Meet the Gatekeeper: An Interview with Dror Moreh, Director of 'The Gatekeepers'
Emotions and political stances run high and rampant regarding the documentary’s deeply complicated subject matter, but Oscar-nominee Dror Moreh has crafted a startlingly straightforward work virtually devoid of agenda.
For Dror Moreh, the early weeks of 2013 have been a whirlwind of near-unanimous critical praise, prestigious festival screenings, Q&As panels, interviews, “Best Of” lists, and well-deserved awards.
Having recently secured the highest-profile nomination of all—an Academy Award nod for Best Documentary Feature -- for The Gatekeepers, his internationally acclaimed look inside the Shin Bet, Israel’s highly secretive internal security service, Moreh has somewhat unwittingly been made de facto spokesman for the many political controversies at film’s forefront. That Moreh was able to convince the six surviving former heads of the Shin Bet -- each tasked during his tenure with conceiving of effective counterterrorism strategies, each with his own successes and failures -- to speak candidly on camera is something of a miracle.
And while the impulse to ask Moreh to spill the beans on how The Gatekeepers ultimately came together is an understandable one, a quick Google search will yield evidence that, over the course of dozens of conversations, the filmmaker himself -- his vision, his technique, his aesthetic sensibilities and preoccupations -- has become increasingly obscured. Emotions and political stances run high and rampant regarding the documentary’s deeply complicated subject matter to be sure, but Moreh has crafted a startlingly straightforward work virtually devoid of agenda. Despite this position (peace, essentially), there exists constant prodding for the artist to “pick a side,” to betray the cardinal rule of the work speaking for itself and elaborate further, preferably with a discernible slant.
When I sat down to chat with Moreh at the close of a very long day that began with an appearance on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now which quickly turned contentious (but not, it should be noted, on the part of the congenial, huggable Moreh) and continued with a marathon of journalists eager to discuss the film’s political tensions, I resolved to circumvent redundancy and provide relief from the ambassadorial obligations so regularly imposed on him. What resulted was a spirited dialogue about Moreh’s lifelong passion for film and development as a filmmaker, his thoughts on some of this year’s big Oscar contenders, and the careful artistic choices that went into making The Gatekeepers something far more compelling and involving than a 90-minute “talking head” reel.
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PopMatters: Three of this year’s most talked about, and now Oscar nominated, films are all recreations of ostensibly true portrayals of people and events: Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama Bin Laden procedural Zero Dark Thirty, Ben Affleck’s Argo, and of course Spielberg’s Lincoln. The Gatekeepers, however, is about as far from fiction as you can get, as it’s told straight from the horse’s mouth -- or six horses’ mouths, I should say...
Dror Moreh: [laughs] I see what you’re getting at. I’ve seen them all, and I cannot compare them because each one is very different. I think Kathryn Bigelow is an amazing director. I adore and cherish her, and I have followed her from very early on in her career. My problem with Zero Dark Thirty, to put in into the words of The Gatekeepers, is that it is a tactical movie, not a strategic movie. It deals with tactics but it doesn’t deal, or perhaps isn’t interested in the strategic -- and I’m sure this is something that was intentional, because she and her screenwriter [Mark Boal] are very aware, and that’s their choice.
Lincoln is an incredible movie. To create a script, a political drama, about one of the most important personas in the history of the United States and have it turn out so captivating is just amazing. I was so drawn into the dilemmas of these men. It was so beautifully orchestrated. What’s funny is the day after I saw [Lincoln] I reached Washington, DC for the first time in my life. Suddenly, I saw Capitol Hill and I tried to understand how far they ran from the White House to Capitol Hill! It was the day after the inauguration and it was really a wonderful experience to be there and take it all in.
And Argo, that’s a brilliant film. If there’s something I understand, it is secret service operations. Affleck and his screenwriter managed to create something very unique, very close to reality, very funny but still very close to how those operations are really dealt with. Not that whole James Bond thing, someone who flies over mountains, jumps onto a train, falls out of the train, and then he’s smiling and able to do whatever he wants. No, no. At the end of Argo, when you see those still photographs [of the real people side by side with the actors portraying them] you really begin to understand how much was invested in the reconstruction of this story. You really have to tip your hat to that.
PopMatters: Agreed. It was a great film, but Affleck is currently getting a bit of flack for the ending, since much of the tension and obstructions the characters face were fabricated or overdramatized.
Dror Moreh: Well, but this is Hollywood. I actually didn’t know any of it was fabricated. At the end of the day, though, you have to create the drama to get the audience to come. And to get someone to pay to get the movie made.
PopMatters: Lincoln probably has the most in common with The Gatekeepers insofar as you manage to keep viewers completely engrossed in what’s essentially all dialogue and little action. Even the most attentive viewer can find it difficult to keep focus in that way, so it’s really no small feat.
Dror Moreh: Yes, absolutely. And I invested a lot cinematically, believe me. A lot went into it to ensure that it would be more than just “talking heads,” as it were.
PopMatters: Something that stood out to me was how you managed to interject energy and create a sense of action with those, for lack of a better word, animated transitions and cutaway shots. How did you come to utilize this approach?
Dror Moreh: I knew I would have to tackle a few problems cinematically. First of all, there are all these places where the story never…you know, it’s a secret service. “Secret” is the key word. There is nothing that lives outside of [the Shin Bet members’] stories that you can see evidence of. So I knew I would have to create a language for the film. And I always love to take risks, to walk on turf that has never been walked on before. Take the Bus 300 sequence, for example. I knew I had just four still photos to work with. And I didn’t want to do a boring panning in on the still photos that you see all the time [in documentaries].
I knew I wanted to create a cinematic experience for the viewer. Technology allows us to go deeper and to create something that was not there before. This is how we created the whole scene, based on those photos. Because I had the photos I could put them in space as it was, and then I was able to create the space in a computer. It was important for me that audience would understand it wasn’t something I fabricated. It was based on true photos taken in the moment. I wanted to give it that documentary kind of feel, to create motion. Because that scene never would have been created if not for those photographers who took those photos, I kind of gave homage to those photographers who were on the ground and started to move in order to create those amazing images.
I also did something similar with what I call my “virtual cameraman.” With computer graphics, this virtual reality, you can do whatever you want. The only thing that you have to do is restrain yourself. When I decided to recreate what I imagine the filing cabinets [filled with Shin Bet secret service documents] to look like, I really had to hold back. They had whole factories of information. I created a moment where we pan out onto the filing cabinets and have drawers opening. The motivation for the push from the cabinets to the long shot of the corridor was actually a shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark. It always stayed in my mind, that last shot. So, the first time I tried to create my shot, with Spielberg in mind, it was huge and exaggerated, and I had to tone myself and restrain myself. So then I eventually made it a more realistic size. [laughs]
PopMatters: I imagine it was also a challenge to makes sure those moments didn’t contrast too heavily with the rest of the film.
Dror Moreh: Yes, the goal was always to make sure to speak in the same language, that the audience would feel that the cinematic language is equal throughout the entire film. Not something that stands out. It was important for me also when we created the sequence where we have a drone’s point of view, it would be based on real photos, and I would put the audience in the chair of someone who sits in that room [that controls the drone], you know? I had a long debate with myself, “Shall I put this over the shoulder of someone?”
In those shots you don’t see a person, even in the long shots it is just monitors. Normally these rooms are packed with people and so I had a lot of debate, do I put over the shoulder or not? I decided in the end I wanted to put the audience in charge. He would be the Gatekeeper. She would see the monitors as someone in the actual room would see. I could have created shots that were much more interesting in terms of cinema, but how does the person actually looking at the monitors in the room see it? He sees it from the angles and the perspective that I chose. It’s so easy to be tempted to do something bigger... but the drama was in the screen, in the conversations. So I had to filter myself, keep it pure. In the end, the simpler way was the more prudent way for me.
I also sought to create a contradiction because… there’s no personal contact in today’s wars. If it was 100 years ago where people were shooting and stabbing each other, okay. But today you can sit in this office, plugged into a laptop, conduct a drone attack live from here and never have to get your hands dirty. You are the one who controls that drone but there’s nothing human about it. There’s no humanity. The contrast between the monitors and the faces of the Shin Bet, the men behind some of these [or similar decisions] – that’s the contrast I wanted to create.
PopMatters: You mentioned Raiders of the Lost Ark earlier as inspiration for that key filing cabinet sequence. Can you go back a bit further and tell me more about how you became interested in filmmaking?
Dror Moreh: Well, I don’t want to sound clichéd, but as a child, I was a nerd I guess, [laughs] living in a tough neighborhood in Jerusalem. Films and books for me were an escape from my world because I always wanted to escape the world I was in. I was the constant reader in the public library near my house and always at the neighborhood cinema, where they showed two movies on one ticket. So, every day or every other day I’d run to the cinema. I cannot say I ever thought I’d be a director or this is what I thought I would do with my life. But to this day, what I love to do most to is read books and watch movies. Or make them.
PopMatters: Any especially memorable filmgoing experiences?
Dror Moreh:[laughs] You’ll be baffled! I loved The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It had a huge impact on me as a child. Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry – he was my hero. As I grew older, the French new waves were something that I loved a lot. But in my early age, it was all about science fiction and fantasy. I can’t even tell you which ones, but there were always giant, great octopuses fighting and things like that. Also, again, Spielberg was for me a huge influence. I wanted to be Richard Dreyfus going into the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I wanted to be the little boy with ET in his bike basket. I wanted to be Indiana Jones. It all blew me away. I’m not a Citizen Kane classics kind of guy.
PopMatters: Well, you’ll have to tell Spielberg all this when you meet him at the Oscars.
Dror Moreh: I actually get to meet him on Monday at a luncheon. I can’t believe it.
[At this point, Mr. Moreh and I get into a lively conversation about Oscar predictions and favorites. In keeping with the clandestine spirit of The Gatekeepers’s, however, I’m not at liberty to reveal any specifics. I will say, though, that it was followed by a lengthy discussion about Ben Affleck’s Best Actor and Best Director snubs and my extending a quick pop culture recap about his role in the “Bennifer” cause celebre of the early oughts.]
PopMatters: So what’s next? Do you continue this conversation, and if so, do you do so through another documentary or with a feature film?
Dror Moreh: Yes, definitely a feature film. I have a lot to say and a lot of know-how about what we discussed earlier, about strategic perspectives on the war on terror. I believe I have the understanding [to make such a film]. We have to think about [terror] strategically, not just tactically. I can’t say more about it right now, except that I think it’s about time Americans asked themselves some very serious strategic questions, not just the tactical.
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The Gatekeepers, from Sony Pictures Classics, begins a theatrical run today in New York City and Los Angeles and will continue to expand nationally in the coming weeks.