The Gatekeepers is an often remarkable Israeli documentary about Shin Bet, the country's internal security agency. The film just went through Oscar night, honoured as one of the five nominees as best documentary feature.
The Gatekeepers, along with an Israeli-Palestinian masterwork called 5 Broken Cameras, lost to Searching for Sugar Man, which is a social and musical document, not a political one. Academy Award voters obviously preferred something more soothing and inspirational than either of the highly charged films from the Middle East. Audiences, however, have much to gain from watching all these films -- including Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers.
Moreh's techniques are routine: He gives us six talking heads juxtaposed with reality news footage dating back decades. But the new content is sometimes astounding. Each talking head is a former director of Shin Bet. The roster includes Avraham Shalom, the legendary hardass who spent 30 years as a secret agent before rising to the top job from 1981-86. Shalom resigned after a scandal. Two Palestinian terrorists were captured alive and well after a bombing; then they were beaten almost to death by Israeli Army personnel. When the two battered bodies were turned over to Shin Bet, Shalom ordered his men to finish the job and execute them.
First a word on Shin Bet. In Israel, this agency is more powerful than the Mossad, the foreign secret service, and the Aman, the agency for military intelligence. Yet the public knows almost nothing about its operation. Shin Bet is super-secret. Even the public scandal was a random happenstance after a news photographer captured a photo showing the two prisoners being taken away.
So it is truly remarkable that these six men sat down for interviews with Moreh (who remains off-screen, allowing his subjects to be the focus). None has ever been interviewed in this public way before.
It is even more remarkable that each is so candid. Even Shalom, despite a brief and unbelievable "I don't remember" answer when Moreh first broaches the subject of the executions. Shalom soon remembers everything.
You might suspect that the film and its subjects are rabidly pro-Israeli, no matter what. After all, these six men directed Shin Bet's anti-terrorism operations and came into close contact with the very Palestinians that most Israelis condemn as terrorists. Yet one of the directors offers up the casual observation that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
On a more formal basis, each of the six seems to agree with the idea of Palestinian statehood. Each exhibits a sophisticated understanding of how Israeli extremism -- including illegal settlements in the occupied territories -- has exacerbated the situation, putting more Israelis at risk as the frustration and violence spikes. Several of the six openly damn Israeli politicians and plead for the renewal of open dialogue with the Palestinians to move towards a peace settlement.
You might find The Gatekeepers unsettling. It upsets conventional debate points and confounds those who spew rhetoric. It is neither right nor left wing, neither pro nor anti either of Israeli or Palestine. It just speak a profound truth worth listening to.
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