The Gatekeepers — currently Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary, opening February 1 in New York and Los Angeles — is a movie that could only have been made in Israel.
Six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli agency dealing with domestic terrorism, each spent 12-15 hours in filmed conversations with Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, who spliced excerpts into a 97-minute film dramatized with archival footage and animated recreations. At the end, Moreh shows some of the “gatekeepers” saying Israel is winning battles but losing the war; that the use of force can never be wholly successful and eventually degrades those who use it; and that Israel is in danger of becoming “a Shin Bet state.”
It is a well-made, thought-provoking film, but the conclusions in the last two minutes are not entirely supported by the 95 minutes that precede them. In significant ways, they are in fact contradicted by at least one of the “gatekeepers” — Avi Dichter, who served under Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon from 2000 to 2005. Dichter summarizes Moreh’s apparent position: if we use force against the Palestinians, they will use force against us; and if we stop using force, they will stop using force. Dichter tells him the first part of the equation is true, but that the second is not.
In another exchange, recounted by Moreh at a recent screening, Dichter recalled receiving a 5 a.m. call with intelligence that a terrorist would bomb a bus later that morning, while Israelis were commuting; someone was found who fit the description of an alleged accomplice, but he was unwilling to talk; you have two hours, Dichter said, to find a person on his way to perpetrate a mass murder. So what do you do? At the screening, Moreh did not hazard an answer; and the non-response reflects the lack of easy answers to the issues in the film.
The film’s press materials claim that “for the first time ever,” the former Shin Bet heads are sharing their insights publicly, and Moreh says he was “startled” they agreed to talk to him. But in fact they have spoken publicly before — in a two-hour joint interview in 2003, published at the time in Israel’s largest newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, in which the “gatekeepers” expressed the same conclusions. The 2003 interview was instrumental in influencing Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza — with results different from those confidently predicted at the time. But the 2003 interview goes unmentioned and unaddressed in the The Gatekeepers.
As a result, while the film raises important questions, it also withholds important information needed to answer them. The film uses allegedly “first time ever” interviews to push the same points that were pushed back in 2003 by the same people, which produced disastrous results. A better film would have explored why things failed then, and why they have failed since, rather than simply push the same points again as if they had not already been given a real-life test.