Interview: Dror Moreh, director of the Oscar-nominated 'The Gatekeepers'
A fascinating and incendiary glimpse inside Israel’s counter-terrorist agency Shin Bet, as told by six former heads of the highly secretive organization
There are few topics more polarizing, including among American Jews, than Israel and its activities in the West Bank and Gaza since the Six Day War. My own extended family includes the full spectrum of American Jewry—from die-hard lefties to ultra-orthodox right wingers and everything in between. It’s nearly impossible to talk about Israel at family events without the conversation quickly dividing into opposing camps: those who feel that Israel can do no wrong and must never be criticized, especially in public, to those who feel Israel is an oppressive police state whose sole aim is to make life miserable for the occupied Palestinians. I would love to bring both sides of my family to see Dror Moreh’s amazing new film, “The Gatekeepers,” one of the five documentaries that received an Academy Award nomination this year.
This film tells the story of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, an often controversial group that is as secretive as the CIA or the KGB. The miracle of the film is that the story is told entirely from the perspectives of the six living former heads of the organization. But far from acting as cheerleaders for the agency, the six “gatekeepers,” the men who were involved in all of the major security decisions in Israel over the past 40 years, are shockingly frank about the mistakes that were made during their tenures as well as their criticisms of the policies of Israel's current leaders. You don’t have to be an expert in Middle East Studies to find yourself riveted by the emotional, hard-hitting testimonies of these six men from the front lines. Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Cami Gillon, Avi Dichter, Ami Ayalon, and Yuval Diskin offer unique perspectives on some of Israel’s most controversial actions while advocating the vital importance of working toward peace. The film combines the interviews with archival footage and a unique animation technique that brings historic photographs to life. I spoke to director Dror Moreh in Los Angeles.
MSN Movies: I’m sure everyone asks you the same first question…
Dror Moreh: How I got these people to talk to me on camera?
Yes! I was flabbergasted that they were talking at all, much less with that kind of frankness. Did I hear that you knew one of the former heads of Shin Bet and that he helped you get the rest?
No, not at all! I didn’t know any of them. I had interviewed Avi Dichter for my previous film on Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, but I didn’t want to ask him to intervene because I didn’t think the others would listen to him! No, the help came from Ami Ayalon, who ran Shin Bet after Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination and later became a member of the Knesset. I asked Ayalon for help because I knew he was able to get these guys together. In 2003 he brought three of them with him for an interview with the biggest newspaper in Israel, Yedioth Ahronoth. They four of them went in and said that if Sharon continued the policy he was espousing at the time, it would take Israel to a very bad place. They said that Sharon’s policies were wrong and that we couldn’t just ignore the Palestinian problem and do nothing. When I was making the movie about Sharon, his chief of staff told that that this article, hearing those words from those particular four men, had a huge impact on him. That was one story. The other one was that during the Second Intifada, Shin Bet did a targeted assassination of this terrorist. It was during a time when the terrorist attacks seemed to be going down, it seemed like Arafat was trying to stop them, but after this assassination, all hell broke loose again. And I know now that Ami Ayalon got those three other former Shin Bet leaders together again and they went to Avi Dichter who was the acting head of Shin Bet at the time and said, “Listen, you have to stand more firmly against prime minister Sharon and his policies. You have to consider the timing of these things!”
That was a private meeting?
Yes, private. But after hearing about that, I felt that Ami Ayalon may be the only person who could bring those people together! So I approached him and he was interested. He called each one of them up and said, “There’s this guy, Dror Moreh, who wants to do this movie. I’m going to be interviewed in it and you should be, too!” In those circles, it’s very important for someone to vouch for you. Then I talked to them and when one agreed, I’d go to the next one and say, “Okay, I have three already, will you join us?” It became a little easier!
Even so, weren’t you surprised how incredibly frank and open they were?
Ah, now that has more to do with the interviewing technique that you use! I like to have extremely long conversations, I don’t even call them interviews. I prepare myself very well, learn all about the person and try to understand where they’re coming from psychologically. I met with each one a few times without cameras, just to understand them better, what motivates them, what their personalities were like. And then the interview is a conversation like we’re having right now. I always started with their childhoods, stories of how they grew up. I’m really interested in all that and I learned a lot about them.
I can imagine that if you interviewed the equivalent of those people in this country, you’d get all kinds of fears about not revealing certain things because of “national security issues.” Did you ever have to deal with that concern?
Look, in Israel Shin Bet IS the group that’s responsible for that kind of censorship, they control it! No, the six of them all spoke quite openly and candidly.
[At that point, Moreh’s phone buzzed and he looked at the text he had just received.]
I just got a text from Israel! “Sorry for the hour, but I just got out of the cinematheque in Tel Aviv with your students”—I used to teach at a religious school there—“and we just wanted to tell you that this is the most amazing, powerful movie we’ve ever seen!” (Laughs.)
Has the film already had a regular theatrical run in Israel?
Yes, it’s unbelievable what’s happening there. You know, in Israel there's not really a tradition for documentaries in regular theaters. Maybe they’ll play an art house cinema here or there—but we opened two weeks ago in two theaters, now we’re in seven, and we’re about to go to nine. All of them completely sold out, it’s unbelievable! The buzz is completely berserk!
I’ve read about some of the volatile Q&A’s you’ve had at screenings in this country. I know how easy it is for Americans, including or maybe especially American Jews, to split into polarized camps of “Israel can do no wrong” and “Israel can do no right!” Does that happen at screenings in Israel, too?
Yes, the discussions do get polarized but I think it’s even more so in the United States. But look, the reason I wanted to do this film in the first place is to show that it’s gray. There’s no black and white, there are many different shades of gray in this conflict. There’s no “the Israelis are the oppressors and the Palestinians are the victims” or the other way around. That’s why I think it’s so important to listen to what these six men are saying—the people who were most responsible for maintaining the security of the country. What can you say when you hear them advocate for finding a solution, that they don’t understand the situation? That they don’t know what they’re talking about? You have to listen!
Do you have any sympathy for the people who say that your film is giving ammunition to the enemy by being so criticial of what Israel has done and is doing?
Listen, I have to tell you something that really comes from my heart. If there is one thing that is very important for me to convey to the international community, especially the Jewish community, is that they must understand that any kind of blind support for Israel is just wrong—it’s not doing any good for anyone and in fact it’s actually harming the state of Israel! In my point of view as an Israeli who lives in Israel, our country has lived a long time without self-criticism, without putting a mirror in front of itself and saying, “That’s wrong.” And I think the Jewish community, especially in the States, is promoting that and by doing so is damaging the existence—yes, I’m using a very strong word—damaging the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. This is why the heads of Shin Bet agreed to do this movie—if you follow through, for example, what Netanyahu is doing now, he’s leading Israel into a dead end which doesn’t look very good for our future. The policy, for example, of continuing the Occupation in the West Bank is counter-productive to maintaining Israel as a Jewish state. Whether you’re on the left or the right, you have to judge as a person what you feel when you see what’s going on there. Don’t judge it as whether it’s good or bad for the Jewish people, judge it for yourself. Don’t blindly follow whatever Israeli leaders are saying, follow your heart, and just try to think whether it’s good that Israel would continue to control a million and a half Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza. Is it good that we could become an apartheid state similar to what happened in South Africa? Is it good that young Israelis in the army will have to constantly go to the houses of Palestinians and do what they’re doing now? Ask yourself, each Jewish person in this country, is it good for Israel? Or should Israel strive for a solution? I’m not saying that the solution is easy or around the corner, I’m very pragmatic, and I think that the heads of Shin Bet are also very pragmatic—they understand better than anyone the limitations of force and the limitations of power. And they know that the less Israel is trying to move forward towards reconciliation, only bad things can happen.
Have you brought the film to audiences that you know may be particularly hostile?
Not yet, but I really want to do that. For example, I’d love to show the film to groups of right-wing settlers and start some discussions. I’ll probably get my head bashed in but I’m very interested in doing that!
Despite the acclaim the film has received, I know you’ve already had plenty of criticism from both sides.
Oh, absolutely. I heard criticism from the extreme left, “How could you let those war criminals get away with what they said,” blah, blah, blah, and from the extreme right, “Dror Moreh is a traitor to Israel,” blah, blah, blah. But I wasn’t thinking of these groups when I made the film, I was thinking of the people in the center, or as I would call them, “normal people!” I wanted to focus on the Israeli who in the morning looks in the mirror and when he sees a pimple on his face he doesn’t say that the mirror is defective, he just tells himself, okay, I have a pimple, I have to deal with it. Maybe I’ll put cream on it or whatever, but I’ll do something!
"The Gatekeepers" opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and will be coming to other cities. On Saturday, February 2, Dror Moreh will appear for a Q&A at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles after the 5:00 pm show and to introduce the 7:40 pm show.