Sun 10 Feb 2013
Israelis abide to very few myths. In a young country that is a melting pot of people coming from almost one hundred different countries, where a majority of the population is either born some other place or belong to the second generation of children of immigrant parents, what unites even more than the shared traditions (respected in various manners and to very different levels of obedience) or the common history which is for many yet to be learned (if not to be written) are above all the permanent external menaces perceived in many moments, rightly or wrongly, as existential dangers. In such moments the trust of the nation is not that much focused on politicians but on the people who defend the country, some with the arms in hands, other in wars that are more secret than visible. The heads of the military and the heads of the security services – the legendary spy agency Mossad and the internal Security Service ‘Shin-Beth’ as it is called in this film are living legends for most of the Israelis. Until recently some of them were known only by their initials as long as they lived and were active. Their opinions count, and when they converge, as seems up to a certain extent to be the case in this film, people listen. The first major achievement of director Dror Moreh and the team that made this film is to have brought together six of The Gatekeepers, the former heads of the internal security service of Israel and make them talk about the history of the service, the war on terrorism, the relations with the Palestinian neighbors of Israel, the situation of Israel today, and the perspective ahead. The convergent views of these men should worry all Israelis who have seen or will see the film.
There is a lot of good and interesting information that is presented in this film, but of course, not all history and the whole complexity of the conflict could have been brought on screen in a documentary that lasts about 90 minutes. Lacking facts will certainly expose the film to critics from all directions, but these critics would be to some extent unfair. In fact for the Israeli audiences there is nothing completely new here, investigative reporting in the Israeli press, TV documentary movies, and books written by political experts and historians have exposed sometimes in much more details different aspects of the stories presented in this film. What is new and different is the candid manner the makers of the movie succeed to make the six different personalities who successively lead the service talk about the events that took place in the last 45 years, their meaning, their implications. Attentive spectators who also know the differences between the views and positions of the six leaders will perceive also the differences between their opinions and their approaches into presenting the facts, but overall a fascinating perspective is built by getting together their testimonies and the history of the area in the period between the Six Days War and today, the initial euphoria, the lost opportunities, the achievements and the mistakes in the fight against terror, the moral dilemmas and the price of the occupation, the human risks and morality of lack of morality of some of the methods – all come together in a perspective which is amplified by the coherent message delivered by each one of the speakers. If you search for information in this film you will not get the whole picture, and I am quite sure that the film will be much better understood from this point of view by Israelis than by audiences abroad. If you look for the historic trends and for indications about things to come, it’s mandatory viewing, and it does not look like good news, but rather like a very strong warning signal from people who were in the middle of the policy making and security actions of Israel.
I believe that this film should be seen by as many people as possible and debated in Israel. Best would be probably a screening on prime time TV, but I am not optimistic about this happening soon as prime time TV in Israel seems to be almost fully booked by (i)reality shows. At least, by now The Gatekeepers is distributed commercially and the audiences seem to be interested. However, the more echoes may come from abroad, especially as the film is a candidate for the Oscar in the documentary category, certainly if it also wins the award. The editing of the film is smart, the combination between historical footage and computerized effects puts even more life into the illustrations, and the permanent images of the big screens as a symbol of the technology used to permanently supervise the territories is haunting. I have seen however much more sophisticated technical means put at work in documentaries. ‘The Gatekeepers’ is eventually a talking heads movie and is important because of the stories that the talking heads tell and the message that they deliver.