How I persuaded six intelligence chiefs to pour out their hearts

Dror Moreh, whose The Gatekeepers has been nominated for an Oscar, tells the Times of Israel how he conducted the revelatory interviews in his acclaimed documentary, and the impact the spy heads’ revelations had on him

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Except for asking an occasional follow-up question, "The Gatekeepers" director Dror Moreh lets his subjects speak for themselves. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Except for asking an occasional follow-up question, "The Gatekeepers" director Dror Moreh lets his subjects speak for themselves. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Dror Moreh’s film, The Gatekeepers, is a quietly stunning documentary. Six men, most wearing different shades of blue oxford, sit in a chair and talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the topic most glaringly absent from the current elections discourse. Six men. The six living former heads of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service.

The Gatekeepers
The Gatekeepers

Moreh is a modest filmmaker. He keeps the camera on his subjects and provides them room to talk. Because most of the men spent the majority of their lives avoiding just that, and because each of the six former Shin Bet commanders, in charge of the very apparatus that enables Israeli control over several million Palestinians – an apparatus that is far more ruthless than most Israelis care to know – has such explosive material to convey, the movie, punctuated with pungent archival footage, is electric.

On Thursday night, hours after The Gatekeepers was nominated as a finalist for Best Documentary Oscar, the Times of Israel caught up with director Moreh for a short telephone questioning of our own about aesthetics, politics, and the art of interrogating the interrogators.

The Times of Israel: Congratulations. How are you doing?

Dror Moreh: I am very, very, very happy. It is amazing news. You can say you are ready for it but the minute that you get the call, when you understand that you are there, it’s totally different, the feeling you get inside, I cannot even describe it. It’s really amazing.

ToI: You’re not blasé. You seem genuinely happy.

Moreh: Do you know someone who is not happy about this kind of thing?

ToI: I felt the ghost of [Vietnam War-era US defense secretary] Robert McNamara reverberate through the film and later saw that Errol Morris’s [2003 Oscar-winning] documentary film, a biography of him, was an inspiration. Why?

Moreh: The Fog of War was really a text book for me. One of the inspirations for me to do this film. The intimate look at someone who was deeply involved in the most secretive discussions, near the leaders, who can tell firsthand about the reasoning, when you see that depth of someone who was there, and the account that he can give, it blew me away completely. I said to myself, if I can do something like that about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it will be riveting. Because when you see movies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is always from the point of view of Leftists or people that have suffered or Palestinians, but never from the heart of the establishment.

ToI: But that didn’t work its way into a film idea right away. The Fog of War came out a long time ago.

Moreh: No. It’s not that as soon as I saw it I said I am going to do something like that. The idea started then, and then I did the movie about Sharon, about prime minister Sharon, and in that film I conducted extensive interviews with people that were very close to him. I tried to describe how this hawk, this father of settlement, became the destroyer of settlement with the Gaza Disengagement. One of his closest advisers, actually his chief of staff, “Dubi” [Dov] Weisglass, told me that before the announcement [made by Sharon in December 2003] in the Herzliya Conference to disengage from Gaza, there was an article in which four former heads of the Shin Bet said that if Sharon will continue on the same path that he is taking Israel, it will end in a catastrophe. Dubi told me that this had a profound impact on Sharon. It came from the people that he appreciated and that he knew personally. And I said, why shouldn’t I go and check if they are willing to do it for me? This is how it all started.

Ami Ayalon in 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
Ami Ayalon in 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

ToI: You went to Ami Ayalon (head of the Shin Bet from 1996-2000) first. Why?

Moreh: It started with Ami Ayalon because he was the one who was in touch with the journalist who wrote that article. And I knew that if I will persuade him, he will manage to take me to all of them [the other former directors of the Shin Bet]. He will vouch for me.

ToI: Are they close to each other, these men, the former commanders of the Shin Bet?

Moreh: No, not at all. I cannot say that they are even remotely close.

ToI: What was your methodology?

Moreh: First I got everyone’s okay. Then I went forward chronologically. I started from the oldest, to the youngest.

ToI: When did you realize that you were sitting on incredible material?

Moreh: After the first interview. After three or four interviews I could feel this sort of buzz sound in my ears and I knew I had amazing material, amazing stories.

ToI: What was it like interviewing these men?

Moreh: The minute I knew that I was going to get them I knew I had to be at my best when interviewing them because they are the ones who are deciding. This is their work. They are interrogators. You come to the interrogators and you want to interrogate them, so you have to be very well prepared. Provide them the right atmosphere so that they would feel secure enough to speak openly. This is what I tried to create for them. This is why I said that you have to make sure that the setting is very comfortable for them. It is not an interrogation. The fact that you are coming to a conversation is not an interrogation. The technique of using the interview as that, is not what I do. Slowly, slowly you tell them that they can trust you. That they can open up to you. This is what I do. I try to create an atmosphere of a conversation.

ToI: How long was each interview and how much time total did you sit with them?

Moreh: I had four to five hours each time and 12-15 hours total with each one of them.

ToI: For me the most surprising moment of the film was when you read Yuval Diskin the Yeshayahu Leibowitz quote. What about you? [Moreh, at one point, asks Diskin, the Shin Bet chief from 2005-11, what he thinks of a quote from the famous hard-left professor, who opines that Israel’s control of the West Bank will breed an inexorable moral corruption. Diskin listens and then says, by way of assent, “Every word is (written) in stone.”]

Moreh: I couldn’t believe it myself. When you see him lifting his eyebrows he was responding at that moment to what I was projecting to him. I couldn’t believe it myself. He saw my expression probably and this is why he responded the way he did.

ToI: What about you? Did the movie change you?

Moreh: Yeah it changed me a lot. How did it change me? Now I am interviewing myself. It made me more desperate, more bleak. I saw from their eyes how our leaders really don’t want to solve this problem. They do not have the audacity, the temerity, the will, the courage that we need from a leader. Besides [the assassinated former prime minister] Rabin, I don’t feel that any leader really had it… I am not putting the blame only on the Israeli leaders. I think the Palestinian leaders suffer from the same horrible disease. I think that what [former Israeli foreign minister] Abba Eban said about how the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity applies to both sides. And this is sad, this should not have happened, because when I elect a leader, I hope.

There are elections in two weeks from now. When you see the depth of the conversations between the politicians in this country it is almost embarrassing, on a second grade level, primary school. The reasoning that our politicians give us, when our prime minister talks to the people and tells us what he will do with the country, he speaks to us as if he were speaking to two year olds. It’s sickens me… I regrettably do not see any sort of leader on the horizon able to lift the weight that needs to be lifted to solve this problem.

Shin Bet chiefs Yuval Diskin (left) and Avi Dichter, in 2005. Both are featured in "The Gatekeepers." (photo credit: Flash90)
Shin Bet chiefs Yuval Diskin (left) and Avi Dichter, in 2005. Both are featured in “The Gatekeepers.” (photo credit: Flash90)

ToI: Did you ask them: ‘What about you? You feel so strongly. You filled many leadership positions. You say we are heading toward disaster. What about you? Why are you not in the game?’ Why is Ami Ayalon not trying to run the country if he thinks things are so bad?

Moreh: Ami Ayalon tried and he failed. It is a good question. It is a question that should be asked. Ami Ayalon tried and didn’t succeed. Two of them are also wounded [in terms of their reputations]. Avraham Shalom [Shin Bet from 1981-1986] from the 300 Line and Carmi Gillon [1995-1996] from the assassination of Rabin [which happened on his watch]. [Yaakov] Peri [director from 1988-1994] is running now [for the Knesset with Yesh Atid]. But this is not really the question. The question is why the Israeli leadership does not have the energy to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

'When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.' Former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri in 'The Gatekeepers' (photo credit: courtesy)
‘When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.’ Former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri in ‘The Gatekeepers’ (photo credit: courtesy)

ToI: Personally, though, have your politics changed?

Moreh: I stayed the same. Center of the political map. Maybe a little bit some would say left. But I am really center. That is why I could really sympathize and understand and really feel for what they said.

ToI: Your background is as a cinematographer. How invested were you in the aesthetics of the film?

Moreh: It’s very, very important to me. You can see it in every frame. The same is true for the archives. We saw thousands and thousands of hours of footage. We chose very carefully and meticulously.

ToI: You did a three-part series on police undercover officers before this. What is it about law enforcement that draws your interest?

Moreh: I did a series about undercover police agents and about Sharon. I like this kind of topic and issues. If I would have been born in the US, I would like to have done Lord of the Rings or Indiana Jones or those kind of movies but since I live in Israel, and since the most important thing in Israel is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from my point of view, this is what the movies are about.

ToI: Did the military censor nix anything?

Moreh: Two very minor sentences. I don’t want to elaborate.

ToI: Are you ready for the Oscars? You have an outfit? You have a date?

Moreh: You know Sony Classics is releasing the film in the United States and they treat me like royalty. Like a king.  They take care of everything. So I don’t worry, you could say.

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