The 2013 Oscars, scheduled for February 24, are right around the corner. Contenders like ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Les Miserables’ have already been watched, discussed and popularised. The lesser known nominees, however, are just as worthy of viewing and praising. In particular, behind the glitz and glamour of A-list celebrities receiving accolades are the non-celebrity protagonists of real life narratives: Those whose stories are told through documentaries. Over the next few weeks, until the Oscars, we have a look at the five nominees in the Best Documentary Feature category.
Most people are aware of Mossad – Israel’s super-secretive intelligence agency. Far less, however, have heard of Shin Bet: The even more shadowy brother of Mossad which handles internal security intelligence, and counter-terror operations.
The hush-hush atmosphere surrounding Shin Bet, therefore, is what makes The Gatekeepers a remarkable feat in terms of its ambitions alone. Director Dror Moreh, miraculously, convinced six former living heads of the agency to conduct on-the record interviews. These sessions with men privy to the most classified information, along with raw footage and reenactments of dramatic historical events, results in an admirable documentary which will most certainly raise eyebrows.
But if you’re looking for a movie that speaks optimistically of the Israel-Palestine conflict – look elsewhere. Each of the Shin Bet chiefs – Carmi Gillon, Ami Avalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Avi Dichter, and most recently, Yuval Diskin, embody many contradictions. But what they all seem to stand firm on is, in the words of Shalom, the future is “dark”. One of the most disturbing scenes is the discussion of Prime Minister Yitzakh Rabin’s assassination in 1995, at the hands of a Jewish extremist. Rabin was one of the main proponents of the Oslo peace process.
What is up to the viewer, then, is to decide how credible the words of these six highly powerful, often ruthless but also introspective men, are. Here is where the contradictions come in. They speak calmly of the need to be ruthless, while Moreh swiftly moves the scene to the real life consequences, political and otherwise, of their decisions to kill. The job of the Shin Bet, after all, basically comes down to counter-terror operations. And none of the agency’s leaders shy away from this fact.
At the same time, Peri’s words, “I think, after retiring from this job, you become a bit of a leftist,” embody a certain sense of self-reflection. They also provide surprising insight into how much these men, who can all be considered firm believers in Israel’s right to ‘protect itself’, have come to be against the very policies which they followed during their tenure. This by no means translates into a sense of sympathy for the Shin Bet chiefs, each responsible, in his own right, for carrying out several ruthless operations. The Gatekeepers outlines counter-terror strategy (or rather, tactics as is pointed out) all the way from the 1967 War to almost present-day. In this time period, there’s a growing sense in the film (as we move from one Shin Bet head to the other) that something went wrong somewhere; that this was not how it was to turn out.
The ‘something’, as far as a personal interpretation is concerned, was that there was a growing understanding as time passed that military solutions were not going to rid Israel of attacks of any kind.
Something that a viewer should not necessarily swallow as truth, however, is how the Shin Bet men squarely lay the blame at the feet of politicians. Failures are often dismissed as a lack of effort on the part of politicians, but one gets the distinct impression that the heads appear to be absolving themselves of responsibility for the failure of peace talks and preventing the intifadas.
One would think a 96-minute documentary consisting of six talking heads would end becoming a snooze-fest. Far from it. The Gatekeepers is a fascinating combination of wider issues in the Middle East conflict, seen from the intimate perspective of six extremely important players. Moreh weaves the two narratives side by side quite skillfully.