MRR Review: "The Gatekeepers"

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A documentary featuring interviews with all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets.
3.5

MRR Review: "The Gatekeepers"

Rating: PG-13
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 1,, 2012
Directed by: Dror Moreh
Genre: Documentary

How secretive is Shin Bet, the Israeli covert operations and intelligence service? It doesn't have a website, usually does its recruiting by word of mouth, and periodically moves its headquarters from one undisclosed location to another to foil attackers. You would think that a former director of this shadowy secret soldiers society would be more than a little camera-shy. All of this makes it even more remarkable that the makers of "The Gatekeepers" managed to arrange sit-down interviews with not one, but an amazing six former heads of Israel's most feared and lethal service. Not only that, but the interviewees show an unexpected willingness to open up for the cameras, as if a career in the shadow world of spy games and extrajudicial killings makes one paradoxically willing to describe the exploits of that career in depth.

The documentary form of this film has taken couldn't possibly be more simple. Six former and current heads of Shin Bet are interviewed, and what amount to their war stories are parceled off into film segments addressing one issue or incident or another. Historical footage and computer reconstructions are used to clarify and recreate the narrative of the subject.

The story begins with Shin Bet's role in the Six-Day War, the intense beating Israel gave nearly all of its neighbors in 1967. In that conflict, Shin Bet played a key role in identifying and neutralizing enemy targets, from airfields in Syria to groups of Egyptian POWs in the Sinai. The incredible story of the group's involvement in that war is followed by the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Other segments look at the work of the Israeli secret service in the infamous 300 bus incident, the peace process, Oslo, and even Jewish terrorism and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

The restrictions of the chronological order are not tightly observed in this movie, and each segment addresses various themes, such as the use of torture, collateral damage, and the use of political murder to accomplish strategic objectives. Each of the former chiefs gets a chance to weigh in, and sometimes their opinions aren't quite the expected ones for retired assassin chieftains to hold.

Each of the individuals interviewed for this documentary has made a lifelong career out of the kinds of things that are cut out of most movies for being unrealistic. If it's possible to imagine the sort of person who gets the idea to plant explosives in a suspected terrorist's cell phone, get him on the line, and then blow his head off, then it's possible to wrap one's mind around the sort of raw material this film had to work with. Indeed, one of the film's subjects, Avraham Shalom, actually described his own country's military as "a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in WWII . . . Similar, not identical." Bear in mind, that isn't intended as a denunciation, and in the context of "The Gatekeepers," it really doesn't come off as controversial, either.

The only way this film could fail to deliver on its initial promise would be stage fright on the part of its subjects. For what should be the obvious reasons, retired nightstalkers could be expected to resist pushy film crews barging into their homes and asking nosey questions about various war crimes they may have committed during their careers. Director Dror Moreh deserves some kind of journalism award for getting out of his subjects' living rooms alive, let alone getting them to open up to him.

At times, it seems he might be holding back, whether out of concern for the interviewee, an unwillingness to air the dirtiest of Israel's laundry, or simple squeamishness is hard to tell, although he does manage to get a statement from the reluctant Shalom about what history remembers as the Kav 300 Affair. At first, Shalom-who really does have some of the best anecdotes in the film-resists talking about it, but he eventually lets loose with his version of the episode in which a team of Shin Bet commandos forced their way onto a hijacked bus, took two Arab prisoners, beat them severely, and finally executed them. The incident cost Shalom his job, although he and many others had all the legal pardons they could ask for before formal charges had even been laid.

Shin Bet is an inherently fascinating subject, and the men who have known it best are still alive. Apparently they're willing to talk, and "The Gatekeepers" exploits this willingness to rise to the level of not just another movie but an important historical document.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5