I’ll be the first to admit that I’m generally not a big fan of documentaries, especially ones in the vein of Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers. Much of the film is talking-head interviews with the surviving heads of Israel’s security agency, Shin Bet, intermingled with old news footage that’s unfortunately and distractingly in the wrong aspect ratio. (Along with fits of computer animation that are a bit on the chintzy side.) As pure filmmaking, The Gatekeepers can at times be clumsy and, because of this, the bulk of the film relies on a certain familiarity and interest in the past four decades of Israeli and Palestinian politics and historical conflict (the same sort of caveat is true of most docs, where the movie is the subject matter). But if you can manage to stick with The Gatekeepers — a film that’s top-heavy in information — there’s a point where a certain humanity comes to light, the film gradually becomes less of a history lesson and provides insight into the nature of the seemingly endless conflict, and the toll this can take on men’s souls.
The most astonishing aspect of The Gatekeepers is that the film manages to corral the living, one-time leaders of Shin Bet — Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, and Avraham Shalom — and gets them to speak candidly about their work. Much of their work has been in intelligence gathering as a means of fighting terrorism, including the use of torture, imprisonment and — in extreme cases — assassination. There’s a strange dichotomy to most of these men, who defend their sometimes questionable or even despicable actions, yet have seemingly been made weary by their country’s constant fighting. The film tells of Shin Bet’s most publicized exploits, such as the “300 Bus Incident,” where Palestinian terrorists hijacked a passenger bus, were later captured and — and the behest of Shalom — executed on the spot.
The way in which Moreh — himself an Israeli — interviews his subjects by occasionally confronting them, shows that The Gatekeepers is a film asking for peace — or at least morality (the 300 bus incident, is framed in such a way that you’re supposed to feel disgust) — and shows neither Shin Bet nor the Israeli government in the brightest of lights. Instead, everyone involved is cast in shades of gray. But the most telling aspect is in the way these men feel now that they’re no longer waist-deep in the conflict themselves. After decades of their lives spent fighting in — and even single-handedly perpetuating — war and violence, these men, for the most part, want peace (Dichter is the only man to virulently, remorselessly defend his use of overkill). As Peri puts it, “These moments end up etched deep inside you, and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.” One of the film’s chapters, appropriately named “One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter” gets down to the core of The Gatekeepers’ ultimate point that Israel and Palestine shouldn’t be examined as good guys versus bad guys, but with a sense of humanity. Rated PG-13 for violent content including disturbing images.
Starts Friday at Fine Arts Theatre