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Dror Moreh's Oscar-nominated documentary examines the activities of Shin Bet

Dror Moreh is a fan of Spielberg blockbusters but doesn’t have the budget for that kind of movie in Israel.

RINA CASTELNUOVO/NYT

One of Dror Moreh's most cherished dreams came true a couple of weeks ago: He met Steven Spielberg at a luncheon in Los Angeles.

"I adore him," Moreh said the other day on the telephone from California, before launching into a list of Spielberg favourites. "If you'd asked me to 20 years ago or so, I would have done Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones, ET, Close Encounters – whatever Spielberg has done."

Moreh, as perhaps you know, is a filmmaker himself. But his métier is the documentary, even as he admits that his "real passion lies in feature films," including the Hollywood cowboy, gangster and fantasy fare that awakened his interest in cinema as a child in Israel. Moreh, in fact, went on to attend film school in Israel in the 1980s, first becoming one of the country's top cinematographers for both TV and film, then, in 2000, a director.

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While Moreh, at 51, is largely unknown in North America, this could change Sunday evening. His documentary The Gatekeepers is one of the five nominees for the Oscar for best feature documentary. Four years in the making, the film has become something of an international sensation because, for the first time, six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's equivalent of the FBI, candidly speak about their roles in intelligence-gathering and anti-terrorism activities in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Augmented with archival footage and CGI recreations, Gatekeepers is a sobering, often gripping tale of targeted assassinations and collateral damage, political interference and controversial failures, including Shin Bet's inability to anticipate the first intifada of 1987 and prevent the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In some respects, the Jerusalem-born Moreh sees himself as a sort of accidental or reluctant documentarian. "I would have loved to do The Lord of the Rings," he said, and, in fact, still harbours the desire to do movies of that ilk. "But when you live in Israel, a) you don't have the budget or the craft to do that kind of movie and b) life there is so intense and the subjects you get from life in Israel have so much resonance" that they can't be ignored.

He added: "The fact that I live in Israel and the fact that Israel, to me, is going toward becoming a place that's not very easy or nice to live in, my aim is to try to change the things I feel should be changed." They include the end of the Israeli settler movement, Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, implementation of the two-state solution and an end to what Moreh deems the inordinate influence the religious right has on Israeli politics and society.

Moreh began work on The Gatekeepers shortly after the release of his first documentary, 2008's Sharon. To make the new film happen, he knew he had to find "a gate-opener to the gatekeepers." This turned out to be Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet head from 1996 through 2000, who Moreh knew could connect him to several other ex-Shin Bet chiefs. "I knew he had that capability that, if I could manage to persuade him, he would manage to talk them into speaking to me," Moreh said. "And this is what he did."

Moreh interviewed each Shin Bet leader up to four times, accumulating a total of 10 to 15 hours of talk per interviewee. Four of them conducted their conversations in their homes. No one saw questions in advance. "I told them it was going to be extensive," Moreh said, "that it would take a long time and that I would cover their lives pretty much from early childhood to the day they left Shin Bet."

Intriguingly, for all the regret and dismay Moreh's subjects express in his film, none is utterly pessimistic about Israel's future or the course of its conflict with the Palestinians. In fact, Moreh said with a laugh, "I am bleaker than them in the way I see the future." But the January parliamentary elections were "a small ray of light in a very, very big dark tunnel" in that Israeli voters, while deeming Benjamin Netanyahu the only real prime ministerial candidate, did not swerve to the right as some had predicted.

In the long run, however, what's needed – or what Moreh's gatekeepers believe is needed – is "a great and outstanding leader on both sides [Palestinian and Israeli] at the same time. Some of them say to me, 'Dror, stop being so depressed; something like that can happen.' And when I ask them, 'Okay, we've been saying that for the last 30 years, but do you see someone in the far or near horizon that can carry the burden?' they say, 'No.'"

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James More

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