Nominated for an Oscar and winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Documentary Feature award, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers may sound dry on paper: It’s a Hebrew-language documentary on Shin Bet—Israel’s internal security service. But the film resonates with viewers largely due to its access to and the candidness of its interview subjects: the six surviving directors of the Israeli secret service. Through their retrospection—and some arresting special-effects wizardry—The Gatekeepers explores the role Shin Bet has played in Israel’s short, tumultuous history.
These Shin Bet dudes? They’re badass. Big, bald Yuval Diskin, who headed the agency from 2005 to 2011, looks like he could snap you in two, and he’s only viewed from chest up. But to a man, discussing their work for Shin Bet for the first time, they are surprisingly forthcoming and reflective about the tactics, successes and failures, and morality or lack thereof of the job as they revisit the 300 bus hijacking, the Intifada, the Oslo Accords, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, the successful operation to kill Palestinian terrorist Yahya Ayyash and the failed operation to take out as many as a dozen Hamas leaders.
Throughout, they are frankly critical not only of themselves but of each other and especially of politicians who encourage the Shin Bet’s “barely legal” activities behind closed doors but wash their hands of the agency when its actions go awry. Avraham Shalom, the earliest of the participating directors who led the agency from 1980 to 1986, takes the brunt of the criticism for his role in the killing of two terrorist suspects arrested for the bus hijacking in 1984, forcing his resignation two years later. An unassuming grandpa-like figure now, it’s Shalom who shrugs at questions of morality when pressed by his off-screen interviewer.
The former directors’ detailed recollections are accompanied by archival images of graphic bomb wreckage, injuries and grief. Particularly haunting is the black-and-white aerial footage in which targets—humans and buildings—suddenly, silently explode in a cloud of dust. Meanwhile, Moreh has taken key photographs and rendered them into 3-D, moving his camera through the image, Ken Burns style, and even incorporating effects like helicopter lights to recreate significant events. Combined with his compelling subjects, the technique turns the topic into a visceral viewing experience.
For viewers not well-versed in Israeli history, however, little background or context is offered, with events and concepts like the Six-Day War, the Intifada and the Jewish Underground as well as the names of key leaders tossed out with an assumption of familiarity unlikely to be present at the American multiplex. At the same time, a point of view emerges that’s not always friendly to Israel, sympathizing at times with the occupied Palestinian territories and describing the Shin Bet in terms both indirectly and directly akin to the World War II era German military—yikes!
But any bias, if one can call it that, comes from the subjects, not the filmmaker, as Moreh has assembled a thorough, evenhanded and fascinating examination of people and operations straight out of a spy novel.
Director: Dror Moreh
Writer: Dror Moreh
Starring: Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom
Release Date: Feb. 1, 2013