The Limits of Self-Criticism: Israel's Oscar-Nominated The Gatekeepers
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.
That lack of context tarnished the film for me. Despite being putatively about terrorism, nowhere was the Palestinian terrorist in view (other than news footage). Everything was seen from an Israeli perspective, but a skewed one suffused with regrets for actions that were almost always unavoidable.
Because of this, my view of The Gatekeepers is probably one hundred and eighty degrees from what the filmmaker intended. What I saw in the movie were six incredible men -- the Shin Bet directors -- who grappled with impossible circumstances over several decades in pretty close to the most honorable way imaginable. I saw some moments when they made inevitable mistakes, but I never saw them acting immorally. Indeed, they bent over backwards to avoid collateral damage when they could. A documentary that was supposed to be critical, or at least questioning, of Israel was, for me, in the end wildly complimentary.
Israel should be proud. Not only is it unimaginable that Arab culture would produce six security leaders willing to speak honestly of their anguish in administering justice while saving lives -- that’s obvious -- but I don’t know of any Western country, American or European, where interviews like this would likely occur, at least with such frequency. All six living Shin Bet directors appear in this film. They reveal themselves to be truly extraordinary men. (I realize Israel has also produced a number of corrupt politicians. So it goes.)
When I was young, I remember talk about Israel being a “light unto the nations.” That hasn’t happened -- largely because that is impossible, but also because if it were, no one would listen. Indeed, such a laudable achievement would undoubtedly be hated.
Still Israel is an incredibly vibrant democracy, one of the world leaders in high tech and also now in the cinema. It’s predictable that much of that cinema is self-critical. But self-criticism can only go so far. Sometimes, as in this film, it may even turn upon itself.
I predict that reactions to The Gatekeepers will for the most part be a political Rorschach test. Those who see Israel as the good guys, as I do, will love the ornery old Shin Bet guys and be glad to have spent time with them; those who see her as the enemy will look on them as hangmen. Again, so it goes.