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The Oscar Documentaries, Part 4: ‘The Gatekeepers’

We’re talking to all of the filmmakers who have been nominated this year for an Oscar in the category of Best Documentary Feature. So far we’ve spoken to David France, director of “How to Survive a Plague”, Malik Bendjelloul (“Searching for Sugarman”) and Kirby Dick (“The Invisible War”). On Friday, we’ll have an interview with Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi (“5 Broken Cameras”).

Today, our conversation is with Dror Moreh, director of “The Gatekeepers.”

“The Gatekeepers” is a film that consists mostly of interviews with six men, but they happen to be six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency. These are men who have been largely or completely unknown to the public, running an organization that since the 1967 war has been deeply involved in counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering in the West Bank and Gaza.

The film is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. Its director, Dror Moreh, recently joined me on the phone from his home in Israel:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to you, and I first want to ask you, how in the world did you get these men to talk to you?

DROR MOREH: Well, look, Jeffrey, it’s not that you coerce them to speak. If he doesn’t want to do that, it’s those people. These are the six heads of the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet, who speak for the first time. They wanted to speak. Like everything else in life, it’s about timing. I think they felt that the timing for them to speak, to open their mouths and speak, was perfect. I think that they felt that the course of the policy of Israel is devastating to the future of Israel. They wanted to share their point of view, their professional point of view, because they are professionals, for the first time, definitely for Israel, and the whole world to hear.

JEFFREY BROWN: These are unsentimental men, they are very hard edged because of what they do, but they open up quite a bit to talk about things like interrogations, targeted assassinations. I wonder, did that surprise you, how much they opened up? And how much are those kinds of things discussed publically in Israel?

DROR MOREH: It’s not really discussed publically. In secret service, the most important in that is secret. When I managed to persuade them to come, all six of them — by the way, all living heads of the Israeli secret service are in the movie. There is no one who is out, who didn’t want to participate in the movie. I knew that these were hard men, these are people who have conducted targeted assassinations, operations that have tortured people in order to get intelligence to arrest terrorists, that have worked also on the Jewish part of terrorism. In Israel there are a lot of Jewish underground or Jewish terrorists, as well. If there is someone in the Israeli public who understands and knows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all its aspects, it’s those six people. I think that they felt that their words would mean something else to the Israeli public and to the international public, because as you said, they are rough people, they are not the ones, as Ariel Sharon called them, the bleeding-heart left-wing people. They are the leaders of that organization. I think that the temrity and the essence of what they say has a resonance, which is completely different than anybody else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, of course, one of the things that comes through is their relations with politicians, with all the prime ministers to whom they all reported, and what they say about the failure of politicians and politics there, and their own distrust of that process.

DROR MOREH: Yeah, the problem is — look at the end of the day, and I think that this is a problem that America is facing also today — is strategy versus tactics. Security forces know professionally to do their work very well. They know how to suppress terror, they know how to get terrorists as a needle in a haystack wherever he is, but at the end of the day, where do you want this conflict to end? How do you want to end this conflict? Do you have a plan? And this question is something that troubled them for a long, long time with all the political leaders that they have served under. And they see that the more that they are working, the violence is getting stronger and stronger and it doesn’t lead Israelis, especially, toward a better political solution. On the contrary, it’s only getting worse, and the political solution seems to get further and further away down the road. The outcomes of that are something that worries them a lot, worries me definitely, as well, a lot. They see that there is no really good future lying ahead of us.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re talking to all the directors of all the nominated films for the Oscars this year, so I’m asking everyone and I wanted to ask you about the key decisions for you as a filmmaker in making this film, the biggest challenge. You had a structure with the six voices, but what was the key decision in terms of how you put it together or how you presented this film?

DROR MOREH: It’s not one decision. There was a lot, a lot of decisions-making during the process of making this film. But I think the first and foremost was to construct the film only from the voices of the heads of the Shin Bet. I could have brought a lot of other voices to that, but I wanted only the chief heads of the security service, only the ones that headed that organization to speak, and that the story would be told from their point of view, from their security point of view, because no one can dispute or argue with their conclusion at the end of that. When they tell the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their story, from how they have seen that from Day One when they started to serve in the service and until they left the service. You also have their insights and you have their understanding and wisdom about where Israel is now. It’s something that was, I think, essential to me from the beginning. Having just said that, I think that also the cinematic point of view was very, very important to me, to create a cinematic language that will be strong enough to sustain the importance of the words that they are saying. And I hope that I succeeded in both.

JEFFREY BROWN: We hear you occasionally in the interviews posing a question, but you are otherwise not seen. I wonder, was there a moment in this process where you said to yourself in one of these interviews, Ah-ha, this is really going to work, this is quite amazing what I’m getting here.

DROR MOREH: I can tell you frankly that it happened to me at least 20 times in each interview, and I did a lot of interviews with them. It’s not only one interview. I have around 75 hours of material of interviews with them. Most of the material is really, really astonishing and amazing. The editing process was the most tormenting process to me because I had to leave on the editing floor my kidneys, my liver, my heart, my organs, all of them, and it was a very, very painful and hard process. It took also three-and-a-half years, that editing process. At the end of the day, I’m happy, very happy with the results.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re getting all kinds of awards and great praise internationally and here in the United States. What kind of impact if any or reaction are you getting in Israel?

DROR MOREH: The film opened four weeks ago in the cinema in Israel. It started in two small cinemas, it moved after a week to seven cinemas. After two weeks, to 15 cinemas, including the megablock cinemas, which never show documentaries in it. After a month, we have 50,000 people who went to see the film in the movie theaters, which is an amazing number for Israel. The film is still sold out in the major cities. The responses are overwhelming from all aspects — media, journalists, column writers, politicians all over, also, people that do not like the film, as well. It’s not an easy film for Israelis to watch, but there is a lot of endorsement for it. I’m very happy with the responses in Israel for the film. “The Gatekeeper” as a phrase has been used a lot now in every aspect of the Israeli public and political debates. So it’s very promising for me and I’m very happy with what is happening with the film also here in Israel, not only in America and internationally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I am not surprised that it is getting so much attention and stirring so much discussion. “The Gatekeepers” is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. Director Dror Moreh, thank you so much for talking to us and congratulations.

DROR MOREH: Thank you for talking to me. It’s been a pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you again for joining us on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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