'The Gatekeepers' Offer Candid Assessment Of Israel's Security
Director Dror Moreh interviews six former heads of Israel's Shin Bet security service in his Oscar-nominated documentary. The men look back on their work and conclude that continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinians will not resolve the conflict.
Other segments from the episode on February 28, 2013
February 28, 2013
Guest: Dror Moreh
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. For nearly 46 years, Israeli forces have occupied territories captured in the 1967 war, though it withdrew troops and settlements from Gaza in 2005. While efforts to create an independent Palestinian state have faltered, settlements on the West Bank have expanded, and Israeli opinion on the Palestinian question is sharply divided.
Six former heads of the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet have expressed doubts about the continued occupation of Palestinian territories in an Oscar-nominated documentary called "The Gatekeepers." The film is directed by our guest, Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh. Shin Bet is the agency charged with defending Israel against terrorism and espionage, and has conducted extensive operations in the occupied territories.
"The Gatekeepers" is Moreh's second film exploring the political dilemma that Israeli leaders face. In 2001, he produced political ads for Ariel Sharon during his first campaign for prime minister. It was a purely professional undertaking, but they developed a relationship that led to Moreh's 2008 documentary feature "Sharon," which focuses in part on Sharon's evolving views on settlements and the occupation.
I spoke with Dror Moreh Monday, the day after the Academy Awards presentations.
Dror Moreh, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the Academy Award nomination.
DROR MOREH: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: You did a documentary about Ariel Sharon, you know, the former prime minister in Israel, one of the most controversial figures in the state of Israel, who has, of course, been in a coma for several years now. A lot of people who see this say they see a different Ariel Sharon. Was he different from what you expected?
MOREH: You know, when you think about leaders, what is the quality that makes a leader a leader, I think that Ariel Sharon had that in him (unintelligible). And, yeah, he was different from what I figured. I was a young soldier during the first Lebanon war. I didn't fight but, you know, a lot of my classmates were there. Some of them died.
So, you know, you have that kind of figure of person which you know, or you heard about. And then when you meet him in person, it's a completely different experience than what you think he is. And I definitely saw in him something of a great leader, in a way.
DAVIES: You know, I think a lot of people who see both of these films might be surprised to hear that you worked for his first election campaign. Did you support him politically?
MOREH: I'm not trying to say - I am a center. I am not - you know, people who watch "The Gatekeepers" and watch "Sharon" think that I come from the far left, or from the left. I'm not at all. I'm a center. Well, my family comes from, I would say, center-right in the Israeli political agenda, and I would say I am center.
In the first election campaign, I didn't vote for him, but in the second election campaign, I voted for him, definitely.
DAVIES: There's fascinating stuff in this documentary about Sharon, including after his election. In 2001, he goes to the United States, meets with President Bush. And, well, why don't you describe the message that he brought with him? Specifically on the question of Palestine independence.
MOREH: This is something that (unintelligible) was his head chief of staff told me, when - the first meeting between Sharon and Bush, they spoke precisely on how much Sharon is willing to go ahead in sacrifices, prices that Israel will be willing to pay in order to reach peace. And there were really, really substantial sacrifices, dismantling settlements in Gaza.
He didn't want to disclose, but he said it was detailed and specific, and there were substantial consequences that Sharon was willing to do in order to reach peace.
DAVIES: Right, and then you note that in 2003, a couple of years later, at a meeting of the Likud Party, he gave a speech in which he said Israel can't keep three-and-a-half million Palestinians under occupation forever, that it's not the right thing to do. And, of course, before he fell into a coma, he dismantled those settlements in Gaza - this from a man who had been a champion of settlements earlier in his career. What's your understanding of why he changed his mind, or if he did? Or did circumstances change?
MOREH: This is why I said in the beginning of our talk why I think - what is leadership? And I think that Sharon was a great leader, and not because, you know, he came to understand something that he didn't understand, because he had the ability to understand that his point of view did not serve the best interest of Israel.
And he had the capability to change, to say, OK. This is as far as it goes. If I am a leader who is worried for the future of the state of Israel, and this is my concerns, I think that, in the long run, maintaining the occupation over the West Bank and Gaza is something that Israel cannot sustain for much longer. And I think that it is for the best interest of Israel to move forward and to try.
If you ask me, I cannot interpret him, but I don't think that he really thought that the administration, the Palestinian administration that he was facing, namely Arafat, will be willing to, or has the capability to reach peace. But he knew that this is the best interest of Israel internationally, domestically, to move forward and, in a way, to dismantle his life work. As you said, this guy was the father of settlement, and he is the one, that taking his babies and saying, enough. We have to give it up in order to save the better future of the state of Israel. And for that, I admire him. You know, there is not a lot of politicians which, you know, you can say that had that in them.
DAVIES: I don't know if this is a fair question, but let me ask you: Had Ariel Sharon not lapsed into a coma in 2006 and had remained the prime minister for years to follow, where do you think Israel would be today?
MOREH: I cannot tell you in details, but I am absolutely, 1,000 percent sure in a much, much better situation. The leaders that followed him, especially the current one, Benjamin Netanyahu, doesn't even reach his footsteps. He is really - compared to his - to the leadership of Ariel Sharon, compared to the admiration that the Israeli people had for Sharon, we are in very, very bad situation, in my point of view, now.
The lack of leadership on the Israeli horizon is the most devastating fact that the Israeli public is facing. Basically, in the last elections, there was no one to choose, really, for me, definitely. And I know that a lot of people in Israel feel the same way. You know, the day that he got the stroke, there was one of the left politicians says: This is the most strategic blowback to Israel ever in terms of what happened to Sharon, especially at that sensitive moment that he got that stroke.
DAVIES: Because he would have been in a different position to attempt a reconciliation with the Palestinians, because of his...
MOREH: To do whatever - yeah, to do whatever he wanted. You know, the elections were supposed to be in February, and he got the stroke in the beginning of January 2006. The approval ratings, the polls predicted that Sharon will have around 50 members of the Knesset, which is unprecedented. The Israel public supported completely, utterly.
They trusted him because he was a military guy. They trusted him because he knew - everybody felt that he knew where he's heading to. And believe me, the presence of a leader, the leader makes all the difference. At the end of the day, you know, it's a coalition in Israel, and everybody speaks that it's a coalition of interests (unintelligible). But the importance of the leader, the one that stands on the top of the pyramid, is the most important, crucial fact.
And the fact that Sharon was taken preemptively, before he finished what he started, it was devastating blow to all of it. The same way, by the way, like it happened with Rabin. Rabin was assassinated at the peak of what happened in Oslo, a fanatic Jewish right extremist, because of the incitement by the rabbis and by the politicians at that time, decided that he's acting in the best interest of Israel in assassinating the prime minister. And 10 years later, exactly almost 10 years later, Ariel Sharon was taken because of a stroke.
DAVIES: I read that you heard from close advisors of Sharon that he had had an important meeting with some former leaders of Shin Bet, the intelligence agency - more than one of them, right? I mean, what...
MOREH: No, it wasn't a meeting. I'm sorry.
MOREH: It was an interview that they gave in 2003 in a newspaper in Israel...
MOREH: ...which basically, they said that - four of them said - came to that interview and said that if Sharon will continue his policy, it will lead Israel into a catastrophe. And that interview had a profound impact on him, because it came from the leaders of Shin Bet, the center of the Israeli defense establishment, people he knew, people he admired, people he looked up to, people that worked with him.
And when - he said this is something that I have to take into deep, deep consideration, if they are saying something like that. And, as you mentioned, you know, what he said in the Likud, that continue the rule over three-and-a-half-million Palestinian is bad for the state of Israel, all of that led into going out with the disengagement plan, basically dismantling the settlements, 17 in Gaza and, by the way, also four in Samaria.
Bear in mind that those four settlements that he dismantled in Samaria said to the international and to the Israeli and to the Palestinian that he is willing to go further, that he's not going to stop in Gaza only, that if there will be a partner that will match what Israel did, he is willing to go forward and to move ahead with dismantling settlements in Judea and Samaria, which no Israeli leader did before him and after him.
DAVIES: Our guest is Dror Moreh. His documentary "The Gatekeepers" was nominated for an Academy Award. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh. His documentary "The Gatekeepers" - which is based on interviews with former heads of the Israeli intelligence service, the Shin Bet - was nominated for an Academy Award.
Now, you got six of these former heads of the Shin Bet to go on camera. You know, these are people who spent careers being discreet, keeping secrets. How did you get them all to talk to you?
MOREH: Well, it was a long journey. By the way, it's all the heads of the Shin Bet that are living that are in the movie. There is no one who is - who lives and who decided to stay out of the movie. All of them are there. Look, at the end of the day, I think it is timing, and the timing for them to speak was right, I feel.
You don't force people like that to speak. They came because they wanted. They understood what I wanted to say and what I wanted to tell. And I think that the main reason for them to come is the fact that they felt that the state of Israel is walking in a path or in a route where it will only lead to a dire and bitter consequences for the existences for the state of Israel.
And they wanted to share that. And the story that they wanted to tell were basically the story of Israel from 1967 until today, and it came because they are worried. It came because they see the future of Israel. They see that they spent their life in attempt to protect and to safeguard the security of the state of Israel, and they don't feel that until now, the work that they have done and the sacrifices that they had to sacrifice for the security of the state of Israel led Israel to what they say in the movie, to a better political solution for the future of the state.
DAVIES: One of the really interesting episodes in the documentary "The Gatekeepers" involves the investigation of the Jewish underground, some extremists among Jewish settlers and religious activists to, in effect, execute some violence aimed at Palestinians. Do you want to just - this was, I guess, around 1980. Do you want to just explain what they were up to and what happened, and how these intelligence officials saw it?
MOREH: What started that was an attempt to assassinate three mayors in the West Bank during the '80s, which led to the - I don't know how you say it in English, when you lose your legs, of those mayors. So then the Shin Bet woke up and suddenly understood that there is a Jewish terror, that there are terrorists, Jewish terrorists who are motivated to get some political agenda, and they knew that they have to investigate that.
And they started that with almost no clues. And it led up, after a few terrorist incidents that they initiated, those Jewish terrorists, to the arrest of 27 members of a Jewish underground, most of them ultra-religious, right-wing people which lived on the occupied territories, which lived in the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
And the goal, the crown goal of the terrorist attack was an attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock, which would probably - in their point of view, would lead to the dismantling of the peace process with Egypt, those days.
DAVIES: That's where the mosque is of one of the holiest shrines in Islam, yeah. Go ahead.
MOREH: Yeah, which - what the head of Shin Bet said would lead to a total, catastrophical(ph) war against the Jews - all over the world, by the way. And this is something that they wanted to do, because they thought that the messiah would come, and the war of Armageddon.
DAVIES: And so the Shin Bet did a lot of great intelligence work and arrested these guys before they could blow up the Dome of the Rock. And then what happened?
MOREH: And then, you know, if there is a political movement inside Israel who has the most significant influence over the Israeli politics, it's the settlement movement. The settler leaders are living within the corridors of power of Israel on all levels, and they are the most influential one. And, you know, and then started this campaign to release them, some of them people that murdered people, were released after three years or four years, because they are our own flesh and blood.
And they did that because they were not happy with the government. So the government of Israel - in those days, Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister - signed the clemency. So most of them got out of prison after two or three years.
DAVIES: And what did the leaders think about that? What message did it send to them?
MOREH: It sent to them that they can do whatever they want. And this is a message that continued after that to the incitement and insurrection to the - which led to the death of Yitzhak Rabin, to the assassination, the brutal murder of Yitzhak Rabin by a far, extreme, right-wing religious person. And it continues until today.
You know, when you see what those ultra-religious people are doing in Israel and in the West Bank to Palestinians, to Jews, burning mosques, burning Qurans in order to incite, in order to inflammate(ph) , in order to create riots among the Palestinians. So it didn't change. It only - it got worse. And by the way, you know, the head of Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, told me that during the disengagement plan, the threats over the mosque and the threats over Sharon's life were much more greater and graver than the time that it was on the threat on Yitzhak Rabin by those extreme, right-wing people.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that comes up in the film is that as technology advances, the Shin Bet and the Israeli intelligence service was able to wage targeted attacks on terrorists. I mean, there's particularly one that we hear about in some detail, about a - one of the leading terrorists who was particularly effective, and was taken out by getting an exploding cell phone next to him.
And it did. He was killed. No other members of his family were killed. And in some respects, it could be seen as exactly what you'd want to do. You get the worst guys without causing civilian casualties in addition. But it doesn't exactly work, does it? I mean, that particular assassination provoked a huge response.
MOREH: Yeah. And this is, I think, the main - if I would say, the main problem of what has been discussed in the film, is strategy-versus-tactics. In tactics, we are excellent. The Israeli army, the Israeli security forces are great in tactics. We are - you know, we win every battle in tactics. We know - we invented those targeted assassinations. Believe me that the American security officials came to Israel, I know that, to the head of the Shin Bet, to the security forces, and learned how to conduct what they are doing now in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, whatever they're doing there with the drone attacks. How do you get the intel in order to get those pinpointed, targeted assassinations?
But at the end of the day, where do you want to lead the conflict to? What is your strategic goal? And this is something that has to do with the political leaders, which was not answered.
DAVIES: In this film, it's really fascinating to hear them describe a lot of the really momentous events of the last, you know, 30 years in Israel. I mean, there were the intifadas and the Oslo peace process and how it was undone in part by settlements, and in part by terror attacks. And there's a fascinating moment where one of these former intelligence leaders, Ami Ayalon, describes a conversation with a Palestinian psychiatrist he knew.
And the psychiatrist said to him, you know, Ami, we've won. And he said, what do you mean you've won? You know, your people are dying daily. You're getting nowhere. And he says, you don't understand. Well, why don't you explain what he said and why that was so powerful, why he felt the Palestinians were winning at that moment?
MOREH: This was one of the most horrific moments in the conversation that I did with the heads of the Shin Bet, where basically, Ami Ayalon said that this psychiatrist told him that for them, victory is to see the Israelis suffer. And then Ami Ayalon understood something very fundamental, that the two societies are so hung up with each other, or so connected with the cycle of violence and terror and fear and death, that they lost the meaning of what is victory.
They lost the meaning of victory, and basically victory for each side became to inflict pain on the other side. And this is a stage, I think, that when two societies which live in so close proximity to each other, reaching that - for them just to see the other side suffer as much as they can to create, this is horrible. This is the most depressing moment, I think. And this is why I thought - and I felt that, look, I was in Israel during that time, during the second intifada.
I was present when buses exploded in Israel. I was present. I was 150 meters from the suicide attack in Dizengoff Center, which around 20 Israeli children died. I saw horrible sights a few times in my life from that kind of attacks. And I understand completely what this psychiatrist had thought. When you are confronted with these kind of sights, when you are confronted with this kind of hatred, you can never - you want to kill. You want to do whatever it needs to protect your own.
You want to do what leads to this kind of suicide attack, terrorist attack, and then suicide attacks and then our retaliation. And this, for me, was a devastating moment when he said that, because if two societies are reaching this kind of phase in their life, it means that there is no hope.
DAVIES: Dror Moreh's film is called "The Gatekeepers." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with the Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, whose Oscar-nominated documentary "The Gatekeepers" is based on interviews with six former Israeli intelligence chiefs. After spending their careers battling Palestinian militants and tracking down terrorists, they all expressed concerns about continued occupation of Palestinian territories. Moreh also directed a 2008 documentary about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. I spoke with him Monday, the day after the Academy Awards presentation.
Near the end of the film, we get a remarkable series of statements by these former intelligence leaders. Yuval Diskin agrees with every word of a prediction that you read to him, that this would make Israel like an apartheid state, you know, ruling over Palestinians. Jacob Perry says about his own perspective, when you retire, you become something of a leftist. And Avraham Shalom, who so many people thought as one of the toughest guys, said that, you know, we've become like the Germans in World War II towards occupying people - not - he didn't mean the Holocaust, but he meant as an occupying army. He said we've become cruel. Were you surprised that the reviews seem so unanimous here?
MOREH: No. I was surprised to the extent and to the depth of what they thought about it. You know, when you come to that kind of interviews, about - especially when you speak with security forces head and people that always, you think, saw the enemy through the binocular of the rifle, you think that they will be much more harsh, much more motivated by security questions. And I was surprised and shocked to hear that this is what they thought and this is what they think.
And - but look, if there is something that I can say about security officials or people who dealt with security all their lives is that they are practical. They have used all the measures in order to suppress any kind of terrorist activity. These are the guys, the guys that spoke in the film that have conducted targeted assassinations, tortured people in order to get intelligence, created the roadblocks, used a lot of military forces, sometimes conducted military operation.
And at the end of the day, when they look at the Israeli society and they're saying in loud and clear voice, enough of the occupation. We cannot win this battle. We have to try to compromise. If we will try to eat the whole cake and not share it, we will loose. And this fact surprised me completely, because you don't think that this is what security official will think, and I was shocked and amazed by that.
DAVIES: As I listen to these officials give their perspectives, I wondered how much of this was new to them, or whether when they were in office or they were engaged in carrying out missions, they thought, hmm, we're on the wrong course here, and whether they ever told that to their, you know, their civilian policymakers. Do you know?
MOREH: It's an amazing question. It's a very important question, what you've asked now. And I've asked that question to each one of them: Why didn't you say those words when you were in office? So the question I would say is a bit complicated, because in one hand, they said, look, those meetings where we were in those offices with the prime minister who is the only and direct boss of the heads of the Shin Bet, we said those words sometimes in shoutings, that this policy will lead to this the that and that consequences, sometimes to bitter consequences.
And they said sometimes in the prime minister office, that there were shoutings, that you couldn't tell the difference between who is the Prime Minister and who is the head of the Shin Bet. But at the end of the day, the head of the Shin Bet has a task, and that task is to protect the state of Israel, to protect the citizens of Israel from terrorist attack. He doesn't deal with policy. The one that deals with policy is the elected official, the government, the politicians, and the head of the Shin Bet has to follow the instruction from the politicians. And if the head of the state, the prime minister does not want to move towards peace, does not want to reconcile, the head of the Shin Bet has to follow what the prime minister is saying to him. He can state what are the dangers that will come out of this behavior, but he has to follow that.
And this is democracy, and this is the price that we pay for democracy, and I'm happy for that. But I feel that in this particular question that you've asked, they could have done more. This is what I felt. They could've done more. They could have - but I don't know what. Regrettably, I don't know what they could've done more, but I feel that they could have done more.
DAVIES: I know that you talked to these gentlemen a long time, and there must've been some painful decisions about what you could include and didn't. Can you tell us something that was kind of painful to leave out that you wish you'd gotten in?
MOREH: You know, you mentioned the story of Avraham Shalom, comparing the Israeli army to the German army in the Second World War. And one of the most painful decisions for me to make was to cut out the life story, the beginning of their life, of those heads of Shin Bet, and especially the story of Avraham Shalom, who was born in Vienna in 1930, didn't know that he's a Jew until the minister in his religious class told him: You have to go out. You are a Jew. You're not Catholic.
DAVIES: He didn't know it was a Jew?
MOREH: He didn't know that he was a Jew. And then when Hitler came to power, he said that he was, as a young boy, he followed the moves of the Wehrmacht with great interest, because he was interested in armies. And with the Germans' Anschluss, you know, the unification of Germany and Austria, he went to Vienna, to that square where Hitler gave the speech. He saw him with his eyes. He said that he was a demagogue.
And then after the Kristallnacht, the day of the Germans burned books and dismantled or - I don't know - ruined a lot of synagogues all over Germany and Austria, his mother forced him to go to school. He was beaten almost to death by his classmates, friends of him. He felt firsthand what it means to be a Jew in a racist regime. He felt what it is to be a Jew when people, his friends, the parents of his friends told, in front of him, don't go with this boy, because he's Jew. He's inferior than us.
And when he compares the Israeli army occupying the West Bank now to the German occupation, he comes from firsthand knowing that. And this was something that, I think if I would've kept that in, it would've given his statement at the end of the movie much more power. But, you know, we had to cut out a lot - a lot.
DAVIES: You know, this isn't just a film of interviews. There were some really powerful video images that you weave in to illustrate what we're hearing from these gentlemen. And there's an amazing piece of footage at the - near the end of the film that appears to be shot from the helmet of Israeli soldier. And he's going on a nighttime raid, breaking into a house, looking for, I suppose, a suspected terrorist. And you sense both the confusion he must feel and the terror he must feel going through this house, not knowing what he will encounter. But you also see, you know, the terrified faces of the women and children who had these soldiers storming into their home, and this sort of bewilderment that both sides must feel, you know, at this confrontation that they're involved in.
MOREH: Exactly. I couldn't put it better than what you described now. My son is going to the army in two weeks from now, and for me to create that movie was the fear that he will have to be that young soldier running on those alleys, arresting people, going into their homes in the middle of the night, and what effect it will have on his soul, what effect it will have on his personality, a young boy that now just finished high school, going two weeks into the army - what kind of future do I provide him as a parent? What kind of future do we provide him as a state? Is - this is what we have.
As children, I remember that my father told me in 1967, hugged me before he went into the Six-Day War, you are the man now. I was six years old. You are the man now in this house, and I hope you protect your mom and your sister. He did that again in 1973. In 1982, I went to the Lebanon war, and I said I hope that my son would not do that. In two weeks, I will accompany my son when he goes to the army, and I hope that his son, my grandson, will not have to do there. If - and, you know, it's a cycle that we have to cut in one way, to stop that and to try. I'm not sure that it will happen, but we have to try to reach a reconciliation with our enemies, with our people that we share this land with.
DAVIES: You know, you said earlier that you're from the center of Israeli politics. Your father was more center-right. I wonder if he's still around and has seen the film, how he might have reacted.
MOREH: He has seen the film. Not only that, my only sister lives in a settlement. So we are really - I don't want to say that I'm the black sheep, because we are really, really close to each other, and they are very proud of the film and success of the film. Yes, my father saw the film. My sister and her kids have seen the film. They all didn't the vote, because of the film, to Netanyahu. They all said that this film is a game-changer. And I had a lot of responses like that, and I'm happy for that.
DAVIES: I'd like to ask you one more question. You know, we're speaking after you just attended the Academy Award presentations, where your documentary, "The Gatekeepers," was nominated. And among the other nominees in your category was a Palestinian, Emad Bernat, who had a film "Five Broken Cameras" about his photographing confrontations with Israeli settlers on the West Bank. I wonder - it's an interesting coincidence that you were both nominated. Do you know each other? Did you speak there?
MOREH: We spoke. We don't know each other from Israel. We met at the Academy ceremonies and, you know, there was a lot of ceremonies that we attended together. Yeah, we spoke together.
DAVIES: Any plans on collaborating, or anything?
MOREH: No. No. He's a Palestinian. I'm an Israeli. I hope - look, I have to say towards the Palestinians, that I wish that one day, they will be able to make a movie like "The Gatekeepers," where they have their official criticizing themselves and seeing the lack of their movements or attempts to move towards peace.
I didn't see that up until now, and I cannot expect that to happen, because they're a society under occupation, which are fighting against the occupation. So I cannot expect them, really, to criticize what their leaders have done wrong and how they could have moved in another direction. And, believe me, the Palestinian, as Abba Eban said once, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
And their leadership, especially Arafat, is the total blame, or one of the most responsible for the severe situation that the Palestinians are in now, and the Israelis. And I really will say that Abba Eban was right, only he could've said that, really, on both sides - both sides. The Israelis and the Palestinian never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and this is the tragedy of the region.
DAVIES: Well, Dror Moreh, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MOREH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
DAVIES: Dror Moreh's film is called "The Gatekeepers." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel inspired by an iconic Depression-era Dorothea Lange photograph. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Photographer Dorothea Lange worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. One day on her travels in Central California, she came upon a woman and her children resting by the side of a road. The result was what many historians consider the iconic photo of the Great Depression.
Marisa Silver's new novel, "Mary Coin," imaginatively fills in the spaces around that photograph. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I shied away from Marisa Silver's new novel because of its book jacket: a reproduction of Dorothea Lange's iconic Depression-era photograph called "Migrant Mother." You know it: The woman's strong face is worn and worried. Her children lean protectively into her. Lange took the photo at a pea-pickers' camp in California in 1936. The name of the destitute mother of seven, who wasn't identified until the 1970s, is Florence Owens Thompson. The photo on Silver's book jacket is colorized.
I feared that Silver's novel might be colorized, too, punching up its account of the meeting between Lange and Thompson, and in particular, sanctifying Thompson's maternal ordeal, to make the story appealing to women's book clubs across the land. But curiosity trumped cynicism, especially since Lange's photograph - even in this altered form - always commands attention. What I found is that, far from romanticizing the suffering of the Great Depression, Silver stares at it hard, square in the face, just as Lange must have done that March day in 1936 when, on assignment for the Federal Farm Security Administration, She drove into the migrant workers camp, took six photos of Thompson and her children, and then drove away.
Silver is an evocative, precise writer, and her story - really interlocking tales - takes readers deep into the callous realities of life during the dirty '30s. To acknowledge the imaginative leeway that she does take - indeed, that all artists, even documentary photographers, take - Silver renames her famous subjects here. Dorothea Lange becomes a photographer named Vera Dare, and Florence Owens Thompson is the title character, Mary Coin.
Both women, as they were in real life, are mothers. But Silver doesn't strain to make them sisters under the skin. Dare's background is immigrant, urban; she contracts polio as a child in the early years of the 20th century, and that handicap - as it would have been called then - sets her apart and makes her a sharp observer.
As Lange did, Dare begins her photographic career taking pictures of society women in San Francisco; these are women who, with a smug glance at Dare's dress or the furniture in her studio, excel at making her aware of what her life was and what it was not. In Coin's world, such subtle class messages are unnecessary; everybody knows their place, and that place is at the bottom of the heap.
She grows up in Oklahoma in a sod house whose walls were alive with worms and centipedes and colonies of ants. Silver smoothly integrates ephemeral period details, like the fact that the 17-year-old Coin, in preparation for her wedding day, collects tin cans from the neighbors so that she can cut them into thin strips and wind her hair around them, making ringlets.
But soon enough, Coin's husband dies of TB, and as the Depression worsens, we readers are taken into the desperation and meanness of the migrant worker hiring lines, where Coin stands for hours while her kids stay behind out of sight in her old car, a Hudson.
Here's a quick description of one such hiring line: When she reached the front, the foreman looked her over, judged her wizened frame and her bone-thin arms, then pushed the air with his hand as if the wind he created would be enough to blow her away.
By the time of that momentous meeting with photographer Vera Dare, Coin and her kids are living off vegetables blighted by frost and any small birds that they catch and kill. According to historical sources, Florence Owens Thompson and her family - along with countless other Americans of the time - were subsisting on the very same diet.
In touching on some of the images that give atmosphere to this story, I've made "Mary Coin" sound more melodramatic than it is. I can't avoid it: Lange's photograph and the world it conjures up are inherently melodramatic.
But Silver's writing isn't: she's restrained and smart. Throughout her novel, Silver tackles big questions about the morality of art and, in particular, the exploitation of subjects in photography. Indeed, Silver herself exploits Lange's famous photo here for her own powerful ends. Sometimes artists have to be selfish in that way. To paraphrase one of the greatest and most selfish of them all, Pablo Picasso, artists are trying to create lies that tell the truth.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the new novel "Mary Coin" by Marisa Silver. Coming up, Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews two very different albums from jazz clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Ben Goldberg has been a staple of San Francisco's improvising scene since putting together the New Klezmer Trio two decades ago. More recently, as a member of the quartet Tin Hat, he's set e.e. cummings poems to music. In between, he's recorded in a wide variety of settings, sometimes including other prominent Bay Area players - as on two new albums for different quintets. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATISFIED MIND")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Ben Goldberg's harmonization of Bob Dylan's loose version of the country tune "Satisfied Mind." It comes out like a 19th-century field holler in modern dress. Old and new often get mixed up in Goldberg's music. The clarinetist first made his name playing avant-garde klezmer, as if that traditional style had never stopped evolving. His new album, "Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues," was inspired by the stately counterpoint in Bach's chorales.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: But the spontaneous counterpoint threaded through Ben Goldberg's quintet music sounds more like an update of old New Orleans jazz. His front-line partners are tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and trumpeter Ron Miles.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: Devin Hoff on bass and Ches Smith on drums with Ben Goldberg, playing new music with an old feeling. Old and new music share so many characteristics, it can be hard to sort out one from the other, let alone do something truly new. But that's OK. Reinventing wheels keeps venerable ideas sounding fresh. Sometimes, musicians revisit classic strategies just to make them their own. Goldberg's tune "Who Died and Where I Moved To" revives that 1960s Latin jazz beat, the boogaloo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO DIED AND WHERE I MOVED TO")
WHITEHEAD: Ben Goldberg soloing on the big contra-alto clarinet. He mostly plays that monster horn on his other new quintet album, "Unfold Ordinary Mind." This one has two tenor players: Goldberg regular Rob Sudduth and New York's Ellery Eskelin. They make a great tag team. There are more good tunes and spirited collectives, but the clarinetist approaches the music from another direction. Usually, he rides on top of the ensemble. On contra-alto clarinet, he's this band's bass player.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WHITEHEAD: The album "Unfold Ordinary Mind" has a harder edge. The players who set the tone are returning drummer Ches Smith, who's always ready to rock out, and guitarist Nels Cline, who lost none of his improviser cred after joining the band Wilco. On "Stemwinder," Cline puts rock-ish swagger and vintage blues licks to good use over a cushion of moaning reeds.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEMWINDER")
WHITEHEAD: "Unfold Ordinary Mind" was recorded four years after Ben Goldberg's other new release, "Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues." In between, he had a quartet with funky guitarist Charlie Hunter, who inspired Ben to sharpen up his own sense of groove. Some of Goldberg's new tunes sound like forgotten pop songs. That air of familiarity that keeps the music's feet on the ground, even when the improvisers start to fly away.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Unfold Ordinary Mind" and "Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues," albums featuring clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg with two different quintets.
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