Telluride Film Review: ‘The Human Factor’

Six envoys for the American government discuss the ups and downs of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations from the late 1980s to 2000.

Dror Moreh
Dennis Ross, Gamal Helal, Martin Indyk

Running time: 108 MIN.

There’s a certain group of documentary-loving policy wonks who’ll be clamoring for “The Human Factor,” with its nostalgic spotlight on a time when the U.S. understood the value of international diplomacy (how quaint that now sounds!). For director Dror Moreh, making a film about the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations was a natural follow-up to his well-received “The Gatekeepers,” in which Israeli security agents spoke of their work and Moreh exposed conflicting rationales and troubling moral relativity. His latest documentary, while potentially more sellable, is far more problematic, on multiple fronts.

First, there’s his decision to see the conflict only through the eyes of six negotiators for the Americans, several of whom admit to a latent Israeli bias. Then there’s the problematic way Yasser Arafat is presented, depicted as usual as petulant and childish, with no recognition that his insistence on being treated with respect was at least partly designed to ensure the Palestinians as a people were treated with respect. In addition, Moreh offers no analysis — an especially unfortunate stance given explosive feelings and wildly variable interpretations of events. Finally, the film pushes the deeply disquieting assumption that the United States knows what’s best for those troublesome people in the Middle East, whose tantrums kiboshed all the hard work and emotional investment put in by the sainted Americans.

None of this critique should be seen as casting aspersions on the genuine commitment shown by Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Robert Malley and Aaron Miller, nor that of Gamal Helal, the sole Arab interviewed. Their dogged belief in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the bargaining table serves as an inspiration to everyone despondent over the current White House and its abnegation of even the pretense of moral authority. However, the negotiators’ heroic efforts and endless amounts of goodwill notwithstanding, there’s something truly short-sighted about making a documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with no reference to advisers from either side, nor an acknowledgment of the problems inherent in viewing the process solely from the point of view of a third-party superpower steeped in habitual Orientalism.

The flaws inherent in this outlook can be seen in the worn-out notion, so often pushed by outside negotiators, that a treaty composed of generalities is a major victory since the details can be ironed out later. A perfect example is the Camp David II negotiations, which everyone on the American and Israeli side thought would be a brilliant breakthrough, yet no one seemed to realize until after it fell apart that the Palestinians would never agree to Israeli control of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Although the diplomats interviewed here admit this error of judgment, none of them is made to discuss the bigger picture, that these so-called details are about lives and identity, not merely footnotes to an abstract conflict involving the recalcitrant “other.” Moreh’s sidestepping around this crucial element unintentionally exposes the significant problems with his model while once again making the Palestinians out to be the intractable party.

The film kicks off with a very basic introduction of the conflict via text, situating the U.S. as global peacemakers (perhaps now is when the warning signs should start flashing). Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy, is the first person heard, talking about how diplomacy is manipulation, which fits with Daniel Kurtzer’s remark that James Baker was the most effective secretary of state because he understood how to manipulate power. The word “realpolitik” isn’t mentioned, and the underlying implication of cold calculation inherent in the word “manipulation,” notwithstanding its obvious, even necessary, application, promptly disappears, replaced by a more altruistic depiction of a diplomat’s role.

Moreh and his interviewees cover the period from the start of the 1990s and the contrast between Yitzhak Shamir, who wouldn’t speak with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and Yitzhak Rabin, who ushered in a golden period of optimism. Under Rabin, negotiations were pursued and peace seemed within reach, not just between Israelis and Palestinians but between Israel and Syria — or at least that’s the message that was getting out. The signing of the Oslo II Accord in 1995 is seen as a victory for diplomacy, with no discussion of serious sticking points (those bothersome details again!) until Rabin’s truly tragic assassination drastically upset the balance and brought right-wing nationalist Benjamin Netanyahu into power for the first time.

With Ehud Barak’s election, possibilities seemed to open up, but neither the negotiators nor Moreh himself seem quite sure how to read Barak’s decision-making, and by the time Camp David II comes around, a depressed President Clinton is thinking that the surest way of ensuring a positive legacy in light of the Lewinsky scandal is to be the man who brought peace to the Middle East. Things didn’t pan out as expected. As Aaron Miller admits, “We saw the world the way we wanted it to be. We did not see the world as it was.” Exactly.

Including these lines however does not get Moreh off the hook for failing to delve beyond the words of these six men (four of whom have written books on this topic). Equally, having Daniel Kurtzer quote Miller saying the U.S. has always basically acted as Israel’s lawyer rather than an impartial go-between does not absolve the director of casting the Palestinians as inscrutable and erratic. And how is it that the right of return isn’t even mentioned? At the very end, Gamal Helal sadly admits that a two-state solution is no longer an option, which is undoubtedly true thanks to rampant settlement growth. How we got from the optimism of Rabin to the bullying of Netanyahu is a fascinating, depressing story, and one that demands greater examination than Moreh is willing to give.

The documentary’s style is classic talking-heads, interspersed with period color and black-and-white photos, frequently manipulated for a 3D effect. Music is maddeningly overused, pushing every twist and turn. Is a gently tinkling, melancholic piano really the accompaniment to use over the death of the bloody dictator Hafez al-Assad?

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Telluride Film Review: 'The Human Factor'

Reviewed online, Rome, Italy, Aug. 26, 2019. (In Telluride Film Festival.) Running time: 108 MIN.

Production: (Documentary – Israel) A DMP, Rise Films production, in association with Channel 8, Reshet, Rabinowitz Fund. (Int'l sales: Dogwoof, London.) Producers: Dror Moreh, Teddy Leifer. Co-producer: Sol Goodman. Executive producers: David Harding, Claudia Harding.

Crew: Director: Dror Moreh. Writers: Moreh, Oron Adar. Camera (color): Kobi Zaig. Editor: Adar. Music: Eugene Levitas.

With: Dennis Ross, Gamal Helal, Martin Indyk, Daniel Kurtzer, Robert Malley, Aaron Miller. (English, Arabic, Hebrew)

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