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Roger L. Simon

The Limits of Self-Criticism: Israel’s Oscar-Nominated The Gatekeepers

February 4th, 2013 - 12:00 am

I wasn’t going to see The Gatekeepers — the Israeli film nominated for this year’s best feature length documentary Oscar.  Its subject — a series of supposedly self-critical interviews with former chiefs of the Shin Bet (Israel’s FBI) concerning their experiences dealing with Palestinian terrorism — did not appeal to me.

I am not keen on self-flagellation and I suspected the film would be filled with liberal cant. Furthermore, and I know some people will find this insulting, I am not a fan of the documentary form in general. I think it is quite often dishonest, pretending to deliver facts, when, edited by biased humans, it is almost always a reflection of the views of the filmmakers and nothing more. The vaunted French cinéma verité or “direct cinema” is only the most salient example of the pretentiousness of the ideal of documentaries as being impartial and “documentary.”

Of course, I am over-stating a bit. I have admired many documentaries — of recent years Crumb and Hoop Dreams — but perhaps because they reflect my biases.  To be more precise, I don’t look to documentaries to reveal the truth. I find more truth in fictional films, because they are more honestly fictional.

Nevertheless, when, as an Academy voter, I received a DVD of The Gatekeepers in the mail (this year, for the first time, the Academy sent all nominated documentaries to its members), I could not resist slipping it into my player and watched with considerable interest.

Two things became immediately clear: The film, as I had heard, was well made.  Its director, Dror Moreh — with the exception of some needless computer razzle-dazzle — had done a fine job.  Secondly, it was filled with the predicted liberal cant, an example being how the film was divided into chapters with titles like “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

The problem was those titles were excerpted from the narratives of the individual Shin Bet directors, but stripped of their context, in some cases egregiously, and also of their irony.  Like many documentaries, The Gatekeepers is selective in its editing and its juxtapositions.

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