Film Review – The Gatekeepers
I’m not going to pretend I know a lot about the Israeli/Palestinian situation, nor am I going to claim that I have a ton of knowledge regarding the history of the Middle East. I usually know who is in charge of Israel at any given time, and if anything big enough happens, I’ll pay attention. But it’s hard for me to spare too much attention to what is going on, because—for my entire life, it seems—the situation has always been more of the same. Palestinians want self rule, Israelis say they want peace, but what that peace will look like isn’t clear. From the outside, it looks as if both parties just commit atrocity after atrocity, and maybe they kind of deserve each other. (I understand that it’s not really that simple, but it often feels like it is. There are complicated issues regarding power, religion, and regional stability, but when you see these actions bereft of context, it appears to be just retaliation after retaliation.) I feel like I understand more now after having seen The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh, which is a new documentary about the Shin Bet, Israel’s state security and anti-terrorism organization. Through viewing the history of this organization, I also gained insight into the history of Palestinian/Israeli relations.
Moreh manages to interview all six of the remaining former heads of Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin. These guys are kind of scary; they are all thoughtful, intelligent men who have had the power of life and death for a nation in their hands. Decisions about targeted assassination or torture were never theoretical for them, and they never pretend otherwise. Terrorism is a fact of life in Israel, and the nation’s safety depends on the ability of Shin Bet to be organized, competent, and ruthless regarding their duties. The film is an oral history of the group, from the Six Day War in 1967 to present day. The interviewees discuss their failures and successes (which often later turn into failures or bigger problems) with a candor that surprised me given the private natures of their former jobs. (According to the film, the only publicized members of the Shin Bet are their leaders.) I’ve read some other reviews of this movie and there are a lot of “spies who came in from the cold” references in them, which seems pretty appropriate given the intense secrecy regarding this organization. It’s completely fascinating, and they are very open about motivations, difficulties, and second thoughts. I imagine they are still hiding more than they are revealing—but what they do show is eye-opening, to say the least.
The Gatekeepers is best when it lets the former Shin Bet heads tell their stories. There is no narration, but the filmmakers use digital effects to enhance the photographs used to illustrate historical events, and it’s distracting, as are some of the interstitial moments: they often focus on a bank of older-style televisions/monitors that ostensibly show surveillance images. I assume it was done to provide breaks for the viewer to process information, but it creates a sense of artifice that contrasts with the revelatory nature of the men’s admissions. However, the fascinating content of the interviews was enough to overcome the annoying stylistic choices.
The film’s real power lies not in the historical data that it provides—although that is interesting—but in its conclusions about ethics, morality, and the nature of peace that each man comes to after leaving his post. Avraham Shalom, the earliest of the leaders interviewed, has no compunction about torturing or killing terrorists because their very nature removes them from any sort of ethical or moral considerations. In one particular situation, where two men were killed after being captured, the only reason why the situation was “bad” was because it was publicized. And yet, this same man bemoans the lack of serious intent to create a Palestinian state. While each of the former heads takes a different stance on the moral implications of their job—and they all have regrets and second thoughts—they all agree that the lack of progress towards solving the Israeli/Palestinian situation is what is causing the worst of Israel’s national security problems. And the situation has become more complicated, because they have had to start monitoring right-wing Israeli terrorist groups who want to disrupt the peace process.
This is a crazy complicated situation, and while the film gives no easy answers, it does a hell of a good job of illustrating what the questions are. It’s also a fairly open look at how an anti-terrorist group functions. They’re not giving away any secrets here, but they do talk about what it is like to make life or death decisions under the gun. These men have made the call to kill innocent folk along with the guilty (and the ethics regarding assassination of the guilty are sort of hazy), and the fact is, we have similar men in our own government. I hope they are given to the same soul searching. This is a bleak film, but it’s well done and the subject matter is riveting. Go see it.
Final Grade: A