Madeleine Albright, in her 2003 memoir Madam Secretary, told of her time with the Clinton administration both as a historical account and a personal retrospective. Political players were described by how she felt about them, not merely their function in the grand scheme. The Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat was a man who had trouble compromising, but also a man who could delight her grandchildren; Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak was not the best team player. “The Human Factor,” a film which describes the Oslo Accords from the perspective of the American negotiators, apparently didn’t take notes.
Political memoirs usually have one thing in common, regardless of where they fall on the party line. Too often, they’re tunnel-visioned, telling you exactly what the author wants you to know. They’re biased. “The Human Factor” is like that.
The latest documentary from director Dror Moreh seems to have forgotten the value of the words in its title. Beginning in 1991, the documentary uses interviews with the Americans to walk viewers through negotiations between Israel and Palestine that were complicated enough to make one’s head spin and ended with failure at the ill-fated 2000 Camp David summit. Ostensibly, the documentary is about the value of human connection in negotiations. It does, so far as it serves its narrative, explain the role humanity played, but more graciously for one side than the other — Barak overestimated himself, but, in the film’s telling, Arafat blew everything up.
Six career diplomats prove to be far more emotive talking heads than you might expect, and perhaps that’s part of the documentary’s purpose. “The Human Factor” is a window into the constantly changing dynamics that threw the mediation process off course. As one negotiator describes, there was an inordinate amount of backstage wrangling done to get Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the same room. Rabin’s requirements: no uniform, no medals and no kisses; Arafat arrived in uniform without the medals, nearly derailing proceedings.
As the pettiness of men unfolds, “The Human Factor” favorably seems to attack the “women are too emotional to be president” script head-on. History has done a fairly good job proving misogyny wrong, but the nitty gritty of the work these overwhelmingly male bureaucrats and diplomats do is often behind closed doors. (Albright, briefly addressed, is one of the very few women mentioned in the film.) “The Human Factor” draws back the curtain, but only partly. Clearly, the film doesn’t expect viewers to recall the finer details the negotiators drop, and what remains is the impression of egos and tempers.
Albright wrote that the failure of the Oslo Accords was her greatest disappointment in her time as secretary. “The Human Factor,” at least, captures that mood. Some of the last clips shown are of violence in the Middle East — presumably the consequences of the United States’ failure. Yet even in its most sober moments, “The Human Factor” cannot shed its biases. The film admits the United States acted as Israel’s lawyer, and that nobody was Palestine’s lawyer. History repeats itself.
Underneath the pictures of indiscriminate violence and gory death played following the accord’s failure, there’s an underlying implication: The United States should have done something more, which may be true. But working within the framework “The Human Factor” establishes, the assumption is that the United States should have done more for Israel, helping Palestine by extension only — the same pattern that plagued the mediation process.
Overall, Moreh constructs a subtly partisan portrayal of exported American excellence and failure that seems only half-committed to journalism. “The Human Factor” ends by saying the Middle East is incredibly divided today, but glosses over the current state of the United States, just as it glossed over the state of the U.S. for much of the rest of its runtime.
Contact Dominic Marziali at [email protected].