The Academy Awards are mostly known for their bloated, hideous ceremony and nominating Famous White People Put on Accents and Pretend to Be from Another Historical Era for everything. But go down the ballot to the Documentary Feature category and you’ll find that the Academy isn’t completely allergic to nominating controversial films about present-day subjects—like Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, which tells the story of the Shin Bet, Israel’s brutal, secretive internal security force. Dror interviewed six former heads of the agency, recreated top-secret locations using CGI, and ended up criticizing Israel’s religious right pretty harshly. The film was shown in festivals to widespread acclaim last year but hasn’t been widely available in the US until this month, so I thought it would be a good time to talk to Dror about his film, the settlers, and Israel’s best hopes for peace.
VICE: First off, congratulations on the Oscar nomination.
Dror Moreh: Thank you. When you start to do a movie, you never think about those things. But when you hear that kind of praise, it’s really heartwarming. Not a lot of documentaries get big attention.
How did this movie come together? Did six of the former heads of the Shin Bet decide they were going to talk and call you up?
It started with an interview that I read in an Israeli newspaper in 2003, in which four former heads of the Shin Bet said that if the policies of Ariel Sharon continued, it would lead Israel into catastrophe. Later, when I interviewed Sharon [for 2008’s Sharon], his chief of staff told me that Sharon was deeply moved by the article because it came from the center of his defense establishment. It wasn’t coming from left-wingers crying for peace, it came from his closest advisors, his security system. And when I did that interview, it resonated with me. If Sharon was moved, maybe I could create something that would speak to the Israeli-Palestinain conflict as a whole. When I approached the former heads of the Shin Bet in the beginning of 2009, they were concerned about the beginnings of Netanyahu’s government, and about what kind of future lay ahead if Israel continued the same policies. They wanted to speak up.
Do these men routinely speak out against Israeli policies?
One of them [Jacob Perry] has moved into politics. He was elected as a member of the Knesset, and I think he will be a minister in the next government. Some of them, like Yuval Diskin, have never spoken out before, and Avraham Shalom continues not to speak… They’re not one group.
How much access were you given to the internal workings of the Shin Bet?
Look, a secret service is secret. In terms of visuals of their operations, like prison cells and interrogation rooms, I didn’t have access to that. But I saw these places with my own eyes, so I knew how to create CGI that looks exactly as it does in reality. They didn’t let me get into their methods of intelligence gathering or their different branches. They use techniques that cannot be exposed to the wider public because that could endanger civilians and workers on the ground. They gave some access, but many times I asked to see something and they said, “We cannot get into that.”
So you filled the space with CGI. Were there any ethical concerns about combining archival material with recreated scenes?
Absolutely. In the film, I created the movement of the camera in the [300 Bus Incident] sequence based around the real photos that were taken on the ground. If you watch the screens in the Shin Bet office, the data on those files is accurate to the point. The drone view that I recreated… Even the Palestinians who live in those houses won’t know that it’s recreation, because it’s recreated exactly. We have still photos of, say, the house in which [chief Hamas bomb-maker] Yahya Ayyash was living, and even photos of the room where he was killed. The main thing when you’re working with CGI is keeping yourself within what needs to be achieved. You can do whatever you want, include amazing camera angles and effects on anything, but I put the monitors in front of the viewer as if he was in the gatekeeper’s seat, looking at the exact data and details.
The film casts Israel’s religious right in a seriously negative light. Can you speak about their role in the peace process?
Their role is the most destructive part of any kind of reconciliation efforts between not only Israel and the Palestinians, but with other nations as well. The [religious right's] attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was an attempt to stop the peace accord with Egypt, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin came from an extreme right-winger who managed to stop the peace process with the Palestinians. Any time that there is even the smallest movement towards reconciliation with our enemies, they’re there trying to stop it any way they can. Extreme right fanatics have done the most damage in the history of the Jews.
Did you encounter any resistance towards the way you portrayed them?
Of course. The most powerful, the most influential, the most dramatically policy-changing group in Israel are the settlers. They have the biggest lobby in the Israeli political arena. They basically almost control Israel, and critics of that group are getting smaller and smaller… It’s a pity because, as we say, they’ve "wagged the dog" since 1974, the start of the settler movement.
One of the unfortunate takeaways of the film is the sheer impossibility of an easy solution. Can you speak on your thoughts on how the peace process can go forward?
There is no easy solution to this problem. And I don’t know if there is an answer. There’s a solution that everybody knows, but it’s a religious task, a military task, and the administration headed by Netanyahu is not the kind of leadership that can do that. Neither is it on the Palestinian side. So what can you do? Just try to move forward.
Do you think that the former heads of the Shin Bet really feel a strong sense of remorse? Or are they just trying to absolve themselves with the public?
I never speak on behalf of the members themselves, but I sense that there really is a true feeling of missed opportunity. I felt very strongly that they feel that something else should have been done, should have been solved, or should have been said much earlier. And they really regret that they didn’t, because it’s kept Israel in a fragile state, and cast her in a poor foreign light, as an occupying force.
It’s an incredibly powerful film, and I’m looking forward to seeing how well it does internationally. I think it’ll open the eyes of many. Thank you for speaking with me.
Thank you very much.
The Gatekeepers is out in theaters now. Check your local listings, or just google it.