THE HUMAN FACTOR - Review - We Are Movie Geeks



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Left to right: Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at Camp David, in July 2000.
Photo credit: William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most intractable the world has seen. THE HUMAN FACTOR focuses on the effort to bring a resolution to that conflict through negotiations mediated by the U.S., but particularly on the human side, the human factor, in that effort. Interestingly, it is also presented from the viewpoint of the guys in the middle, the American mediators, rather than the two sides in the conflict. The result is an engrossing, surprisingly gripping documentary that makes one ache for what might have been.

THE HUMAN FACTOR is also a revealing documentary about the long-running effort to resolve the conflict, that offers up remarkable insights, some unexpected humorous moments, and many fascinating details about the process and the personalities involved. The decades-long peace negotiations spanned two presidents from different political parties, two secretaries of state, and three Israeli prime ministers, and a process actually begun under another American president and another Israeli prime minister. The focus on the human factor gets beyond any dry historical facts, and burrows into the people and the process that came so close, more than once, to a promise for peace in the Middle East.

Directed by Dror Moreh, an Israeli director and cinematographer, whose previous 2012 documentary, THE GATEKEEPERS, took an insightful look back at Shin Bet, Israel’s secret security organization, a documentary that was nominated for an Oscar and numerous other awards. THE HUMAN FACTOR likewise is garnering nominations as it makes its way around the film festival circuit.

Like in Moreh’s previous documentary THE GATEKEEPERS, THE HUMAN FACTOR focuses on the people involved in the process, bringing out a depth that burrows far beneath the familiar history, revealing remarkable insights and unexpected details. The documentary spans the efforts begun under President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker, following President Jimmy Carter’s successful peace negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and continues through President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s efforts the bring together Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and three very different Israeli prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. But who knew James Baker, secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, was such crackling personality and master arm-twister, with a sometimes-salty tongue? Or that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was such a “kisser?” Such little personal details and quirks provide a way in to the role the interpersonal plays in high-stakes negotiations. The documentary’s human-focus approach gives us a different way into this knotty issue, and taking the viewpoint of the mediators gives a fresh perspective that avoids simply re-arguing the two sides’ viewpoints. It is about the process and whether these two can agree on a way through the conflict.

The writer/director got unprecedented access to the people directly involved in the negotiations, the diplomats on the ground on a daily basis rather than the famous names in the headlines. Many of the famous names are gone anyway, although the diplomats offer many insights on them as well as the process. The interviewees, who speak frankly, even emotionally, include American diplomat Dennis Ross, Egyptian-born Coptic-American interpreter Gamal Helal, British-born American Middle East analyst Martin Indyk, and American-born fellow Middle East analyst Aaron D. Miller, whose pointed observations are among the most revealing. The interviews give us a fresh behind-the-curtain and in-depth view of both the negotiations, the issues, influential contemporary events, and the personalities involved. This perspective brings new insights into the missteps and near misses along the way, the quirks of the people at the top, and a heartbreaking understanding of just how close they came to succeeding.

The documentary is visually dynamic, which is not surprising given that Moreh is also a cinematographer. Moreh skillfully mixes archival footage and stills, in black and white and color, with the present-day interviews. Mostly, Moreh lets his subjects talk, perhaps asking one question, which allows them to delve into unsuspected background, and focuses on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that never made it into the papers, as well as offering historical context of other events taking place concurrently.

THE HUMAN FACTOR is a fascinating, beautifully-constructed documentary, emotionally-involving even for audiences who are less familiar with the history of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It is as illuminating a documentary as could be made on the human side of negotiating and diplomacy, not just for this particular negotiation, about the intangibles of the process, the finesse and the delicate touch needed , and the deeply human side of negotiating a thorny, difficult issue, with the hope for lasting resolution and peace. THE HUMAN FACTOR is a must-see, a tantalizing look at what might have been for the Middle East.

THE HUMAN FACTOR opens Friday, May 7, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema

RATING: 4 out of 4 stars

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