could have had a very successful career if he had continued practicing the craft. But, in the year 2000, he concluded that he had achieved all that he could as a cinematographer in Israel, where the job is often restricted by small budgets. He decided to become a director, recognizing that documentary filmmaking, in particular, required the same skill-set as a cinematographer: telling a story through visuals.
In 2000, Moreh agreed to direct political campaign ads for Ariel Sharon, who was challenging Israel's incumbent prime minister, Ehud Barak. He quickly realized that Sharon -- an old general who had made his name in the battlefield, not in front of cameras (he frequently displayed tics) -- needed a new approach to selling himself, and convinced him to place less of an emphasis on delivering prepared speeches and more of an emphasis on granting natural, unscripted interviews about his views. It paid off when Sharon won easily.
In the meantime, Moreh, deeply fascinated by the fallibility of people in positions of power, watched and was very much inspired by Errol Morris' doc The Fog of War (2003). He recalls that he "was completely blown away" by the film, which was structured around an "exit-interview," of sorts, with former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara, a man who had been as close to the center of power as anyone during a definitive turning point in his nation's history. Moreh knew that he wanted to make a variation of that sort of film himself one day. (Incidentally, Morris saw The Gatekeepers at its North American premiere in Telluride and told Moreh he loved it.)
In 2003, as Sharon prepared to vie for re-election, Moreh agreed to come back to work for him -- on one condition: that he could record his behind-the-scenes interactions with him, using his small digital video camera. This was agreed to, Moreh returned, and Sharon was ultimately re-elected. In 2006, as Sharon prepared for yet another re-election bid, the same plan was agreed to. But, on the day before Moreh and Sharon were to reunite, Sharon suffered a stroke -- his second -- which has left him in a vegetative state ever since.
Moreh's footage of Sharon from over the years suddenly seemed like a unique and historically-valuable way of remembering the man and the turbulent times in which he led Israel. Moreh decided that he would combine it with new interviews of Sharon's political inner-circle, personal friends, and rivals, as well as archival footage, to craft such a portrait. Sharon premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2008, and, while not nearly as polished a film as The Gatekeepers, was quite well-received.
Pivotally, an interview that had been made possible for Sharon with a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency (Mossad handles international operations), opened Moreh's mind to the idea that it would be very valuable if he could somehow gather a group of former Shin Bet heads for a doc about Israel. Indeed, he reasoned, and eventually pitched to them, "There is no one who understands the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Israeli society better than you do."
Remarkably, Moreh -- based on his credibility as a filmmaker, generally, and the work that he did on Sharon, more specifically -- landed the participation of six former Shin Bet heads (including the one who was then serving in that capacity), people who had never before been interviewed about their professional work or personal views.
He knew he faced a tall task in, essentially, interrogating the interrogators, but he was undaunted. He arranged to film them in their own homes so that they would have the highest possible comfort-level during the interviews, which might make them more open to talking. He conducted tireless research and came to each meeting with pages of questions, but also an ability to transition back-and-forth between topics if the direction of the conversation made it necessary. And he would stick around for as long as he could to get the information that he needed.
In the end, Moreh crafted The Gatekeepers from 60 to 70 hours of filmed interviews; tons of carefully curated archival footage (one clip, featuring the late PLO chairman Yassir Arafat and Barak each insisting that the other enter a door first, is a gem); and, in the vein of Morris' work, scene "recreations" -- something that the Academy's documentary branch hasn't always embraced, but that are hard to argue against here. Moreh hired a French-based CGI firm to create visuals, using only information that had been entered into the record, for (a) locations from which he and we, as viewers, are forbidden from entering -- i.e. Shin Bet control rooms, file cabinets, interrogation rooms, jail cells, drone dashboards, etc., and (b) scenes from the past for which we have only limited 2-D photographic evidence but which become much more interesting when expanded into 3-D navigatable spaces -- i.e. the scene of the 1984 Bus 300 terrorist incident-turned-Shin Bet scandal.
Most striking to me is the fact that the former Shin Bet heads and Moreh himself have arrived at very different outlooks for the future -- and not the ones that you might have guessed. The Shin Bet heads interviewed in the film, though somewhat dark and conservative by nature, seem to feel that it is essential for Israel to maintain dialogue with the Palestinians, and that peace is ultimately achievable. Moreh, meanwhile, a gregarious man with a sunny disposition who cares enough about Israel's future to have devoted years to studying it, has arrived at a different conclusion. As he conveys in the film, and said to me, "Regrettably, I feel that we are past the point of no return."
Nevertheless, the fact that Israel recently announced new elections gives him at least a little hope. His film has yet to be released in Israel, but it will be before people head to the polls, and he would like to believe that it will cause some on the Israeli extreme-right -- the people whom he feels are the biggest impediment to peace in Israel -- to reconsider their hardline opposition to negotiating with the Palestinians and their insistence on further expanding settlements into disputed territories, which makes the possibility of negotiations all the harder.