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Review: ‘The Human Factor’ takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to Middle East peace negotiations

Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat from the documentary "The Human Factor."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, left, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, during a July 2000 summit at the presidential retreat Camp David in Maryland, from the documentary “The Human Factor.”
(William J. Clinton Presidential Library/Sony Pictures Classics)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

An engrossing peek inside the Mideast peace talks during the Clinton administration, Dror Moreh’s “The Human Factor” demonstrates some of the key reasons the task has been so daunting. The documentary, which premiered at Telluride in 2019 and features such boldface names as Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, Bill Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu, focuses on a lesser known corps of career U.S. diplomats tasked with mediating the negotiations.

The primary voices here are Clinton’s point man Dennis Ross, who Moreh interviewed for a reported 40 hours, Daniel Kurtzer, Martin Indyk, Aaron David Miller, Gamal Helal and Robert Malley. Together they recount the achievements and failings, biases and regrets that occurred during what many believe was the best chance for peace among Israel, the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Arab countries such as Syria. Though as one subject notes, the word “peace” itself sets up false expectations and unrealistic aspirations.

Oscar nominee Dror Moreh’s documentary ‘The Human Factor’ goes behind the scenes with U.S. diplomats to discuss the Middle East peace process from 1991 to 2000.

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Originally titled “The Negotiators,” Moreh had a change of heart when he realized the importance of the “human factor” in diplomacy. As Ross points out, negotiation is not about manipulation (notwithstanding “The Art of the Deal”). It’s about building trust and credibility and demonstrating empathy.

But even as Indyk speaks of “missed opportunities,” we are reminded of the cruel role played by external events beyond the control of these men. Political change, in the form of elections or in the case of Rabin, assassination, can clear the chess board like an angry toddler just as progress is being made.

In a prologue to the Clinton years, we see Secretary of State James Baker run out of time to execute his plans when George H.W. Bush fails to win reelection in 1992. Eight years was not enough for Clinton and his secretaries of State, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright. (Moreh chose to exclusively interview the male “negotiators,” which keeps the film focused, but deprives it of other perspectives.)

Moreh, who received an Oscar nomination for the 2012 documentary “The Gatekeepers” about Israel’s secretive security agency Shin Bet, utilizes his background as a cinematographer to maximum effect in the film’s visuals. Drawing on a trove of photos from the Clinton Presidential Library enhanced with visual effects, and news footage to more than counter the talking heads of the interviewees.

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The film effectively ends with the 2000 summit at Camp David and there’s a silly moment between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Arafat. Neither wants to be the first through a door after Clinton and a game of “You first,” “No, no, you first,” ensues. Human factors, indeed.

A brief montage covers the George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump eras. In a statement in the film’s press notes, Ross writes that recent breakthroughs among the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel would not have been possible without the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995. The region is changing and new threats have emerged, Israel is divided, and once more, the chess board has been cleared. Let’s see what happens.

‘The Human Factor’

Rated: PG-13, for some violence/bloody images

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Playing: Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry; and in limited release where theaters are open


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