TIFF Movie Review: THE GATEKEEPERS

A stark, clean documentary about the Shin Bet, the internal security agency of Israel. 

TIFF Movie Review: THE GATEKEEPERS

I have a great trick at parties. I know just how to shut people up. I tell them I'm a liberal, then I also tell them I support Israel. It's like when Kirk would kill a computer with paradoxes.

Of course, Israel has a great leftist tradition, even if it hasn't been quite so prevalent of late. But double-check any incendiary film about the current political situation (like this year's brilliant 5 Broken Cameras) and you'll see that most of them are at least co-produced by an Israeli company. As a friend of mine who lives over there once said, you want to find some anti-Israeli propaganda, just look for an Israeli film.

The latest in this line is The Gatekeepers, however I don't think it is fair to call this anti-Israeli. It is, rather, pro-peace.

Filmmaker Dror Moreh scored interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, which is basically Israel's CIA. The Shin Bet is so hardcore that no one other than the head can go on record as saying they work there. None have never been interviewed before.

In frank, bullshit-free discussions these men discuss the major events from 1967 to today. Every one of them seems hollowed-out by their experiences. They prove, over and over again, that the cycle of violence cannot be broken with more violence, and they have clear evidence that Israel puts itself in danger when they allow their policy to be dictated by their religious right.

These are hardcore guys, hawks. They collect the intelligence and based on their advice the army will send in a missile strike to eliminate known terrorists. They are aware of collateral damage and they are further aware that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. They are also Jews and, as is something of a cultural stereotype (a good one, I feel) they wrestle with every decision by asking "is it right?" (Oh, man, I can't wait for the Gatekeepers drinking game when you do a shot every time you hear the word "right," "moral" or "ethical." Bonus points when they precede a question mark.)

The film is stark and clean and uses a few nifty tricks to recreate scenes from photographs and old surveillance films. It also doesn't shy away from some of Israel's deepest shames - an underground terrorist group that nearly killed hundreds of Arabs and tried to destroy the Dome of the Rock, as well as the homegrown assassin who murdered the progressive Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin.

Concerning Rabin's death and the Palestinian uprising known as the Intifada, one of the interview subjects touched upon something fascinating. The Shin Bet is one of the most well-organized and well-funded intelligence gathering agencies in the world. They've saved numerous lives through their preemptive strikes. Yet even they couldn't predict these two history altering events.

In the case of the assassination, okay, it was just one man, but in the case of the Intifada it was a change in group behavior. It leads one to ask what the region would have been like if there was no Shin Bet at all.

The left wing response, and it is one that some of the heads share, is that the creation of the organization led to its need. The intense security measures became a self-fulfilling prophesy, perpetuating the terrorism industry. And the victories only made matters worse.

The old enemy was the PLO/Fatah, led by Yassir Arafat. For years he advocated terrorism but, in time, and after enough beatdowns by Israel, he renounced this view, which led to the Oslo Accords. His group was political (originally quasi-Marxist) but once his group began to play ball there were enough still angry because of past Israeli retaliations that two new groups of thugs were able to capitalize on this thirst for revenge under the umbrella of holy war. Thus, the religious terrorism groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, using tales of martyrdom and heavenly virgins, were able to find their suicide bombers, which ultimately made the situation much worse.

There is one major failure of The Gatekeepers as it stands right now. No doubt Moreh had more than the domestic audience in mind, yet it overestimates some audiences. The movie drops you right in to 1967's Six Day War with virtually no context of why Israel was forced to fight in 1967 and occupy the disputed territories in the first place. In fact, there's no discussion of why Israel was created. For a movie like this, one that's going to break down the situation to people who maybe don't really know why things are so screwed up over there, it couldn't hurt.

Certainly there are numerous schools of these questions, but an opening more detailed than "Israel annexed the West Bank and Gaza" is absolutely essential. It also wouldn't hurt to give an introduction to some of the political players in the field. Not many young Americans will know where to place Begin or Golda on a left to right graph, if they even know who those names are. A joke about seeing Sheik Yassin run doesn't mean much if you don't know that one of the spiritual late spiritual leaders of Hamas was in a wheelchair.

Dumbing the film down a bit to help get a wider audience is a trade definitely worth making. It's pretty bleak over there right now, with most people glumly aware that a new war is just a few missteps away. There are fringe groups on both sides that have too much clout and no one is talking to anyone. The closing argument that the oldest of the former chiefs makes is a call to talk, talk to even the worst bloodthirsty enemy. "Just to show that he doesn't eat glass and you don't drink petrol."

I agree. I agree because there are no other options, but here's where I also tend to get a little defensive. The other side so rarely offers up a leader who is interested in talking. Rather than getting into names (and name-calling) I'll just ask, why is it only Israel who makes films like this? Why is there no film from Hamas asking "is it right?" None exists. I know, I've looked.

For people fascinated with Middle Eastern politics The Gatekeepers is like all three Hobbit films being released at once in 96 fps. Forget the important lessons for a minute, there are just some amazing secret stories that are told. Exploding cell phones are just the beginning.

The interview subjects are people who clearly don't care whose feathers they ruffle and are quite willing to point the finger at politicians. What's so striking - and different from America - is how these men retired from the field are now agents of the left, advocating peace and arguing that their life's work may have been detrimental to the country and citizens they love.

Jordan Hoffman's photo About the Author: Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and StarTrek.com.
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