"My kids know that when we go to Shabbat dinner with my parents, there will be a fight. Always. All the time, a fight."
Dror Moreh, Israeli-born director of the formidable new documentary "The Gatekeepers," is speaking of his family, of growing up "the black sheep" surrounded by those further right along the family political spectrum. His own kids are now 20 and 18, soon to begin their own compulsory Israeli military duty. The film, which opens Friday, focuses tightly on six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service organization. "The Gatekeepers" is up for best documentary feature at Sunday's Academy Awards.
The inescapable lesson of the picture, shared by the six very different men who speak on camera, is this: Without a lasting two-state solution, the Israeli/Palestinian quagmire can only continue.
"It's important people hear the testimony of these men," Moreh told me in a recent Chicago interview at a downtown cafe. "From the beginning it was a challenge to create the visual style for the film."
Moreh combines judicious archival footage and artful digital inventions (including some bird's-eye view surveillance perspectives, moments before a drone strike), but the cinematics never crowd the men at the center.
"The point of entry for me, the point of inspiration, was 'The Fog of War' by Errol Morris," he says, referring to Morris' impressionistic portrait of Vietnam-era U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. "When I saw that movie, I knew I needed to make something like that — something that would bring people close to a center of power, to firsthand testimony about what can and did go wrong."
The question, he says, is, "Did what we do, in the name of national defense, help our cause or hurt our cause?"
Born in Jerusalem, Moreh loved movies from the beginning.
"The old cliche," he laughs, "a boy skipping school to run off to the cinema, and then seeing three movies on one ticket." After his army stint during the first Lebanon war, he committed himself to filmmaking, first gaining ground as a cinematographer.
"The Gatekeepers" may bear the hallmarks of Morris' visual influence, but it's fully its own achievement. The mission, he says, was simple, though the results are not bluntly polemical.
"From the Six-Day War in 1967, I wanted to show how the country failed to manage its victory or to create a long-lasting peace in the region. Or even to be accepted in the region. These are our neighbors. The heads of the Shin Bet know this. They know what they're speaking about. They've been there."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose intractable stance toward the Palestinians opposes the Shin Bet interview subjects in nearly every particular, reportedly has not seen "The Gatekeepers." Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon saw it and dismissed Moreh's work as having been shaped "to serve the Palestinian narrative."
The viewer can judge the words of these six on their own. The film has stirred the best kind of controversy worldwide, thoughtfully provoking a variety of responses. And now Moreh says he's ready for his first narrative fiction feature. Listening to these men tell their stories, he says, has helped him learn what's important in telling any sort of story on screen.
Wire services contributed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun