Dror Moreh’s stark and stunning documentary The Gatekeepers has garnered acclaim – including an Academy Award nomination – and some negative reaction as well. That’s no surprise given the film’s unsparing look at what the press often calls “the Israeli-Palestinian question.”
Moreh has assembled the six living former heads of Shin Bet (aka Shabak), the security agency charged with defending Israel against terrorism, espionage and the release of state secrets. The six – Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Avraham Shalom, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri and Yuval Diskin – don’t mince words: “We win every battle but we lose the war,” Ayalon pointedly remarks at one point. Their observations cover a great deal of ground, from covert operations in the West Bank and Gaza since the Six-Day War in 1967 to their disappointments with politicians and their feelings that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves a two-state solution. Dichter’s comment that “You can’t make peace using military means” lies at the heart of this doc.
The director has said he was inspired by Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning 2004 documentary The Fog of War, and like the well-respected Morris he’s not seen and rarely heard, throwing some questions at his subjects from time to time when he feels the need to get more from them. The six have made public statements in the past – four of them made quite a media splash in 2003 with comments similar to ones made in The Gatekeepers – but having them all in one film undergoing Moreh’s probing is something new and powerful.
The Morris-like technique produces some gripping sequences. Some of the most dramatic moments come when Moreh and Shalom, who Diskin describes as a “bully” during the film, have an understandably testy exchange about the event that led to Shalom’s exit from Shin Bet: In 1986 he resigned in disgrace after ordering the killing of two Palestinians who had hijacked a bus. The killings were revealed after a photograph of one of those terrorists being taken off the bus in handcuffs led to an official investigation:
Moreh: Was it right to kill the terrorists on the 300 bus?
Shalom: Based on the results, no.
Moreh: Only because of the results?
Shalom: Only because of the results.
Moreh: So, if there was no reporter, it would be okay.
Shalom: Are you asking me, or are you telling me?
Moreh: I’m asking you.
Shalom: If he hadn’t come, no one would have known.
Moreh: What about the morality of it?
Shalom: With terrorism there are no morals. Find morals in terrorists first.
Moreh: And if he surrendered?
Shalom: It’s not a moral problem.
Moreh: Then what is it?
Shalom: It’s a tactical problem, not strategic.
Moreh: So for you, the decision to kill the two terrorists…
Shalom: You keep painting it black and white. There are decisions that…
Moreh: Two captured terrorists were killed.
Shalom: Why are you caught up on that?
Moreh: I’m trying to understand the morality of it.
Shalom: There is no morality in a case like that. In the war against terror, forget about morality. When there’s a one-ton bomb, forget about morality.
(That “one-ton bomb” reference points to another incident detailed in the film, when such a device was dropped in 2002 on the home of a Hamas leader that led to the deaths of several others. When a chance came the next year to essentially wipe out that group’s entire leadership the earlier operation had a profound effect on the decision to use a less powerful bomb – and the targets escaped with their lives.)
The 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jew opposed to the Oslo accords was another dark moment in Shin Bet’s history (Gillon resigned soon after). It’s chronicled in a segment called “Our Own Flesh and Blood” that is perhaps the most poignant section of the feature.
A pulsating score by Ab Ovo’s Jérôme Chassagnard and Régis Baillet, dramatic satellite imagery, stylized photo-centered reenactments and archival footage keep The Gatekeepers from being just a talking-head experience. And those that might lament the lack of views opposing the six shouldn’t: there’s enough left, right and center expressed in the words of these former security chiefs – notwithstanding the fact that some, but not all, admittedly have axes to grind against the political establishment – to essentially create a balanced plea for conciliation between two longtime enemies.
The Gatekeepers (www.sonyclassics.com/thegatekeepers/) opens today (March 15) in Nashville at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.). Rated PG-13 for violent content including disturbing images, in Hebrew with English subtitles, 97 min. Written and directed by Dror Moreh.
*Photos by Avner Shahaf and Irit Harel as well as those provided by Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Avraham Shalom, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri and Yuval Diskin courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.