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Enemy at the Gates

To reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a single movie would seem a shallow project.  There was too much blood spilled, and too many small details in a conflict that has raged over 65 years. A filmmaker needs to concentrate on one aspect of it, be wary of generalizations, and try to be as honest as possible by letting the events speak for themselves. Of course, a film is in essence a point of view, and can’t be made without the personal biases of its creator.

The Gatekeepers, an Oscar-nominated documentary by Dror Moreh, uses a new tack to approach the conflict, one that has been viewed so many times previously. The film is mostly a set of spliced-together interviews with six surviving heads of the Shin Bet, or Israeli secret police, also known as Shabak. The organization deals with counter-terrorism and internal security, though it also addresses some military matters. But here the Shin Bet isn’t a topic for military questions; it is used as a springboard for the moral dilemmas that arise in the Israeli government’s quest to protect Israeli citizens. The heads of the Shin Bet faced thorny questions almost every day of their tenures. What are the thought processes of those protecting the Jewish homeland when surgically eliminating Palestinian terrorists who threaten national security? How does one calculate what ratio of military to civilian fatalities in Gaza is acceptable? And what is it like to hold someone’s life in your hands with the simple push of a computer keystroke?

The Shin Bet’s leader is the only member of the service whose identity is known to the public. (So says a title card of the film, one of many helpful grains of information gracing the spaces between interviews.) The organization’s necessary secrecy makes it an autonomous governmental branch, and, according to those interviewed here, that isolation often makes it a scapegoat for the mishaps of the more public sections of the government. That blame game is the lifeblood of political intrigue, which is here uncovered by the directors themselves. That the heads of the Shin Bet blame themselves as much as others in these juicy tales is a testament to the equanimity of the speakers. The assassination of prime-minister Yitzchak Rabin—one of the worst lapses in security in the Shin Bet’s history—is told with touching humility and pain by the then-head of the bureau.

In fact, most of the men interviewed here seem eminently human, not like a pack of military professionals, but like fathers and family men (especially Avraham Shalom, head of the Shin Bet from 1981-86, a picture of a grandfather in suspenders and plaid). If not for the title cards, these men, once iconic to Israeli military life, would look and sound just like any other balding middle aged men or senior citizens. And the director accordingly refrains from approaching them with the awe that they once commanded—he’s willing to question and attack them when answers become vague. In one interview, Mr. Moreh starts a minor argument with his subject that ricochets back and forth from behind and in front of the camera. The military men once commanded respect, but they are taken to task for mistakes they’ve committed.

Mr. Moreh’s views on Palestine are hard to glean from the film, which is a good thing. His questions, though sometimes ideologically motivated, seem rooted in a genuine desire to understand.

Perhaps the only way we can understand his views is based on the views of his subjects. “I think, after retiring from this job, you become a bit of a leftist,” says Yaakov Peri, who headed the Shin Bet between 1988 and 1994. Mr. Peri simply seems tired with the violence of terrorism’s status quo, an inability to constantly face the terrors of Israeli daily life that pushes him to be more conciliatory than he’d normally allow. What makes opinions like these acceptable in the movie, and by that I mean acceptable to those from the left and right, is that his view is simply an opinion, and indeed, the film claims no monopoly on the truth by simply stating the convictions of people formerly in power.

Which is not to say that the film is perfectly even-handed. Mr. Moreh’s documentary style lends the film an omniscient feeling (he is never seen, and is heard only when prompting his subjects) and yet in the scenes interspersed throughout the movie—a digitally recreated version of a terrorist capture, a clump of archival footage from the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin—inject a subtle cynicism in the storytelling. The archival footage is annotated and the sound is edited to elicit stronger reactions from the audience. The Shin Bet’s file cabinets are shown in a dark, prison-like chamber colored with vaguely sinister greenish blacks, but if no one has ever seen the Shin Bet’s internal files, it smacks of exploitation to design them as if in an interrogation cell. Even the sub-titles sometimes flatten the interviewee’s prose, thought that is perhaps a translators problem and a necessary loss with translation.

No doubt the making of this film was a logistical miracle, and the sheer novelty of speaking to these once powerful heads of spooks makes up for any slight inconsistencies in the telling. It’s not that the film has the cinematic qualities and perfect direction (the ending is harshly abrupt, for one thing). It’s the opportunity we’re given, the ability to penetrate unsettlingly into the issues that we have no real connection with but that we’ve heard so much about. The Gatekeepers is an insider portrait of one of Israel’s most mysterious departments, a portrait painted with somber colors, but with strong and confident brushstrokes.