'The Gatekeepers' Director Dror Moreh
'The Gatekeepers' Director Dror Moreh

Things aren't getting any easier in the Middle East. Filmmaker Dror Moreh decided to look at the Israeli/Palestine conflict from another angle. He went to the six living men who have run Shin Bet, Israel's Secret Service, from 1980 through 2011. Backed by Israel, France, Germany and Belgium, "The Gatekeepers" (February 1) was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and has been a hit on the festival circuit from Telluride to Sundance. It is a strong Oscar contender for best documentary feature.

The movie is a chilling shocker because these powerful men-- Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Avalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin-- who we expect to be hardliners, are smart, sane and reasoned about the sources and solutions for Israel's 45-year security problem. They know about it first-hand, because they have had to deal with it every day, unlike the politicians who come and go, for whom they have little respect. The one Israeli leader who did make a difference-- Yitzhak Rabin--was felled by an assassin's bullet.

Each Shin Bet chief is different from the other and strongly holds his own views. But they keep saying the same things with the benefit of hindsight. In this movie, the money quotes keep coming:

  • "I don't take politicians seriously anymore. They can't be trusted."
  • "We should have reached an agreement and got out."
  • "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
  • "There's no problem building trust with the Palestinians."
  • "We are making the lives of millions unsufferable."
  • "We've been cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupation population, using the excuse of the war against terror."
  • "We win every battle but we lose the war."

The film played a week in NY and LA for Academy consideration. (Here is the NY Times and LA Times review.) After a limited release on February 1, the film expands nationally later in February and March. Clips from a Telluride Film Fest Mideast Director's Panel including Moreh, Ben Affleck and Michael Winterbottom are below.

Anne Thompson: This movie blew my mind. I'm not someone who is an expert in Middle East relations, so it served as a valuable history lesson. How much were you keeping that function in mind? The film is clear and accessible to anyone.

Dror Moreh: From the beginning, I searched for a long time for a way to do things that were very understandable, so it would be accessible to an international audience. The last president they know is George W. Bush. They don't know before that. At certain points I knew I had to pause for a little bit and give more explanation of the broader context.

AT: Did you think that the Shin Bet leaders were going to agree so much with each other?

DM: I knew from the beginning how I would construct the film. I knew I would want things in the movie, which would follow -- I knew there would be thematic structure to the film, but within each thing there would be a chronological story.  I came with up with those things, I spoke with them about things that would be inside the film.

AT: What was your entry point, your opening? What made you think you could get these guys to talk to you?

DM: I knew that I wanted to create a film that nobody could dispute that comes from the professionals. The then-head of Shin Bet said, 'why do you want to make this film with us?' So I said, 'Listen, if I was sick I would go to a doctor, if I broke my leg I would go to an orthopedic surgeon to fix my leg… If I want someone to speak about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, who will I address? The people that are the most professional, this is what they did all their lives, this is their job, they have to explain to me what went wrong. 45 years but it always seems to me that it's getting worse so I want to understand why? What happened there?'

AT: One sad moment was how much the Shin Bet chief in charge when Rabin was assassinated loved him, and how he was blamed for the security breach.

DM: I have to confess to you: I saw the film around a million times. Every time that comes up, even now when I'm speaking to you, that shot from above and you hear his voice, I have tears in my eyes, I want to cry, it shattered my life. It was my birthday, it was one of the happiest days of my life, the 4th of November 1995. I was there with my wife, we had then two young children, we went in the trolley, sitting in a restaurant, I'm telling her I'm so happy we have light at the end of this dark tunnel, there is someone that I trust that can lead Israel to a better future. And the night after that was the most horrible night of my life. The most horrible night of my life.

AT: I'm so sorry. I felt that in the film. How did you get these guys to talk to you? There must have been a chink in the armor. Who was the first one in?

DM: Ami Avalon, the last one that speaks, the one that finishes the movie with 'we win every battle but we lose the war.'  He's the one from the Navy. That came after Rabin was assassinated. I said I have to find one who will open for me this inner-sanctum of a place. And I really thought hard of who to address first because I felt he would understand what I want to do.  He's a friend of a Palestinian pro-peace activist, one of the Geneva Accord… I thought he would be a good point of entry for me.

I called his aides after a moth and a half, managed to arrange a meeting. I told him this is what I wanted to do, to make a film that will resonate. To speak with people who were in power at the time who know what happened in the most intimate place of decision making in Israel and to speak in hindsight now, if what they did served the greater cause of Israel or no, did not serve?

I saw an amazing film, 'The Fog of War' by Errol Morris, when I saw this film I was really shattered to see this intelligent guy speak so well about the consequences of war with hindsight. And he said, 'I saw that film. It's an amazing film.  It should be taught in every war academy in the world. If that is what you're aiming, I'm in that film.'

AT: How did you go from there?

DM: So I said, 'please can you give me the phone number of whoever you have and can you please call them and tell them.'  Then the process started slowly and slowly.