Of the seemingly countless documentaries to emerge on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers instantly emerges as one of the best. The filmmaker’s access was unprecedented and while perhaps predictably the film teeters towards a single side of the debate (specifically the Israelis), it in no way skirts the moral ambiguity that surrounds the issue or the war. Moreh managed to talk six members of Israel’s secret and ruthless intelligence agency Shin Bet (which translate to “in service of safety”) to open on up their history for the first time. Why they all chose now to speak and so candidly remains one of the film’s many mysteries when the credits roll. However, to hear them detail the events of the last 45 years so openly and tinged with fear and regret makes for a riveting experiences. More likely than not you’ll come out of the film just as confused and frustrated by the conflict as going in, but at least some minor comfort can be taken in the fact that those directly involved with the war feel the same way.
When Dror first introduces us to his six subjects (Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin) they seem old and quaint, but as they speak their tone and demeanor changes dramatically along with the audience’s perceptions. These are the men who have been in charge of Israel’s major covert operations and attacks for decades. Their hands might not always get dirty, but their minds are battle scarred. Brought in to create peace, they’ve been forced to order out horrific acts of violence to stop or retaliate against equality horrific actions from their terrorist counterparts. They all speak of the toll the war has taken on their psyche and how even in a quest for peace they’ve become desensitized to the violence they’ve seen and been responsible for. When the oldest gatekeeper Avraham Shalom is asked about an instance in which a Palestinian bus hijacker was captured and publicly beaten to death, he squirms and struggles to offer justification, eventually chillingly spitting out that morality must be set aside when dealing with terrorists. Yet even there, the obvious discomfort he feels shows that his conscience can never entirely be clean.
The Shin Bet are not part of the military hierarchy. They report directly to the prime minister and while the group is openly connected to the government they are frequently used as scapegoats by politicians in the media. The subjects themselves are far from violent extremists though. Whatever their actions and mistakes, it’s clear over the course of the film that no decision was made lightly. The weight of their responsibility is clearly suffocating and as much as each man wants peace and equal rights for all sides, they know that for the moment violence is simply part of the job. As each major event of the last few decades is detailed, regret and conflicting truths come out of the subjects’ mouths. At times they even seem to feel like monsters, but elsewhere they know what they’ve done is a necessary evil. Simply hearing the decisions they must make on a daily basis is terrifying. When you know that all the members of a terrorist cell will be in one place, do you take advantage of the situation and drop a two ton bomb that will kill them all at once despite civilian casualties or do you drop a quarter ton bomb that could leave everyone alive and motivated to retaliate. There’s really no right or wrong answer and yet one must be chosen. As Avraham Shalom insightfully states near the film’s conclusion, “We may win every battle but lose the war.”
Throughout it all, Dror Moreh crafts his documentary like an Errol Morris picture. The filmmaker is never seen on camera. His subjects take center stage and for the most part he knows that simply letting them speak is as riveting as the film can get. To provide visual variance, Moreh cuts in chilling archival footage as well as reconstructed missile camera and POV soldier footage throughout. Some might find this technique a bit sensationalistic, but for me it felt like a necessary way of reminding the audience the subjects being discussed aren’t just theoretical.
The Gatekeepers is a film guaranteed to get everyone on all sides of the Israeli/Palestinian debate riled up and that’s as it should be. The war is a mess with no clear heroes or villains to slather with blame or praise. While many films may have walked this line before, few have ever gotten so close to those involved with decision process behind the daily toils and battles. Hearing their stories can feel like deposition and confession. The hardest part of the film might simply be knowing that when the cameras shut down these men and their successors went right back to dealing directly with the conflict they found it so difficult to discuss. The Gatekeepers may further grey a complex issue in the minds of its viewers, yet the insights it provides are invaluable.