Gatekeepers

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin used to instruct his government to “fight terrorism as if there is no peace process, and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” Peace isn’t in the Shin Bet’s charter, so they are left with only the latter half of their instruction: to fight terrorism as if there is no peace process.

Just a handful of documentaries as vital and well-timed as Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, which will almost undoubtedly win the Academy Award, are released in a lifetime. The Shin Bet is a rough analogue of our CIA, and since the Six Day War, it has protected Israel from terrorist attacks launched from the Palestinian territories and elsewhere. Incredibly, Moreh managed to interview all six surviving heads of the Shin Bet, getting to even the types of things one would expect intelligence officers to keep to themselves.

Moreh was inspired to make The Gatekeepers after seeing Errol Morris’ equally outstanding (albeit less timely) documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Much like Morris’ documentary, The Gatekeepers features the sort of unfathomably high intelligences that can admit to murder, and then make you laugh in the next sentence – the kind who can write off war crimes as momentary lapses in judgment.

Avraham Shalom, who resigned as Head of the Shin Bet after ordering the murders, and subsequent cover-ups, of two Palestinian terrorists, only regrets the fact that people discovered what he did. Moreh asks him if his actions were moral, and he says, “In the war against terror, forget about morality. Show me morality in the terrorists.” In a way, he’s right. Every participant in the film did what he had to do. When things don’t work out and innocent people die, they wish they had shown more restraint; and when targets escape, they wish they had used more firepower. After they retire, they wish that no one else will ever have to make the kinds of decisions that they had to make.

It’s surprising how similar all of the gatekeepers’ hopes are. They all know that without a Palestinian state – a solution the Israeli government has little interest in reaching – we can expect bus bombings and targeted assassinations for the foreseeable future. Ami Ayalon describes meeting his counterparts in the reformed, nonviolent Palestine Liberation Organization as “see[ing] people whose desire for peace and quiet, for an agreement, is no less ambitious than yours.”

It is unusual and unexpected for a talking head documentary to be as emotionally effective as this one is. This is due in part to the CGI company Mac Guff, who created digital environments and recreations of photographs, walking us through the types of secret prisons into which cameras are not allowed – a technique similar in effect to Ari Folman’s rotoscoped Waltz With Bashir. But other images are equally effective without digital enhancement. It can be hard to imagine what a bus bombing is like until you see that all it leaves in its aftermath is a bloody, distended steel frame without panels, windows, or roof.

But it’s the heads of the Shin Bet themselves, in their humor and warmth and regret, who really make The Gatekeepers extraordinary. Avraham Shalom, who, you’ll recall, doesn’t regret ordering the murder of terrorists in his custody, describes his own country’s military as “a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II.” He goes on to say something that the United States, which does not negotiate with terrorists, could learn from: “Talk to everyone. We should talk to Hammas, to Ahmadinejad. It clears up misconceptions— you don’t eat glass, I don’t drink petrol.”