Any filmmaker could get one member of Israel’s domestic-intelligence agency, Shin Bet, to sit for an interview. Director Dror Moreh managed to wrangle six former heads of the organization—and got them to open up onscreen about everything from drone strikes to the Jewish Underground’s 1984 plan to attack the Dome of the Rock. The Gatekeepers offers a compelling inside perspective on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and it just earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. TONY talked to Moreh, 51, at the Sundance Film Festival.
Time Out New York: This documentary stems from your previous project on Ariel Sharon, right?
Dror Moreh: Sharon (2008) was my first attempt to do something political. I was curious about how this guy who was the father of the settlements could be the same person who could come up with a disengagement plan in Gaza and the West Bank. While I was interviewing people close to him, his chief of staff, Dov Weissglass, told me that something very profound had happened to Sharon when four former heads of Shin Bet were interviewed in 2003. They all said that if Sharon continued the way he was going, he would be leading Israel into catastrophe. Sharon took that statement very seriously; these were people who he knew and respected, and if these people were saying this, he had to take it into account.
When Weissglass told me that, it was like boop: A giant lightbulb turned on above my head. If a small interview with these four gentlemen could move one man, maybe I could get all six of them together and move even more people.
Time Out New York: How did you get all six of these Shin Bet heads to participate?
Dror Moreh: I thought long and hard about who to approach first, because I figured once I got one person to tell the others “You should talk to him,” I’d be okay. Ami Ayalon was the person who initiated the 2003 article, and I knew that when he had called those four former heads together, they all came. So I decided to contact him—which wasn’t easy. Eventually, I got to meet him; he’d heard about me doing the film on Sharon and agreed to talk to me briefly. I explained what I wanted to do—tell the Israeli-Palestinian conflict strictly from the perspective of the living heads of Shin Bet—and he asked me why I was interested in taking that route. Have you seen Errol Morris’s The Fog of War?
Time Out New York: I have, yeah.
Dror Moreh: When I saw that movie, it was the first time I’d seen a real account from someone from the inner circles of power talk about what had happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginnings of the Vietnam War. It’s not a historian’s account; it’s a firsthand account from someone who was sitting at Kennedy’s side. I mentioned this to Ami Ayalon, and his eyes just lit up: “I love that movie; it should be taught in military academies all over the world! If that’s the type of film you’re aiming for, then yes, I’m in.” [Pause] Then I immediately asked him for the phone numbers of the other five heads before he changed his mind. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: Were there some things that they just simply refused to talk about?
Dror Moreh: Ultimately, the only things they were reluctant to discuss were the operational methods of intelligence: How did you get those contacts? How were you able to obtain that piece of information? What is the protocol for handling a targeted assassination? Say you’ve got some intelligence that a known terrorist is leaving his house at 4:30am; how do you coordinate it so that a helicopter is waiting to fire a missile at that car, on that road and at the very moment that he’s entering the vehicle without harming anyone else? These were things that someone might be willing to tell me in private, but not with the camera on.
Time Out New York: There was a lot of stuff that they did tell you on camera, however, that you weren’t able to use. What got left on the cutting-room floor?
Dror Moreh: It was really important to me that the personalities of these men come across—not just who they were professionally but who they are as human beings, too. They all talked a lot about their childhood and their formative years, and a lot of that had to go or else the film would be 12 hours long. I’ll give you an example: Avraham Shalom—he was head of Shin Bet when the KAV 300 bus incident happened—told me about growing up in Vienna in the 1930s. He didn’t know he was Jewish; he was never told. In 1938, when the Anschluss happened, Shalom was in the crowd when Hitler give that famous speech on the hotel balcony. Then Kristallnacht happens, and when he goes to school, he’s now beaten up and taunted constantly. He understood firsthand what it was like to be persecuted, what it was like to be stopped on the street and interrogated for no apparent reason. When he compares the Israeli army to the German army in WWII near the end of the film, he’s speaking from firsthand experience. And I wasn’t able to leave any of that in. I wish I had.
Time Out New York: I would guess you had a better-than-decent knowledge of Shin Bet and its operations, but were you shocked by some of things you found out during these interviews?
Dror Moreh: What shocked me was how humane they were. You have a certain image of somebody like Shalom before you meet him; he has a reputation that precedes him. And suddenly, you find yourself seated in front of Shalom and you do not see this monster, or this heartless bureaucrat, or this mastermind of espionage. You see a human being, with the same doubts and tormented thoughts that you or I have. You see a person with a conscience. The gap between what I thought I knew about these men and the men who talked to me was huge. That always blew me away.
Time Out New York: It’s surprising that they opened up as much as they did.
Dror Moreh: My jaw dropped while I was interviewing every single one of them. Look, these men sacrificed a lot for the safety and security of Israel, and when you look at the state of Israel today, it’s hard not to think that things are still sliding downhill as fast as they can go. These are the guys who orchestrated all of that: the interrogations, the assassinations, the torture. I believe that’s really why they wanted to go on the record and be as candid as they all were. They are responsible for a lot of what’s going on there today, and they know they are responsible. They have a need to own up it.
Time Out New York: Can you talk a little bit about the visual style of the film? Given the fact that The Gatekeepers centers on six long interviews, the movie doesn’t look like a typical talking-heads doc.
Dror Moreh: I was a cinematographer before I was a filmmaker, so the visual aspect was always very important to me. I wanted it to be a cinematic movie, and not a static movie. I knew I wanted to use a lot of archival material—which, let me tell you, was very depressing.
Time Out New York: Why is that?
Dror Moreh: Because you look at a photo from 1967, and you look at one from 2007, and nothing has changed! The soldiers still walk down those same streets; the same stones are being thrown. The only difference is that the violence starts to become more horrific as the years go on. But even with access to these archives, I knew that a lot of what I wanted to show in terms of the subjects being discussed would not have footage to go with it. A secret-service unit goes on a raid, and they’re not bringing along cameras.
Time Out New York: They’re called secret for a reason.
Dror Moreh: I highly doubt those folks would be thinking, We’re about to go on a life-or-death covert mission…we should bring a camera along, as a documentarian may need footage of this one day! [Laughs] So I knew I’d have to develop a visual language that could balance actual photojournalism with things that had a nonfictional basis but would require some creativity to show.
Time Out New York: Can you give me an example?
Dror Moreh: Sure, take the KAV 300 incident we show in the film. I had only four or five photos, and a few brief videos that were shot from far away. But I wanted viewers to feel like they were there, like the incident was happening right in front of them. So what we did was create what I call set extension—it’s essentially creating a virtual environment based off the geography from the photos. We know the bus is here, the soldiers are here, and the men they caught are here, so we made a computer-based 3-D terrain that allowed us to move a camera’s viewpoint around it. An audience member feels immersed in this moment, while still realizing that what they are seeing is coming from real documentation.
Time Out New York: But aren’t you running the risk of ruining the integrity of the facts by manipulating these images? This is still a documentary, after all.
Dror Moreh: Of course it’s a risk! That was why I didn’t want to use reenactments for some scenes; I was determined to make people feel that they’re witnessing something rooted in reality and not something solely coming out an actor or filmmaker’s imagination. It’s challenging. You keep asking yourself, If I have a picture of the house, a picture of the room in that house and a picture of a man sitting on a bed in that room talking on a phone, is it okay for me to create a camera movement that does not exist? The photos are real, and the movement is manipulated…is it morally sound to do this? I actually asked that question at a seminar on nonfiction filmmaking, and everyone in the room said: Yes. The documentation is real. But yes, it’s a tightrope walk. But that kind of tightrope walking is what excites me about filmmaking.
Time Out New York: How has the film been received back home?
Dror Moreh: In Israel, people don’t like to go to documentaries when they go to the theater. We opened in two art houses initially; after one week, we had to move to seven theaters to meet the demand. By the third week, we were able to book it in some major multiplexes, and I’ve been told shows have been sold out. Most Israeli documentaries tend to be either hard left or hard right—you know which way they’re going to lean immediately. I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to make a political documentary that had an agenda. I just wanted to let these guys tell their story, and the people apparently want to hear this story, which is very, very gratifying.
You know, in Palestine, the Shin Bet is the single most hated organization. If you ask a Palestinian, who do you hate more, the Israeli Army or Shin Bet, they will answer Shin Bet every time. I saw the film with a group of Palestinians in Amsterdam, and when the film was over, I was waiting for them to tear into me: “How could you do this, how could you make this?” And everyone who saw it there loved it. Someone asked me at a Q&A yesterday if the film has been translated into Arabic yet. It hasn’t, but I really want to make it happen. I want to show this in the West Bank and hear what they have to say. Because hearing what others have to say is the only way we can move forward in the region right now. It’s the only way.
The Gatekeepers opens Friday, Feb 1 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear