The role of their lives
Tomorrow, Channel 10 will debut this four-part documentary series about police agents who have infiltrated into crime organizations or crime zones. Dror Moreh, the director of the series, relates with great seriousness to the transformation that the agents experience in such circumstances.
Moreh: "There are agents who really live in the field - their whole life is 'there.' They change everything about the way they live and the criminal lifestyle is 'absorbed' into them. It's like the film 'Donnie Brasco,' only for real."
The various stages of production of the "Concealed" project have taken some four years. At the beginning of 2005, after seeing a newspaper report about the activity of an undercover agent, Moreh, 48, decided to investigate whether he could produce a documentary film on the subject. The initial idea was to accompany a "planted" agent and to document his activity during operations - an idea that, it turned out, didn't stand a chance. After a series of meetings, the police decided to show Moreh surveillance footage of their agents, taken by the officers who were overseeing their work. One of such film is shown in the second episode of the series.
"The first film I saw was of an agent, who was threatened with a brick and robbed," says Moreh. "A dealer, from whom the undercover agent had come to buy drugs, is holding a brick and threatening to bring it down on his head. Ten minutes of film and I couldn't breathe, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen."
With the approval of the police, Moreh decided to interview agents, and to integrate the interviews with footage shot by members of the force together with a number of reconstructions staged after operations were completed. However, in January 4, 2006, the prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, suffered his second stroke and Moreh postponed the undercover agents project in favor of making a film about Sharon's life and the process of the disengagement (which was also screened on Channel 10, at the end of 2007). When Moreh tried to get back to work on the series, the day after the premiere of "Sharon," he came up against a brick wall. Although the authorization had already been given and the research had already been done, the first half of 2008 went by in lobbying efforts on behalf of the production.
"Everything started all over again," relates Moreh. "The national officer in charge of agents had been replaced and they didn't want to do it. One agent, who had been my main story, had been suspended from the police. I started to look for stories again. That was a very long process."
The difficulties piled up by the police were not entirely resolved; even now, they are still considering whether to allow the broadcast of some parts of the series. And the agents and officers who participated in it have been forbidden to give interviews to the media.
One of the participants, who looks like a character taken from a thriller, is agent instructor and control Maxim Benisti. In one segment, he is filmed sitting on a chair, flashing a dimpled smile. He demonstrates for the camera the way a criminal smokes, flaring his nostrils in a threatening way and his entire expression changes in a flash. A moment later, he raises his voice and explains when an agent must use restraint and moderate his tone so as not to lose control. Every nuance is considered and measured: how to smoke and how to tip the ashes off a cigarette, how to park a car - all the actions and mannerisms that will transform the policeman into an entirely different type of person.
"They have to be very good actors. When a film is made of this, there is one take and no take 2," Moreh explains. "You can't screw up. One screw-up could be the end. For example, Pinto said one sentence to a criminal that really got him in trouble ... You've opened your mouth inappropriately and then it's curtains - it's over. You have to be an amazing actor, completely cool. You have to remember the whole time what you've said to this one and what you've said to that one. Pinto related that at the time, he suffered terrible headaches, because of the great effort and because his mind was always working."
What happens to a person who would work as an undercover agent?
Moreh: "This is a person who, for 10 months, lives like a criminal. He lives a double life. He also has his normative, ordinary side, but most of the time he acts like a criminal, talks like a criminal, is violent like a criminal. This seeps into you, gets into your system. We don't pay much attention to this and it's taken way too much for granted; it's convenient for the system to forget about this."
What characterizes people who are prepared to take this risk?
"All of them are 'bitten' in some way. I could never in my life go and do a thing like that. You can't generalize, but all of them are looking for danger, adrenaline."
As noted, this isn't the first project Moreh has done for television. In addition to the film "Sharon," he worked for many years as a cameraman (for example, on "Beitar Provence," "Square of Dreams" and "Beit Shean - a War Movie"). He is currently working on a documentary film about the Mayumana dance troupe and a feature. But when he talks about the heroes of "Concealed," it is evident that he greatly identifies with them and that they have found their way into his heart.
The episodes in the series revolve around a number of key sequences in an agent's experience. The first episode details the process an agent undergoes from the training until the encounter with the criminal, and the difficulties he experiences. The second episode reveals the risks the undercover agents take upon themselves and the frustration that many feel toward the justice system. Another episode focuses on juvenile delinquency.
Hovering in the background throughout is the danger in revealing the methods used and the faces behind them. One of the agents, relates Moreh, asked at the outset that his face be concealed. Another was made up so that his features were changed. The police, too, imposed many restrictions on the series that, at the moment, cannot be mentioned.
Aren't you afraid that you might really be endangering the agents you have documented?
"It would be arrogant to say there isn't any fear. There is fear all the time. Not only for those who were interviewed, but also that, heaven forbid, a young agent might get hurt. I am not a journalist and I don't have any interest in blowing a cover. I am telling a story and they gave permission and that they have to stand behind. I've checked with the field officers about each of the episodes. The agents and the people who operate them have seen all of the materials and the episodes. No one has expressed any reservations. There is also a clear system of codes between criminals and the police."
"When I come in as an agent, a policeman, and I tell a criminal, 'I was with you and I incriminated you' - this is part of what goes on. This is part of the game and the system of codes. My role is to catch you and your role is to evade me. When it's a criminal who becomes an agent, the 'norms' are different, but an agent who has incriminated someone legally - that's his job and the system of laws is clear."
It seems the series is critical of the police and the justice system.
"I saw how they work with agents, how much training their preparation entails. To scratch the surface of what one agent succeeds in doing could take police detectives many long years, but the police use him to catch small fry. Why? The police have their reasons for that. It is possible to use this tool in a much bigger and much smarter way."
It also often happens that even when the agent succeeds, it doesn't mean that the criminal will be punished.
"That is the truth and it is very frustrating. They take these young people and they tell them that they are fighting crime and have an important role. And later it turns out that the very same dealer had already been incriminated by an agent and in the activity of a third agent, he will be incriminated again. The frustration that these people experience - people who do things that most people wouldn't dare to do - is tremendous."