A nominee for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, which along with its unofficial companion piece 5 Broken Cameras lost out to crowd-pleaser Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers is a mesmerising work that probes one of the most powerful counter-terrorism outfits in the world, Israel’s Shin Bet.
With unprecedented, eye-raisingly open interviews with not one, not two, but six of the agency’s former heads, The Gatekeepers looks at the “unnatural” power wielded by these men, who have control of the fates of both the enemies of Israel and the innocents who might get caught in the crossfire.
Told mostly through use of the six extremely personal talking heads interviews, director Dror Moreh supplements these confessional narrations with expertly sourced news footage, photographs, military archive material and choice computerised graphics. As former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom discusses the bus hijacking that ended his career when he covered up the fates of the terrorists involved, Moreh presents us with an animation assembled with remarkable skill from the photographs taken by a journalist who had snuck onto the site. It creates the illusion of experiencing the intrigue of the period without embellishing or inventing for the sake of entertainment or keeping the audience’s attention.
As the story progresses in a relatively linear manner from the Six-Day War, we can see how both the Shin Bet develop their tactics as the terrorists they combat become more sophisticated, especially as the threat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation waned and was followed by the rise of Hamas and radical Islam. Moreh keeps his focus on the Shin Bet perpetually, studying their questionable successes and their very blatant failures, most notably the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, by a radical Israeli, in 1995. Bombs are dropped with deadly accuracy, but sometimes the terrorist target is on the wrong floor, and sometimes they hit the wrong building.
Like Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, The Gatekeepers presses its subjects hard, and Moreh is able to find more regret and doubt in the six gatekeepers than Morris ever could in Robert McNamara. Late in the film, as Shalom is asked about the morality of the choices he made during his stewardship of the Shin Bet, he begins his sigh-laced defence while awkwardly picking at his fingernails. Were he on trial no jury could ever acquit him.
“In the war on terror, forget about morality” we are told, and it is plain to see here. The six men we meet are haunted, but less by what they’ve done than by what they can never be sure of. Across their wearied faces we can read this doubt, as it becomes clearer that the attempts to quash terror only breed more of it. The cyclical nature of terror is seen as strikes against masterminds in Gaza level whole apartment blocks, radicalising civilians. An eye for an eye, for an eye, for an eye, for an eye…
Propelled forward by a murmuring score that sounds suitably out of an episode of counter-terrorism TV series 24, The Gatekeepers never stops asking the hard questions right to the very end. Former Shin Bet bosses attempt to defend violently shaking the heads of prisoners, even when it results in accidental death. A sequence showing real footage of Israeli soldiers raiding households of suspected terrorists – using head-mounted night-vision cameras with elliptical lenses that distort the image – has all the frantic ferocity lacking from the closing scenes of Zero Dark Thirty. This is the real deal; a study into the nature of terror and the demons it creates on both sides. The questions can never be answered, but they could not be better addressed.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)