Everybody fantasizes about being invisible, says Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror.
“What it would be like to be in a place with a different identity. The subject of covert operations and the people who work undercover is always fascinating,” said the 50-something Israeli son of Iraqi political exiles.
It was this fascination with how people observe others — especially secret agents and especially the Mossad, about which so little is known — that led Dror to make a film about the experiences of the people working for this almost mythological organization. He was interested, he says, in how actions, “taken by someone unknown, somewhere in the world,” could impact history.
The result is “Inside the Mossad,” a compelling documentary that unmasks the human faces behind Israel’s legendary intelligence agency. For the first time since its founding in 1950, former Mossad heads and agents break their silence and talk about what it is like to work for one of the most enigmatic institutions in the world.
The film will screen at the UK Jewish Film Festival in London on November 15, and again on November 17 in Manchester.
The rare interviews, which include deputy director and politician Ram Ben-Barak, and veterans Rafi Eitan and Zvi Zamir, reveal personal, political and moral dilemmas. They also examine how certain operations have shaped both Israel’s past and may yet influence its future.
The film takes a linear approach, up to and including present day activities in post-Khomeini Iran. The retired operatives cover the Mossad’s major successes, such as the capture of Adolf Eichmann, as well as its failures, including the bungled 1997 assassination attempt on former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.
It addresses the complexities of working with assets, double agents and the arguments for and against targeted political killings. Throughout the film, Dror is a consistent but off-screen presence who gently probes and presses his subjects with measured sensitivity.
The project was commissioned as both a film and a four-part documentary TV series using two different titles. The series, “The Mossad: Imperfect Spies,” features more interviews than the 90-minute film. It first aired on Israel’s Channel 8 last year will be available to view on Netflix in January. Dror will attend the UK premiere of “Inside the Mossad” at the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 15.
A documentary filmmaker with over 25 years of experience, Dror is no stranger to making films about challenging subjects. His last film, “Down the Deep, Dark Web” investigated the Darknet and the dangers of the digital world. But he concedes that “Inside the Mossad” is his most demanding project to date.
Step one: Penetrating the Mossad
Sitting with The Times of Israel in the office of his Tel Aviv based production company and studio, Zygote Films, Dror gives the impression of a thoughtful, serious figure. He explains that before making the film he had had no previous contact with the Mossad, so he had to work out how to gain access, likening it to intelligence work.
“I had to figure out how to penetrate this organization,” he says. “You have to find the right people to do that and use all your connections.”
Unsurprisingly, it had been particularly challenging to source — and then convince — the high-ranking ex-Mossad operatives to participate in the film.
“It took about a year and a half to two years to understand how to get them and then to find them,” says Dror. “It was very, very difficult at the beginning. You have to know somebody, who knows somebody, who knows somebody in order to really do this. I think they also needed the clearance of the Mossad to do this, and the Mossad was really very reluctant.”
So, why did the intelligence agency agree to allow its former members to appear in front of a camera?
“I wouldn’t say they liked it,” says Dror, “But they were okay. They were not too worried about my approach, which was more humanistic — understanding the psychological aspects of this type of work and not giving specific details of operations that could expose people.”
In the film, Dror explains that even once he had the agreement of the ex-operatives, there were negotiations that took place between them. To a certain extent, he says, the ex-spies dictated the rules — such as the type of questions Dror could ask. Some facial images had to be blurred and there were constraints on the use of personal and archival footage.
“There were some difficulties with censorship and other issues we had to fight to clear,” he says. “At the start, we had many, many restrictions on what we could show in the film and we fought them one by one.”
Despite the considerable challenges, Dror was undeterred and never thought there would be a point when he would not get what he needed: “For me, every door that’s shut, I just go and find another door. It’s how I work.”
Eventually, he says without elaborating, there were only a few things that they were not allowed to do.
Step two: Interrogate the interrogators
The documentary shows that, at times, there are obvious tensions between interviewer and interviewee. Throughout filming, some of the talking heads walked off screen.
“It became like a game of chess. At the beginning you hesitate, and you don’t know how to deal with it,” says Dror. “You think, I’m supposed to be the interrogator and I’m being interrogated without me noticing — but really the chances are yours.”
“The camera is a very strong tool and you control it as a director. You can expose all this manipulation on set, which is what happens in the film,” he says.
However, Dror does admit that at first he felt a little uneasy.
“I didn’t know who I was going to meet from the Mossad. And I was definitely sure that they were listening in to all my calls,” he says. “There is also this way of how they look at you, which I guess is common to all intelligence people. They judge you, analyze you and before they say a word, they have completely X-rayed you.”
They judge you, analyze you and before they say a word, they have completely X-rayed you
But, he says, with time a kind of trust developed between him and the former Mossad spies.
“They never [fully] trust you, but there’s enough trust to let you work — and that’s all you need,” Dror says.
The interviews were scheduled with almost no email contact, and the shooting schedule was kept highly confidential.
In the film, Dror refers to intelligence agencies as being the true expression of a nation’s subconscious. The phrase belongs to George Smiley, famed espionage writer John le Carré’s fictional intelligence officer.
“For me, it means what you see behind the reality — what we don’t usually don’t see,” he explains. “[The Mossad is] Israeli’s alternative subconscious.”
Dror acknowledges that there are going to be inevitable comparisons with Dror Moreh’s 2012 documentary “The Gatekeepers.”
“There are some similarities because you see interviews with people who are working in the business of state security. It also deals with historical moments and the use of archive material,” says Dror.
“But ‘The Gatekeepers’ is more about the [Israeli presence in the Palestinian areas since 1967], whereas ‘Inside the Mossad’ is wider in perspective. It looks at the history of Israel, from the very early days to today, through the eyes of these people from the Mossad,” he says.
Step three: Identity as a vehicle
Born in Tel Aviv, Dror studied at UCLA and Columbia College in Chicago, where he graduated in 1993. His extensive oeuvre ranges from personal films, tracing his own family’s journey from Iraq to Israel (“Café Noah” and “My Fantasia”) to character-driven feature documentaries, experimental work and artist biographies.
Throughout his work to date, Dror has always addressed issues of identity, migration and displacement. His newest film, “Inside the Mossad,” seemingly signals a shift away from these themes.
“It might be a shift away,” Dror muses. “But identity still features. You see that the people who work for Mossad have come from all over the world: the United States, France, Iraq. Some, in a way, really sacrifice their identity, or their previous identity, in the work that they do. It’s not easy and it can be very conflicting for people to do that.”
An obvious example is “Tamar,” the only woman interviewed for the film. She served as an undercover agent in Egypt, “married” to another agent. But matters became complicated when the relationship developed into something genuine, prompting her commander to take action ensuring that they broke up.
The event occurred some years ago, but emotions are still evident. On camera, with her face obscured, “Tamar” expresses anger at her boss’ unspecified intervention.
Other women operatives feature in the TV series, but the immediate impression from the film is that men are responsible for the majority of managerial roles within the agency.
Women have an important role, but the Mossad restricted us in letting us get into these specifics — much more so than regarding men
“There are women in the higher echelons of the Mossad. Aliza Magen-Halevi was the first and only female deputy director [appointed in 1997], for example,” Dror says. “Women have an important role, but the Mossad restricted us in letting us get into these specifics about women — much more so than regarding men. And I don’t know why.”
The lack of permission to use archival footage and his dislike of docudrama meant that Dror had to be creative in his visual presentation. He explains that the reoccurring motif of a toy soldier on a map is there to suggest that it can sometimes feel like civilians are pawns in a bigger game — one that Ben-Barak refers to with a knowing smile as a “dirty business.”
Asked about his subjects’ reaction to the film, Dror sighs, and after a long pause laughs and says it has been very diverse.
“I think that some of them were really happy they could tell their story, having been quiet for so many years — nobody knew anything about them,” he says. “But I heard that there were some very critical voices — not in the film. They were critical about why this project came about and how damaging it could be.”
Dror doesn’t know whether the film is indeed damaging or not.
“I thought it was important to understand the agency that has so much effect on our lives,” he says. “I wanted to know who these people are and what they are doing — and if we can trust them or not.”