The Academy Award nominated The Gatekeepers  (שומרי הסף) isn’t remarkable as a documentary because it asks hard questions of it’s subjects. It’s remarkable because it gets the answers from men who spent most of their careers not answering to anyone but themselves.
The men in question are former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s behind-the-scenes security organization tasked with policing the Palestinian territories, whose motto “Defender that shall not be seen” is picked apart piece by piece. Some might expect an Israeli film would lionize these men as heroes, fighting a noble war against Israel’s endless enemies, but the filmmakers have done an excellent job of posing questions which leave no room for bullshit and politicizing. The former heads (Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov peri, Carmi Gillon and Avi Dichter) are candid in their responses to filmmaker Dror Moreh‘s questions; most of them strive to be objective in the retelling of their respective tales. From former heads of an agency that operates in secrecy, the effect is startling.
The film takes the former heads back to the Six-Day War and forward through the Shin Bet’s history, examining both it’s general operations and specific incidents that have led to it’s continued infamy; The Kav 300 affair, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and the assassination of Hamas bombmaker Yahya Ayyash are all given sizable screen time. With each new tale of lies, murder and what some might call heroism, the men being interview become more open, angry and wistful.
“No strategy, just tactics” seems to be Shin Bet’s unofficial motto. The film’s subjects freely admit they have no idea how to play the long game of Israeli/Palestinian relations, and that they are winning the battles but loosing the war. But how do you win against an enemy who seemingly can’t be cowed by the deaths of citizen, leaders, and even children. One former Shin Bet head explains that years of Palestinian hatred and violence against Israel is merely recompense for the perceived subjugation of the surrounding territories. Their goal? To get Israel to catch up to their own misery. The Head quotes one Palestinian as saying that “Victory is to see you suffer.”
For better or worse, The Gatekeepers will be important to a number of people for a number of reasons. Some describe the film as airing Israel’s “dirty laundry“, making relevant art at the expense of Israel’s international reputation, while thers are just glad that for the first time in years, Israel has a real chance at taking home an Oscar for feature-length documentary (another Israeli film, 5 Broken Cameras, is also nominated). The ADL’s very special head Abe Foxman has already declared the film a “piece of propaganda”, and should the film win the Academy Award, any controversy over both the message, and methodology of the film, is sure to intensify. Whatever the political or cultural repercussions of the film may be, though, The Gatekeepers presents a riveting look at men who spent their careers operating so far outside the law that they have become used to the banality of evil. What is one murder, two murders, ten civilian causalities in the ongoing struggle to protect Israeli lives and the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state? These six men profiled all believe in their cause, but by the film’s end most of them agree that continued violence is not the answer. Avraham Shalom, who was forced to retire following his involvement in the Kav 300 affair, in which Shin Bet agents falsified testimony following the post-capture executions of two bus-hijackers, insists that talking is the only way to make any difference.
It doesn’t matter how much they hate us, he implores. We must keep talking, keep teaching, keep trying to make things better.
Watch the trailer, below: