An Israeli Docu-warrior Takes on 9/11

Filmmaker Michele Ohayon, no stranger to activism, examines U.S. security with one of Washington's most senior advisors, Richard Clarke.

Seven days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York's twin towers and the Pentagon, Richard Clarke sent a letter to the decision makers in Washington. He asked them to imagine a scenario in which there were hundreds of Americans killed on United States soil, or abroad, and to ask themselves whether they had done everything possible to prevent this.

Los Angeles-based Israeli director Michele Ohayon's documentary film "S.O.S/State of Security" describes the man who for 30 years served in key positions in the American administration, including as a security adviser to four presidents.

Michele Ohayon - Becky Koppelman
Becky Koppelman

As the person in charge of crises at the White House, he felt that he did not succeed in urging the administration to act in the right way to stop Al-Qaida. Nine months before the attacks, he presented then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with a plan to defeat Al-Qaida. His proposal was turned down.

In 2004, when he appeared in front of the committee for examining the catastrophe, Clarke expressed criticism for the Bush administration and the way in which the CIA had acted. He was the first government official to take responsibility for the poor preparation that led to the disaster. "Your government failed you, I failed you," he said then.

The film follows Clarke while examining America's foreign policy. It deals with the way the United States reacted to the attacks, from the issue of the security of its citizens to the attempts to examine whether the events were unavoidable.

Speaking in a Tel Aviv coffee shop during a family visit, Ohayon talks about her work on the film which can be seen on VOD with YES, as well as on her Internet site. It contains a great deal of information and encourages honesty and integrity in politics. In one of its most interesting moments, the film relates that years before Osama Bin Laden was captured - the film was made before that - American and Pakistani forces heard him saying, as he took leave of his fighters after bringing them to Tora Bora: "I have brought you to your death, forgive me." The Americans who heard this asked for help and permission to capture him but they did not get it.

An immediate click

The film, which was first screened last month in the U.S., was also shown on Capitol Hill in Washington. It was not Ohayon's idea. "Some people who wanted to make a film about national security approached me," she says. "They said they had a certain sum and that Clarke was ready to speak - he is a very private person who is married to his work. There was a click between us from the word go and I agreed to make the film. I admire him because he is not a political person. He served in the administrations of four presidents - Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He also helped Barack Obama during his presidential election campaign.

At times it seems that the film serves as a salute to his work.

"It's true that I put all the funny stories about him at the end of the film," she says. "But there are also interviewees who say that he is a difficult person who fought fiercely against Condoleezza Rice and almost came to blows with her. Someone said that it is clear that I empathize with him in all kinds of ways, and it's true that I have a very similar personality to his. If I have something to say, I'll say it. That is true about my work today and was true even when I served in the army. I wasn't prepared to shoot at a target on which a keffiyeh was drawn and that caused a lot of problems. There were some criticisms of the film that said that I salute him, but we have already checked the background of the writers and it turned out that they were Republicans, and the Republicans hate Clarke, so I am ignoring them."

It is not clear to whom Ohayon refers, but "Variety" wrote that the film idolizes Clarke and has too many details. "Film Journal" said that the film might convince some people to go into the civil service, which is always a good thing, but that it was not a particularly good film.

Ohayon, 51, was born in Morocco and immigrated with her family to Israel at the age of six. "My grandfather was one of the organizers of Aliya Bet," she says. She was raised and went to school in Jerusalem and later studied film at Tel Aviv University. "I remember that in the admissions interview for the university, one of the teachers asked me: 'What is a Moroccan like you looking for in the Film Department?' I'm not scarred or anything, but many years have since gone by and I still remember his words, so it must have been traumatic for me. At that moment I said to myself that I would not merely get accepted to the department, I would show him what I could do. It gave me motivation."

In 1984, Ahayon won the Best Israeli Film Award with her film, "Lahatz" (Pressure ) about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Even before the first intifada I was very interested in what was happening in the territories," she says. "I wanted to see for myself what was going on there."

That year, the director Amos Gitai, who taught her at the university, called her from Holland. He was visiting a Dutch director who wanted to film in the territories because he had directed a film about a Palestinian artist who returns to Israel after 16 years and was sure he would be arrested. "He asked me to produce the film. I was 24 but I said, 'Good. My teacher is asking me to do it. Can I say no?'" One of the members of the Dutch team was the photographer Theo van de Sande (who worked on Hollywood movies such as "Wayne's World" and "Volcano" ). Ohayon married him and they went to live in Holland and then Los Angeles.

"There I started anew. I didn't intend to make documentaries, I wanted to make feature films," she says. "But my subjects didn't interest anyone. I wanted to make a movie about my family and their immigration to Israel, and about Mossad agents. There was no audience for that. They didn't even know there'd been Jews in Morocco. Today everything is so different; they treat Israeli films with respect, they're on the map, but then..."

In 1987, she directed the film "It Was a Wonderful Life" about women who - after they got divorced, or were fired, or for other reasons - became homeless and lived in their cars. Jodie Foster was the narrator and Melissa Etheridge wrote the music. The film was broadcast on PBS and by Oprah Winfrey on her Oxygen channel. It won a gold medal at the Houston Film Festival and was nominated by the International Documentary Association for an award. Ten years later, her documentary film "Colors Straight Up" was nominated for an Oscar as best documentary film. It won numerous other awards and was broadcast on PBS and throughout the world.

"After the riots in Los Angeles, I followed six girls and boys from a deprived neighborhood who tried to leave the circle of violence with the help of theater, song and dance, until eventually they reached university - all six of them."

The film aroused interest among a large number of people in the industry and outside of it, and led to many new contacts. "Dustin Hoffman came to one of the screenings unannounced. He simply bought a ticket and went in. By chance I didn't go to the screening that day because I was home with a small baby. The producer telephoned me and said I must come in for the Q & A after the film. Hoffman was excited about the project and offered to help in any way, and indeed that is what he did. Thanks to him, I managed to get to the Oscar ceremony with all six kids, and to stand on the red carpet with him at our side."

In this way, she also made contact with another Hollywood star, Morgan Freeman. "He wanted to adapt the project as a feature film. I said I'd agree if he would play one of the teachers. That is still going to happen. That's when my journey with Morgan began; he is the most charming man I have ever met. Last summer I took him with me to the Sarajevo festival, which is like my second home."

Changing the law

Following the political and social films she had made, in 2005 Ohayon directed a humorous documentary - "Cowboy Del Amor" - which also won numerous awards. It was about a cowboy matchmaker who introduces American men to Mexican women. And in 2007 she made another documentary "Steal A Pencil for Me," that was screened at the United Nations and won a Yad Vashem award. That film described a romantic triangle in a concentration camp, between a married man, his wife and his lover.

Ohayon is a member of the Filmmakers Academy, the International Screenwriters and Directors Association, and the International Documentary Association. As a member of the film academy, she tries to change all kinds of restrictive laws, such as the one according to which a full-length documentary film has to be the same length as a feature film, even though most documentary films are no longer than an hour.

With respect to her recent documentary film, which participated in the Berlin festival, she says: "I always am charmed by the subjects of my film, otherwise I can't make the films. America is known for being a place where people don't say anything, and Richard Clarke got up and said something. When I sit on panels with all kinds of documentary makers like Michael Moore, I explain to the audience that he makes films about people that he hates and I make films about people that I love - whether it is a cowboy matchmaker, or a Holocaust survivor, or whether it is Richard Clarke. That is the difference between us."