The Gatekeepers – Dror Moreh and the impossible access. (film review)
There is something strangely fascinating watching older (wiser) men talking about how they performed institutionally sanctioned violence. In many ways The Gatekeepers reminded me of The Act of Killing. Although the documentaries are poles apart in form and narration (as are the interviewed men), they have a striking similarity; That is of the killers seeking to explain themselves, ultimately seeking a kind of vindication through honesty. The six surviving heads of Shin Bet, Israels domestic intelligence agency speak candidly and clearly about their role in major historical events starting with Israels victory against Palestine in the six-day war. The role of secret intelligence has been high in the battles between Israel and Palestine, needing to transform itself in response to a growing sophistication in their enemy. And yet what this documentary boils down to, as with so many of these kinds of stories, is the longing for atonement in the eye of the storyteller.
Not that Dror Moreh reveals a vulnerability in these men. They approach the camera with a calculated modesty, refusing the transparent tools of arrogance, ego and faux rationality. The viewer never gets the feeling of encroaching upon an inner circle. Rather the question that the six men can’t answer, that is never properly asked, that hovers over the documentary and therefore their interviews, is why are they taking part in this film? It is this message between the lines, this unspoken vapor, that permeates the documentary and makes it what it is. We can’t be sure why they speak as candidly as they do and this in itself opens the interviews up to an unintentional exposure that becomes the stuff of good documentaries.
The documentary is divided into seven segments that roughly describe what the men will be discussing: No strategy, just tactics; Forget about morality; One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; Our own flesh and blood; Victory is to see you suffer; Collateral Damage; The Old Man at the end of the Corridor. Each of the seven segments cover a section of the history of Shin Bet and will include interviews with the major players. The Gatekeepers isn’t so much a detailed description of violence perpetrated against individuals (although there is some of that) as a slow form of self discovery on the part of the men who at different times control Shin Bet. As the organization gets more sophisticated, as they speak coolly of civilian casualties as sacrifices to save many more lives, they gradually unravel toward a wisdom that questions the role and the rights of this style of intelligence.
Equally candid is their communications around their relationship with the Israeli government, at times needing to perform their covert dirty work, and at others being showered with special privileges. What each leader comes to understand, and communicate to the camera, is that they can’t rely on the support of their government, even when they have been given direct instructions. They act under their own kind of law, and in one case, the primary objective is to not be seen by the public. That is the only sin.
For those who are familiar with Israel’s history over the last several decades, The Gatekeepers offers a thrilling grasp on the information we didn’t get regarding events such as The bus 300 executions, the monitoring of Jewish militants, the intelligence failures leading to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. However, in the context of Shin Bet, these events take on new meanings, giving genuine weight to the claim that morality is perspective and victory is in the suffering of your enemy.
The Gatekeepers is a complex documentary, dense with chronicled fact, and it doesn’t hold your hand. Historical footage is used in conjunction with the interviewees tale, never to bring the viewer up to speed on what is going on, so if you are not very familiar with Shin Bet, read the wiki entry before you go to the film. It will help prevent missing important revelations. If you like your documentaries (and who doesn’t?) this American academy award nominated film should be at the top of your list.