The Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) is in charge of protecting the State of Israel from terrorists, both foreign and domestic. Their primary target and the primary enemy of Israel is the Arab nation. The strife between Israel and the Arabs has been one of the most volatile and ongoing conflicts since The Six-Day War in 1967. The Gatekeepers is a documentary length interview with the six surviving leaders of the Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1994-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005), and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011), who was still head of the Shin Bet during filming. The documentary consists of talking heads, some archival footage, and computer animation to recreate the events discussed. The animation blends seamlessly into archival photography and gives the viewer a sense of place. You don’t need to know a single thing about Israel, Palestine, Hamas, Judaism, and Islam to understand what they are talking about. Everything is clear and concise.
Divided into seven segments, The Gatekeepers does not stick to a chronological telling of history but instead hopscotches around to establish a throughline of morality, which is what director Dror Moreh seems to be most interested in. Of course, the heads of the Shin Bet attempt to sway Moreh from trying to find morality or rationalizing the events. The second segment, Forget About Morality, discusses the No. 300 Bus Incident. The head of the Shin Bet at the time, Avraham Shalom, might have given the order to have the prisoners killed, or he might be covering for the foot soldier’s foolhardiness. Either way, the incident was documented, and Shalom admits that it would not have been a big deal if there weren’t photographers around. That aside, Shalom very bluntly states that his goal was to have no live terrorist in court. It would hurt their cause because the terrorists would be allowed to speak, and others might take up the cause on their behalf.
Dovetailing nicely into the third segment, One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter address the nature of the cause. It just depends on what side of history you are on or what side of the cause you belong to before you can determine who is right and who is wrong. In Our Own Flesh and Blood, the fourth segment, the Shin Bet, stopped a group of Jewish radicals from destroying the Dome of the Rock in Old Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is where Muslims believe that Mohammad ascended to Heaven. It is also located on the Temple Mount, the holiest of spots according to Judaism. The Jewish Underground sought to destroy the dome and hopefully usher the Messiah into the Second Coming and, most likely, the Rapture. As the leaders of the Shin Bet said, if the Jewish Underground had succeeded, then the entire Islamic world would have declared war on Israel. Shin Bet managed to stop the Jewish Underground, but as we learn in the fifth segment, Victory Is To See You Suffer, there are no clear winners in this battle. Each attack that Israel deals Palestine is out of retaliation to a suicide bomber, an attack, and the pain of loss. The pain of never winning peace for your people. As a PLO diplomat tells then leader, Ami Ayalon, the goal is not to win the war and the state of Palestine. The goal is to watch Israel suffer. I am reminded of a line from The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
There are two segments, the first and sixth, that deal more with the strategy and procedural aspect of the Shin Bet and how it operates. No Strategy, Just Tactics, and Collateral Damage give us an idea that the Shin Bet is just as effective at getting their man as Maya was in Zero Dark Thirty. The final segment, The Old Man At The End Of The Corridor, is a mystery to me. It might have some sort of significance to the meaning of the duties of the Shin Bet, or it might be some dream fabricated by one of the leaders, Ami Ayalon. The Old Man At The End Of The Corridor refers to a Jewish scholar who has studied the Torah and decreed that this is the correct path for the State of Israel to follow. Then one day, Ayalon goes looking for The Old Man, and there is the Corridor, but no door, no Old Man, no ethics. Maybe there isn’t an ethical answer to these actions. Maybe that has been fabricated too. If that’s the case, how do you reconcile your actions?
The Gatekeepers is one of the five nominated documentaries for this year’s Oscar. Five Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi 2011) has also been nominated, and that documentary is a cinéma vérité approach of non-violence from the Palestinian side. The two movies should be viewed in conjunction because it gives a wonderful account of both sides of the skirmishes and two completely different ways to approach the problem. This is an issue that might never be settled, and it is far too complicated to resolve simply, but as the leaders of the Shin Bet express, the war does not end with the total elimination of one nation or the other. Nor does assassinating radicals and terrorists resolve the issues. Both documentaries have a moment of hope: Hope that there might be a point where these two nations can get together and talk, and more importantly, listen. They are not there yet, but at least the option is still on the table.
What does Moreh feel about his subject’s actions? With one exception where he grills Shalom about the No. 300 Bus Attack, Moreh keeps his opinions out of the documentary and lets the subjects give their arguments. It is up to us as the audience whether or not we feel these are justified actions. The same could be said of Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, on and on and on. The leaders of the Shin Bet all have their reasons for what they did, and they live with that, but that doesn’t mean that they are devoid of doubt. To quote Octave from The Rules of the Game, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”
The Gatekeepers (2012)
Directed By: Dror Moreh
Produced By: Estelle Fialon, Philippa Kowarsky, Dror Moreh
Starring: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin
Sony Pictures Classics, Running Time 95 minutes, PG-13, Released February 1, 2013