Six Israeli Spymasters on a Shadowy Past and a Dark Future
‘The Gatekeepers,’ Documentary by Israeli Director Dror Moreh.
NYT Critics’ Pick Directed by Dror Moreh Documentary
“The Gatekeepers,” a documentary by the Israeli director Dror Moreh, consists of interviews with six men, all of them retired, most of them bald, one of them a grandfatherly type, well into his 80s, in suspenders and a plaid shirt. They reminisce about past triumphs and frustrations. Mr. Moreh’s an amazing and upsetting film. It is hard to imagine a movie about the Middle East that could be more timely, more painfully urgent, more challenging to conventional wisdom on all sides of the conflict.
The six men are all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency (also known as Shabak) whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets. Legally established in 1949 under the government of David Ben-Gurion, the organization initially focused on internal matters in a fledgling country beset by ideological divisions. Since the 1967 war, however, the biggest part of Shin Bet’s mandate has involved counterterrorism and intelligence gathering in the West Bank and Gaza.
“The Gatekeepers” is in part a history of post-’67 Israel, in which familiar events are revisited from an unusual and fascinating perspective. The leaders of Shin Bet, who answer directly to the prime minister, are not part of the country’s military command structure. Nor, because of the clandestine nature of the agency, are they visibly part of the Israeli political establishment, though they sometimes function as public scapegoats when politicians make mistakes. What is most astonishing about the interviews Mr. Moreh has recorded is how candid and critical these six spymasters are, inflecting their stories with pointed, sometimes devastating assessments of the failings of successive governments.
“I think, after retiring from this job, you become a bit of a leftist,” says Yaakov Peri, who ran Shin Bet from 1988 to 1994, during the first Intifada and the negotiations that led to the Oslo peace accords. But while it is true that Mr. Peri and his colleagues generally favor the curtailment of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are hardly doves or bleeding hearts. And their shared professional ethos of ruthless, unsentimental pragmatism is precisely what gives such force to their worries about the current state of Israeli politics.
With neither undue pride nor excessive remorse, Mr. Moreh’s interlocutors talk about the “targeted assassination” of Hamas militants, about “moderate physical pressure” applied (sometimes fatally) to Palestinian prisoners and about the other tactics that are part of the arsenal of occupation. They also confront some significant lapses, including the killing of two suspects in a 1984 bus hijacking that led to the resignation of Shin Bet director Avraham Shalom and threatened to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Later Shin Bet failed to anticipate the outbreak of the first Intifada and was unable to prevent the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jewish extremist in 1995.
Mr. Shalom, born in Vienna in 1928 and a veteran of the 1948 War of Independence, comes across as a wise and gentle old man, though he is recalled by others as a bully and monster. He is at once a steadfast defender of Shin Bet’s tactics and an eloquent critic of a political leadership, which was unable, as Labor and Likud traded power and the country lurched from crisis to crisis, to summon the strategic vision or the moral courage necessary to bring about a lasting solution to its problems. “The future is very dark,” he concludes, lamenting the cruelty and intransigence that he sees as the legacies of more than four decades of occupation.
He is not alone in his pessimism, which is perhaps the dominant mood of Mr. Moreh’s film. The director, somewhat in the manner of Errol Morris, is an unseen and mostly unheard inquisitor, occasionally shouting a question from outside the frame or prodding his subjects when they seem coy or confused, and allowing a series of vivid portraits to emerge. The audience is absorbing a collective history but also coming to know a collection of complicated, thoughtful human beings, who are willing to share not only their war stories, but also their doubts, qualms and conflicted emotions.
Mr. Moreh intercuts the interviews with archival footage of public events and evocative recreations of more shadowy doings. The resulting film is inevitably partial — it relies entirely on those six voices, without the usual documentary chorus of opposing views or disinterested experts — but also eminently, even thrillingly fair-minded. It is guaranteed to trouble any one, left, right, center or head in the sand, with confidence or certainly in his or her own opinions. If you need reassurance or grounds for optimism about the Middle East, you will not find it here. What you will find is rare, welcome and almost unbearable clarity.
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/26/movie ... moreh.html
Israeli documentary featuring interviews with Shin Bet directors.
Sony Pictures Classics (U.S.)
10 July 2012(Jerusalem Film Festival)
Running time 95 minutes
Budget $1.5 million (€1.3 million)
Box office $2,415,727
The Gatekeepers (Hebrew: שומרי הסף "Shomrei HaSaf") is a 2012 internationally co-produced documentary film by director Dror Moreh that tells the story of the Israeliinternal security service, Shin Bet (known in Hebrew as 'Shabak'), from the perspective of six of its former heads.
The film combines in-depth interviews, archival footage, and computer animationto recount the role that the group played in Israel’s security from the Six-Day War to the present.
The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards.
Moreh has explained in interviews that he was inspired to make the film after watching Errol Morris’s Academy Award-winning documentary The Fog of War. Having just completed a film about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he came to realize the decisive role that the Shin Bet had played behind the scenes for the past forty years. "The idea to do this movie came to me while I was working on my previous film, Sharon. From my discussions with the prime minister’s innermost circle of advisors, I learned how the critique of some of these Gatekeepers influenced Sharon’s decision to disengage from Gaza."
Ami Ayalon was the first head of the Shin Bet to agree to be interviewed.
The problem, according to Moreh, was getting the "Gatekeepers", or former heads of the Shin Bet, to agree to appear on camera and discuss their work and opinions. Given the secretive nature of the organization, none of them had ever done this before, and many of the topics he hoped to discuss with them were either classified or highly sensitive.
Despite this initial difficulty, Moreh contacted one of the "Gatekeepers", Ami Ayalon, who had since been elected to the Knesset for the Labor Party and was serving as a Minister without Portfolio in the Security Cabinet. Much to his surprise, Ayalon not only agreed to participate, he also helped Moreh contact the other surviving former heads of the Shin Bet: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, and Avi Dichter. The sixth participant in the film, Yuval Diskin, was still serving as head of the Shin Bet at the time.
Though all the men agreed to participate, some were reluctant initially to discuss various incidents associated with their careers. Shalom, for instance, did not want to discuss his role in the hijacking of the 300 bus and summary execution of two of the terrorists, though the ensuing scandal ultimately led to his resignation. Over time, however, and with careful prodding, he agreed to discuss even that, and it now features as one of the film’s seven segments. The Gatekeepers "gave me an unprecedented, intimate opportunity to enter the inner sanctum of the people who have steered Israel’s decision-making process for almost half a century," Moreh has said.
Moreh told The Economist that after interviewing the Shin Bet heads, he decided that Netanyahu "poses a great threat to the existence of the state of Israel." He said that he seeks "to change the point of view of young Israelis. To tell them a story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has not been told before."
He told The Times of Israel that making the film "changed me a lot [...]. It made me more desperate, more bleak. I saw from their eyes how our leaders really don’t want to solve this problem. They do not have the audacity, the temerity, the will, the courage that we need from a leader." He added, "I am not putting the blame only on the Israeli leaders. I think the Palestinian leaders suffer from the same horrible disease. I think that what [former Israeli foreign minister] Abba Eban said about how the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity applies to both sides."
The film consists of seven segments:
No Strategy, Just Tactics – covering the emerging role of the Shin Bet from the Six-Day War and the occupation of the Palestinian territories
Forget About Morality – about the Bus 300 affair
One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter – about the peace process following the Oslo Accords
Our Own Flesh and Blood – about Jewish terrorism, including the Jewish Undergroundand the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin
Victory Is to See You Suffer – about negotiations with the Palestinians during the Second Intifada
Collateral Damage – about the assassination of Yahya Ayyash and other prominent Hamas militants
The Old Man at the End of the Corridor – consisting of reflections on the activities of the Shin Bet and their ethical and strategic impact on the State of Israel
Though the film follows a loose chronological order, each of these segments also delves into topics such as the controversy surrounding collateral damage, the efficacy of torture, and the morality of targeted assassination.
The events described in the film are illustrated with archival footage and computer-generated imagery that brings historic photographs to life. An example of this is the computer-generated reenactment of the Bus 300 incident, based on photographs and eyewitness accounts. The film's computer animations were created by the French company Mac Guff.