Interview: Director Dror Moreh of Oscar Nominee ‘The Gatekeepers’
CHICAGO – One of the five documentaries nominated for an Oscar this Sunday is the incendiary story of “The Gatekeepers.” The film goes inside “Shin Bet,” the Israeli secret anti-terrorist agency. By interviewing ex-agency leaders, director Droh Moreh was able to gain insights into the moral failings of their activities.
By dividing the film into seven segments, Moreh breaks down the activities of Shin Bet post the Six Day War in 1967, in which Israel scored a decisive victory over Palestinian territories, including the disputed Gaza Strip. In this comprehensive interview with HollywoodChicago.com, Moreh talks about his process in procuring the interviews of the key Shin Bet leaders shown in the film, and the continuing influence over policy that the Isreali-Palestinian conflict has on geopolitics.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics
HollywoodChicago.com: Congratulations on ‘The Gatekeepers’ being nominated for Best Documentary in the upcoming Oscars. What is your background and how did you develop an interest in filmmaking?
Dror Moreh: I was born in Israel, in Jerusalem, and as long as I can remember I loved film. I went to cinema and watched television, and developed my career based on my love of film. I am honored to be one of the five nominated documentaries for the Oscar.
HollywoodChicago.com: What was the motivation for you to do this film? What incident or perspective gave you the idea for it, and how did you proceed to follow up and get it moving?
Moreh: It definitely was the perspective, and not an incident. It was the desire to create something that would be heard, through the voices of the people saying things that cannot be disputed or washed away. Especially the six people who headed Shin Bet, whose objective is to control, maintain and apprehend the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and all elements of it, including Jewish terror and Palestinian terror. It was to put a mirror image in front of the Israeli society, to reflect something back that they will have to deal with, as to what it means and how much of a price they are paying.
HollywoodChicago.com: How did you begin the process of finding those six ex-leaders of Shin Bet?
Moreh: I knew I had to approach them through one ex-leader in particular. I had to think hard about who would be the best point of entry. It was Ami Ayalon, the one who said ‘we’d win every battle but we lose the war.’ When I met him, we spoke for a long time, and I told him what I wanted to do.
I mentioned a film, which was a big inspiration for me, ‘Fog of War’ by Errol Morris. It blew me away, because Robert McNamara [Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam conflict] was somebody you had to listen to, because he was there. When I mentioned that film to Ayalon, he had seen it and thought it was amazing. He then agreed to do my film. I asked him for the phone numbers of other ex-leaders, and he gave them to me. That’s how I got the interview subjects.
HollywoodChicago.com: Obviously you had to ask provocative questions to get some of the insights that came from the ex-Shin Bet leaders. What was the process of gaining their trust, to get those candid answers?
Moreh: When I came to an interview, I came well prepared. That means I read a lot on the subject, and I knew from a very early stage where I wanted to take the direction of the film. But I was also coming for conversation, which I was interested in. Within a conversation, sometimes you ask the tough questions, but it remains a conversation. Conversation creates a softer environment, for example starting with questions about childhood memories, so when you reach those questions which are important, they are already with me.
HollywoodChicago.com: We see instances and evidence of Shin Bet ‘justifying their jobs’ in their anti-terrorism procedures. What do you think that agency most misunderstands about the circumstance of their work?
Moreh: I don’t think it’s right to say ‘misunderstands.’ I don’t think the agency misunderstands, I think it is the difference between ‘tactic’ and ‘strategic.’ The agency’s work is tactical, it has to prevent terrorism. When there is violence, it has to find the sources of that violence and fight it, both on the Jewish side and the Palestinian side. The strategic point is in the leadership, and this is where the gap between understanding the tactical point-of-view versus strategy – it’s about maintaining the conflict and not trying to solve the conflict.
There is a dear price of all this within the Israeli society for maintaining that conflict. I see it everyday. The problem between the tactical and the strategic is that they see the lack of leadership, which could have led them to a better place.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics
HollywoodChicago.com: So often politicians hide behind agencies like Shin Bet to project their ‘tough-guy’ stance against a perceived enemy. Who do you think is the biggest manipulator of this type of political theater in the history of Israel post the Six Day War?
Moreh: Benjamin Netanyahu, most definitely, I don’t have to think twice. I am hoping it’s his last term as prime minister. He was the greatest failure as prime minister, in his first terms, and after him Ariel Sharon, and now Netanyahu again.
HollywoodChicago.com: So much of the dispute in the Israeli/Palestian conflict comes down to land and land ownership. What stake does land ownership motivate the hammer of Shin Bet?
Moreh: It’s not so much land ownership, but religion. The problem with the land is religious based, the settler movement began with the hard core, right wing orthodox factions, who say that this is the land of the prophets, the land of the Bible and belongs to us through the power of God. It’s based in that notion, and it originated so many incidences that are related to that so-called divine promise. This is why Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, because he dared to give the land of Israel back to the Palestinians, the enemy, and it was treason in the view of the ultra-orthodox. It is all about religion, and the interpretation of religion.
HollywoodChicago.com: There is a strange karma involved with the quasi-military and enforcement procedures of Israel, given that the country was formed after the atrocities of the Holocaust. What lessons is the Israeli government not learning about the fascist policies that were once used against the Jewish people?
Moreh: That is a tough question. When a society is under siege, and has to protect itself all the time, it bears a very long consequence, morally and mentally. The memory of the Holocaust – in which Jews were hunted and slaughtered only because they were Jews, casts a very large shadow on the Jewish state. While that annihilation took place, no one would protect them, even the United States. There is no way for any Jew to escape that fact. But, having said that, the politicians use that fact, and the fear of it happening again, as an excuse for the atrocities that they are perpetuating.
In the debate over the nuclear Iran, Netanyahu speaks of it as a second Holocaust. It’s threatening, but not like the Holocaust. He uses it as a demigod to implement his policy, and that becomes dangerous.
HollywoodChicago.com: The secrecy of Shin Bet creates a law enforcement agency that is above the law. In talking to the ex-agency leaders, what is the moral failings of an agency that has no oversight in such a way?
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com
Moreh: It comes down to very basic rules. Every organization wants to accomplish its goals. Whether it’s a clandestine law enforcement agency or Lehman Brothers. They have a task, and they want to accomplish that task. The rule that follows is that organizations will do whatever they can do to eliminate the obstacles that prevent that accomplishment. What are the obstacles? The judicial system, the law and the judges. Without strong oversight over an organization, they will go beyond what the law allows. It happens everywhere – with Shin Bet, the CIA, Homeland Security, it happens all the time. It doesn’t mean it’s justified, it just means the society has to be aware. If there is no oversight, everyone will pay the price. The judicial system must be an oversight above them.
HollywoodChicago.com: You have an amazing quote from an academic, shortly after the Six Day War, which postulated that when agencies creating informants from enemies, it fails the whole system. How deep and black is the cloud formed by that academic’s assertion?
Moreh: I see it almost every aspect of Israeli society today. The racism in the youth, against everything that is different. The violence in the society, the hate of the ‘other,’ the military control of the debate and the kind of apartheid state we are heading towards. This is what I see.
HollywoodChicago.com: Since so-called superpowers like Britain and the United States generally side with the Israelis, and seem to butt out on their internal methodology, what contribution to worldwide terrorism, and even events like 9/11, does the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian war inflict on the entire world?
Moreh: The amount of time spent consumed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example in the American elections, it almost seemed they were running for the President of Israel. It seems to me when I was here during the debates last September, they spoke a lot about who loves Israel more. There’s a powerful Jewish lobby and their hold in Congress is strong.
The conflict is there all the time, but If there is anybody who can bring the parties together, it is President Obama. I’m not sure if he is interested, because he’s been burned before. If Netanyahu remains in power, the bleeding will remain.