Two years before “The Gatekeepers” was nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Documentary (Feature), Israeli director Dror Moreh completed a different, fascinating documentary project, which has never been shown to the public.
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Moreh created a television series about the murder of Rose Pizem in 2008. Pizem was just four when she was killed by her paternal grandfather, who was her mother’s lover at the time.
The murder shocked the country, which followed the story for weeks as the police searched for the missing girl. Her body was eventually found, folded into a red suitcase at the bottom of the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv.
Ronny Ron, the grandfather who was involved with his former daughter-in-law, was convicted of his granddaughter’s premeditated murder.
Marie-Charlotte Renault, Pizem’s mother, was initially convicted of solicitation to commit murder, but on appeal she was also convicted of murder. Both were sentenced to life in prison.
“I was always interested in human evil and in this case, the matter was so clear,” says Moreh about what drew him to the story. “The case of a mother and grandfather who murder a small girl and throw her into the Yarkon, it was important to me to make it clear there was no craziness here like many claimed.
"Not even a mother who lost her sanity. I didn’t accept the claim that they are crazy and wanted to understand the process that caused a couple, seemingly reasonable and normative, to take a girl and within five months of her coming into their home, after a long period that they fought to bring her [to Israel] from France, to murder her. This is the banality of evil and this is what we are talking about here. How two people convince themselves and become pure evil,” says Moreh.
In a tiny room in a shack on the Israel Broadcasting Authority campus in Tel Aviv last week, Moreh met with actors Roy Assaf and Karin Serrouya to pore over police footage from the investigation, in which Ron and Renault can be seen coordinating their stories. A few months ago the Supreme Court ruled that the police videos from the interview rooms cannot be broadcast, in order to protect Ron and Renault’s children. As a result the version of the series that will be broadcast on Channel 1 starting in September will include reconstructions of many of the moments in the investigation. The original version filmed by Moreh contained the police footage.
Moreh says he decided to go back and complete the work on the series in its new version only because of the obligation he felt to Rose. “I completed the work on the project six years ago and after the success I had with ‘The Gatekeeper’ I am in a completely different world.”
“For me, to return to the IBA and sit here, it is only because of my commitment to this girl. It comes from inside, from the gut. In the most basic way, no one talks about her. This girl, until the age of 1, had a rather normal life and from then on she had an indescribably horrible life. And no one talks about her. Everyone talks about the parents and the grandfather and the grandmother. And to a certain extent this project is a sort of commitment to her. To her memory. And, maybe the most important, it is to say this is happening, happened and will continue to happen. That we should pay attention in the future,” he says.
Moreh says the great amount of time he spent watching the material from the police investigation changed the way he understood the incident.
“It is complex and it is long, but according to my impression from the materials, [Marie-Charlotte Renault] is the main person responsible for the murder,” he says. “To this day, no one knows exactly what happened there. No one knows who exactly murdered [her] physically. In the scene we filmed just now, this is the only scene in which there is a confrontation between Marie and Ronny, and this is the first time in which they met after they were arrested,” Moreh says.
“Later that evening, Ronny told the investigators that he put Rose, while she was still alive, in the bag and threw her into the Yarkon. This was the first confession. When we saw, Tzipi Raz, the editor of the series, and myself, the materials from the investigation, we were sure he murdered her. It is very hard to face that and think he is lying. But today, after all the time that has passed, I say that my feeling was [Renault] had a more important role in the murder and in my opinion he was her instrument in the story. This, by the way, is what he now claims. Because she, Marie, had an incentive for the murder. She expressed her despair from the girl all the way. She felt the girl was destroying her life, the home, the relationship. Ruining everything.”
The Supreme Court ruled you are not allowed to use the materials from the interrogation rooms because of a fear of harming Ron and Renault’s two daughters. What is the difference between those materials and what you are filming, assuming it is precisely word for word?
“That is a question you need to ask the Supreme Court justices. The materials will be identical and the law allows that. We do not even need to receive permission. Today, anyone who wants to can receive the transcripts of the investigation. This was a ridiculous intervention in my view, because you can go to Google today and type Ronny Ron and Marie Pizem, and you get to this documentation from the interrogation rooms. One of the justices said that maybe we need to order the state to collect all the investigative materials from the internet. The situation is that absurd.”
The ethical aspects in a documentary and narrative account are significantly different. While the documentary work is supposed to stick to reality, the story can enjoy artistic freedom. Nonetheless, Moreh chose to quote the transcripts of the investigation in his recreation of the story word for word, without changing almost anything.
“I took upon myself to stick completely to the texts, to the level of the commas,” he says. “I am trying to reconstruct with the maximum precision what was in the interrogation room. The actors’ clothing is identical too and the actors are physically similar to the original characters, including the investigators. I allow myself to move the cameras from time to time, but that is almost the only difference between the police documentations and the filming we are staging.”
Assaf and Serrouya, who play Ron and Renault with sensitivity and delicacy, want to do so in a nonjudgmental way; but they say it is still a difficult challenge. Assaf says that when Moreh invited him to a meeting to discuss his possible casting as Ron, he had a lot of fears and it bothered him. But he says he understood the power of the story Moreh created, despite how difficult it was. Assaf says it was fascinating and he was a witness to a moving, shocking journalistic, psychological and historical document.
“To be a part of something like this, in my view is the essence of the work of an actor, if only for the experience of understanding how such a thing can happen.”
"And so next time we will be aware of the initial signs that can lead to a tragedy, and we can possibly save a person from such an unnecessary and horrible death," says Assaf.
“The struggle here is a very difficult struggle,” says Serrouya. “There are people here who committed murder, it is not exactly clear how, and the struggle is really between the human need to think about Rose’s eyes, about how her voice sounds and how her cheek felt ; and to be Marie and present her without getting her wrong.
"When I do Marie, the way she is – from her point of view Rose doesn’t exist. I must be faithful to what I see in the interrogation room and there her daughter doesn’t exist. Not physically, and not mentally,” says Serrouya.