The Gatekeepers


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Gatekeepers
"And as Moreh probes the men, we, whether we agree with them or not, find ourselves drawn into their moral maze in all of its complexity."

Another year, another set of entries in the documentary file marked the Israel/Palestine Issue. In the past year or so alone there have been The Law In These Parts, and The Gatekeepers' fellow Oscar nominee 5 Broken Cameras to name but two and before that, documentaries as diverse as 5 Days, Promises and Martyr Street. In fact, I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that there will come a day when documentaries focusing on this area of the world come at it from the perspective of a situation resolved and consigned to historical considerations. For now, though, the debate - and the killing on both sides - continues.

Despite the fact debut director Dror Moreh is targeting what might look like well-trodden ground, the perspective he finds to approach the subject from is - although specific and uncountered - fresh. Meanwhile, the techniques he uses to illustrate his points are surprisingly innovative. In an attempt to come at the conundrum from the inside, he talks to the six surviving former heads of Israel's Shin Bet - Israel's intelligence agency equivalent of MI5. Through his discussions with Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin - all of whom are shockingly candid about the workings and shortcomings of their organisation - an unedifying picture emerges of two nations let down by political failure in the years since 1967's Six Day War. As one of them puts it - in one of the many stark intertitle quotes that lace the film - "There's no strategy, just tactics." Another, referencing the indecision at government level notes, "They abandon the wounded".

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Running more or less chronologically from 1967, Moreh quizzes the men about the changing approach by Shin Bet in response to - or anticipation of - the shifting situation in Palestine. This is less about actual events than the psychology and ideology surrounding them, however. And as Moreh probes the men, we, whether we agree with them or not, find ourselves drawn into their moral maze in all of its complexity.

Shalom, who headed the agency from 1980 to 1986, has the look of a twinkly Elmer Fudd run to old age and yet it's clear he is, at least on one level, something of a laughing assassin. When queried about the Bus 300 hostage taking which resulted in two hostage-takers being killed on his orders as part of a cover-up, he says "I don't remember". Pushed he instructs Moreh to "forget about morality" and yet, later in the film, he will go on to lay a "lack of morality" charge against those who came after him.

This ambivalence 'in the confessional' makes Moreh's film grip, even as much of what is said is likely to sadden and repulse. There's the sense of opportunity lost with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin - an event that haunts Gillon, out of the country at the time, still - elsewhere, talk of the "elegant" killings makes your skin crawl. The more recent Shin Bet activities, in fact, feed a wider debate - also touched on by Sundance documentary Dirty Wars - concerning the 'remote' killing of people, the rapid expansion of 'most wanted' lists and whether it is morally right or strategically sensible to mark for death those who may insight violence rather than personally perpetrate it.

Moreh does more than present talking heads. In the case of Bus 300, he takes us into the picture, using still photography from the time to re-animate the events of that fatal night. Elsewhere, he uses graphic mock-ups of satellite targetting to show us how suspected terrorists are surveilled and killed from afar.

Ultimately, what emerges, is a sense of these men carrying the same breed of albatross, albeit from several different generations, round their neck. Whether you will feel sympathy for their baggage is highly debatable but you are almost certain to find what they say about the nature of empty victories and winning battles while losing wars makes perfect sense. The futility of the current situation is, perhaps, summed up by the tragicomic sight of the Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel prime minister Ehud Bakar engaging in a 'politeness war' of 'you go first' through a door at the Camp David Summit in 2000. Beyond the ideology and politics, you think, surely, eventually, something has to give, as Shalom notes, "Talk to everyone, even if they answer rudely", there is "no alternative".

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2013
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Six former heads of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, discuss their nation’s past, present and future.
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Director: Dror Moreh

Year: 2012

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Israel, France, Germany, Belgium

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If you like this, try:

5 Broken Cameras
5 Days
The Fog Of War