It stands to reason that the absorbing (if morbid) “The Gatekeepers” has earned an Academy Award nomination this year for Best Documentary: The film deals with the modern era’s most contentious battle—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—from first-person narratives of leaders of Israel’s secret service, the Shin Bet.
For the first time, the project gives a face to the men who made history-altering decisions behind a wall of governmental anonymity. The documentary’s discussions offer unfiltered insight into the thought processes behind Israel’s handling of Palestinian attackers. Justifications for killing innocents as collateral damage, shifting morality, betrayal of family, and the tactics for interrogating terrorists are not easy subjects to swallow. The Shin Bet leaders’ hard-nosed observations tie the stomach into increasingly uncomfortable knots, despite whichever side of the debate one sits on. It’s an unsettling reminder that in war at its most raw, even good guys don’t emerge ethically unscathed.
The film has the heady intellectual heaviness of an academic non-fiction tome that one marches through for the valuable information. Director Dror Moreh organizes interview footage into chapters with ominous titles like “One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter” and “Victory Is to See You Suffer.” Sit up straight and pay attention because there very well could be a test.
Moreh alleviates talking-head visual stagnation by reconstructing pivotal scenes of Palestinian capture with impressive dimensional models blended with archival photos—unflinching images of the gory brutality the Shin Bet fought against. It won’t be easy to erase the sight of civilian bodies mangled among the twisted metal wreckage of the 1994 Dizengoff Street suicide bus bombing caused by Hamas. The film’s pace is placid, but the topics are fraught with tension.
Surveillance is high on Moreh’s mind. His visually reconstructed transitions include walls of underground monitors watching the streets, airborne screens zeroing in on ground targets, and cavernous file rooms with detailed reports on hundreds of individuals. It’s ironic that the Shin Bet leaders are the most private of governmental officials even though their work is, by necessity, to pry into the lives of others.
Of all the truths revealed in “The Gatekeepers,” the most unnerving are the Shin Bet leaders’ bottom line thoughts on their war against Palestinian terror. They hint that the never-ending attacks are based on a cycle of provoke and revenge, full of tactics but little strategy. One former leader says Israel wins every battle, but loses the war.
The conversation make one wonder what American’s FBI and CIA leaders might say if they gave similarly candid interviews. Perhaps public ignorance truly is bliss.
Critic’s Score: B+
Directed by Dror Moreh
With Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom