Empyrrhic Evidence: “The Gatekeepers,” directed by Dror Moreh

There is an unwritten law in documentary filmmaking that says access is 90% of the battle. Using that measure, Israeli director Dror Moreh won an especially significant battle even before he began shooting. He convinced six of the former heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, to talk in detail about their experiences. Shin Bet is known for its secrecy (the name means “the unseen shield” and the motto of the organization is “Defender that shall not be seen”), so the appearance of these six men on camera is itself an unprecedented event. But beyond physical presence, what makes their involvement so remarkable is the revelatory nature of what they say over the course of this 138-minute-long documentary. The Gatekeepers tells us more than we ever thought we’d know about the operations of a highly sophisticated security organization and, in the process, reveals a good deal about the workings of the Israeli government.

There is good reason to pay attention to these men. Taken together, they ran Shin Bet for three decades, from 1981 with the appointment of Avraham Shalom, to 2011 when Yuval Diskin stepped down after seven years. This is an eventful period in Israel’s history; it covers two intifadas, the collapse of the Oslo Accords, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a dramatic increase in settlement expansion, the introduction of widespread suicide bombing by terrorists and the use of targeted assassinations by the Israeli military.

It is easy to play armchair analyst in solving the problems created by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, following in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. Solutions are regularly proposed by individuals and groups that have a vested interest in what occurs in the region; tactical operations are proposed and moral positions are staked out. But what is especially significant about the observations made by these six men is their level of credibility. Because the head of Shin Bet reports directly to the Prime Minister, the agency has been involved in every national security decision made in Israel since 1967. As the film makes clear, the government and Shin Bet’s leadership didn’t always see things in the same way, and one of the currents moving just below the surface of the documentary is the recognition that government and the politicians who are its operatives are not entirely reliable. Politicians, we are told, prefer binary options and as one Shin Bet head says, “I find myself in situations that are different shades of grey.”

The Gatekeepers takes its content from the collective perspective of the former heads. The film is divided into seven chapters (Forget About Morality, One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter, Victory is to See You Suffer, etc.), all of which come out of a comment made by one head, and each of which contributes to Moreh’s overall strategy. His strategy is to represent the complexity of the context in which Shin Bet operates, and to see that complexity as having pragmatic and moral equivalence in the situation in which the country itself exists. Israel is Shin Bet’s mirror and Shin Bet mirrors Israel.

The Gatekeepers is not about the romance of the intelligence and security world. These men are not James Bond. Throughout the film, they are candid in their descriptions of the ethical and tactical problems with which they dealt on an ongoing basis: who to interrogate; what methods to use in that interrogation; who to follow; who to get intelligence from; who to assassinate, when and in what way; what size should the bomb be to kill the intended target and still do the least collateral damage? These are not the kind of decisions most people are asked to make in the course of their daily work.

Nor are they Jason Bourne. While they may have had serious disagreements with certain politicians, they didn’t go rogue, and they have suffered no memory loss. Each recalls with absolute clarity the operations that were successful, and each is haunted by those that weren’t. You can read the anguish on their faces. Yuval Diskin, a 33-year veteran of Shin Bet, says the lowest point in the agency’s history came after a series of suicide bombings in the mid 1990s–including the Beit Lid Junction and the Bus 18 in Jerusalem. “Every time there was an explosion,” he says, “we had a horrible sense of failure, of disappointment.” But the man whose face registers the most conflict is Carmi Gillon, Shin Bet’s director when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli student. Gillon was in Paris when the Prime Minister was shot, and on the four-hour flight back to Tel Aviv was able to “feel in my heart what I knew in my head, to absorb the loss of a man who really was extraordinary.” For Yaakov Peri, “Rabin’s assassination shattered all hope. It showed very clearly that some punk of an assassin with a pistol that could barely shoot, could eliminate hope, and an entire peace process. He could change everything.”

Moreh is clearly a persuasive casting director but he is also a talented filmmaker with an impeccable sense of how to keep his film moving in ways that maximize the import of what is being said. His use of documentary footage, whether from photographic archives or from more recent broadcast archives, is effectively understated. He is equally resourceful in using still images. For the Bus 300 hijacking in 1984 that led to the murder of two captured terrorists and, ultimately, the resignation of Avraham Shalom, he had access to only four black-and-white photographs. To augment these images, he employed his “virtual cameraman,” a technique that initially allows a still image to be used as a way of creating movement, and subsequently to shift back and forth between the real and the virtual. The restraint with which he uses all his virtual interventions–from the filing cabinet room where Shin Bet keeps its voluminous records on terrorists to the Jerusalem prison and interrogation facility–is admirable. His various film languages are held in perfect balance and remain in service to the interviews that provide the film’s real content.

Moreh’s general strategy for off-camera sequences, other than those that are documentary, is to place the viewer in the operations room, in the chair of the Shin Bet director. The POV is always focused through the minimal four-cornered geometry of a sighting mechanism. We are looking at potential targets from a perspective high above the intended victim, who has no idea he is being monitored. For the first four minutes of the film, even before the title credits come up, we toggle back and forth, watching a white van moving innocuously along a road, until it suddenly explodes.

Moreh’s sense of duration and timing is flawless. In the video footage he uses to show the beginning of the first intifada in 1987, he begins with a rooftop shot of the West Bank, then cuts to an aerial shot of a lone Palestinian woman throwing stones and gradually increases the activity until we are seeing and hearing the full scope of the uprising. When he follows an Israel Defense Forces raid on Palestinian businesses and homes, the two-and-a-half minute long sequence moves at such a dizzying pace that when it is over, you feel breathless and frightened. These are the moments that Yaakov Peri says are “etched deep inside you,” the kind of incident that lead Carmi Gillon to say, “We are making the lives of millions unbearable. It kills me.”

You can’t have been the head of Shin Bet and not be a pragmatist. As a result, their prognosis will not be comforting; the glasses they see their country through are less rose-coloured than blood-dimmed. Gillon predicts there will be another settler-executed assassination when Israel withdraws from the West Bank; Shalom says, “the future is bleak. It’s dark.” Less dark is what a film like The Gatekeepers tells us about the possibility of change. If, over the course of their professional experience as soldiers and intelligence experts, they can come individually to the conclusion that the only way for Israel to achieve any real security is through a two-state solution, then it’s conceivable that the politicians, on both sides, might come to think the same way. It goes beyond the opportunity for reflection that comes with retirement (“when you retire you become a bit of a leftist,” Peri says ironically), and resides in a strategy of mutual self-interest.
Ami Ayalon came to understand the concept from working with Palestinian security forces. They tell him they’re cooperating in arresting Hamas terrorists inside Gaza and the West Bank, not because they are agents for Israel. Their only consideration is the possibility that controlling terrorism will result, ultimately, in the existence of their own state.

Clearly, continuing in its current direction is not in the best interests of Israel. Neither is an escalation of the military’s presence in the occupied territories or the breakdown of talks with whatever group claims to represent the Palestinians. “You can’t make peace using military means,” says Avi Dichter. “It has to be based on a system of trust.” Avraham Shalom, the hardest-liner of them all, advocates the most inclusive strategy for negotiating. “It’s a trait of a professional intelligence operative to talk to everyone. Things get clarified. I see you don’t eat glass. He sees I don’t drink petrol.”

The idea that a complex moral, and practical reality can be seen clearly is one of the assumptions that underlies The Gatekeepers. Near the end of the film, Ami Ayalon refers to “the tragedy of Israel’s public security debate,” a failure that comes from not recognizing that, even though his country is winning every battle it fights, it is still losing the war. Dror Moreh’s superlative documentary provides evidence of this pyrrhic conundrum. All six men who talk to him have been profoundly changed in the course of serving their country in extraordinary circumstances, just as they have changed it. The problems they outline and the solution they give voice to is a way of unlatching a gate. Now others have to push it open.

Volume 32, Number 1: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #125, published March 2013.

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