The Gatekeepers, by Director Dror Moreh, premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2012, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It is a short lesson on the futility of revenge.
Six ex-leaders of Shin Bet, the less well-known wing of the Israeli Security Services, are skillfully interviewed about their time in office. These men, all no-nonsense figures, led the organization following the end of the Six Day War of 1967 and also the establishment of the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and The Gaza Strip. Since then Israel has engaged in a constant battle against real and perceived threats of revolt and terrorism.
The story of this sextet makes for compelling viewing. Although the dialogue is in Hebrew, the emotions of these men which are expressed in guttural tones and strongly etched upon their lined faces, render the English subtitles truly a subtext. A brutal history is honestly explored, albeit solely from the perspective of Israel. The use of original footage and well-made computer generated imaging adds a graphic dimension to this verbal account, and is done so in a convincing and skillful way. At times it is difficult to know which of the footage is real and which of it is not.
We hear the men’s frank accounts of the tactics used to identify threats to the Jewish state, described as “tactics with no strategy”, and of the thought processes involved in recruiting traitors from within the “enemy” community, including the task of tempting a man to betray his own family. We hear reflections on the morality, or lack thereof, when dealing with “terrorists” even those who are captured and bound. Interrogation techniques, intelligence gathering methods and terrible decision-making are all laid bare.
Suicide bombers circumvent conventional battles. The realization that, despite their superior firepower Israelis couldn’t achieve victory, and that for the Palestinians, “Victory is to see you suffer”, challenged the Israeli leader’s concept of how he could defeat his foe. But with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a religious Zionist in protest against the Oslo agreement, Shin Bet began to realize the threat to peace and security from right wing Jewish extremists was as significant as threats from the Occupied Territories. A shift in theory and policy was required, and senior figures began to question their long trusted approach. At least one of the Shin Bet leaders was hung out to dry by the Israeli Prime Minister of the time, and by the end of their careers, many of the six expressed a cynicism for politics.
This film covers a period of modern history that, arguably, has greater influence on our global future than any other as such. As these hardened men conclude, “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” It would be fascinating to hear the same interview with leaders of the Intifada. Moreh’s remarkable access to the highest powers in Israeli security offers a compelling insight into the minds of tough and sometimes uncompromising men. And it is the candor of this film that keeps the viewer riveted. Ultimately, the psychology and philosophy surrounding the age-old issue of Jews versus Arabs boil down to a futile cycle of tit-for-tat, resulting in a murderous loss of life. Interestingly(?), all six hardened characters admit that dialogue is the only way forward.
Many herald The Gatekeepers as important. However, by discussing the threat of right wing extremists within the Jewish community, this film has led to an inevitable backlash from certain sectors of a divided community. Whatever your politics, I feel this is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in today’s Middle East dilemma. It is impossible to leave the auditorium unmoved. As the film concludes, you can win the battles, but lose the war.