Documentaries, when they do the right things, have become an increasingly valuable forum for expanding our understanding of the world, dealing with historical forces and complexities, and gaining some clarity in an age of diminishing returns and journalistic sound bites sans context. To those ends, Dror Moreh’s fascinating documentary The Gatekeepers achieves a kind of multiple threat/reward status. On the macro level, we get an overview, albeit through a selective lens, of the terror-strewn Israeli-Palestinian conflict and occupation that some decry as a modern-day apartheid situation. More specifically, though, the film takes an unusually close-up look at the Israeli secret service known as Shin Bet, straight from those who know and those who up until now have remained mum.
Former directors of the organization are talking heads whose frank and revealing testimonies — about the nasty details on the ground of anti-terrorist operations and larger moral and philosophical issues about their past work — provide the foundation around which the film is built and based, with some notably effective visual help from archival footage and computer animation. In the main, these former “gatekeeper” bosses pose questions about the tactics and life-or-death decisions involved in actions. They speak of the moral “shades of gray” and the “do it/don’t do it” struggle over whether to use long-distance bombing strategies for killing targets, with the understanding that collateral damage could be involved.
In the course of Moreh’s storytelling process, we are led through historical touchstones in Israeli history: 1967’s Six-Day War; the beginnings of terrorist tactics, a fairly recent phenomenon in the world; the Bill Clinton–brokered Oslo Accords; Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and the subsequent upheavals. Wheels of vengeance have, history has shown, perpetuated the cycles of violence in this still-volatile zone, where sophisticated Israeli firepower and sometimes excessive muscle-wielding has led to the scourge of suicide bombers using whatever means necessary to exact what is perceived as justified revenge against a Goliath oppressor. As one former Shin Bet director points out, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Later, another makes the telling point, “We win every battle but lose the war.”
To its credit, The Gatekeepers doesn’t pretend to have answers or political messages to drive home, at least in any didactic or explicit way. Instead, it paints a fairly broad picture of the ugly story still unfolding and teaches us about a subject formerly kept outside the open public forum. Perhaps most importantly, it asks some pressing, provocative questions, as a good documentary should.