Review: The Gatekeepers

Some deeply sinister forces are at work in The Gatekeepers.

The Gatekeepers
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Some deeply sinister forces are at work in The Gatekeepers. Dror Moreh’s documentary operates through access—specifically, access to Israeli intelligence operatives who served as the heads of Shin Bet, the nation’s internal security service. Founded in 1949, shortly after the Israeli declaration of independence, Shin Bet has been a prime mover in Israel’s relations with, and maneuvers against, Palestine. That one of the organization’s departments is dedicated to “non-Arab affairs” speaks to how central Palestinian counter-espionage operations, especially in Gaza and the West Bank, are to Shin Bet’s mandate: a negative fact being positively registered, inclusion by omission.

In Hebrew, Shin Bet’s name translates as the “defender that shall not be seen.” The Gatekeepers offers the opportunity to finally see these unseen “defenders,” and to watch Moreh lightly toast their collective feet over the flames. This event alone constitutes the film’s premise. There’s no real narrative here, only disclosure. Moreh moves through various high-profile Shin Bet operations, offering the top brass a chance to explain themselves. There’s the 1984 Bus 300 affair, in which Israeli operatives used rocks to bludgeon two Arab bus hijackers to death, an event censored from the national press that eventually leaked into the global media, resulting in an outcry (both foreign and domestic) against Shin Bet’s “tactics.” There’s also the 1995 shooting of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which Shin Bet failed to stop despite early identification of the would-be gunman.

Moreh looks at targeted assassinations, a radical Israeli plot to bomb the Dome of the Rock to kick-start an apocalyptic end-times war with the Arab world, and a cellphone bomb plot that recalls the C.I.A.’s wacky (and failed) schemes against Castro during the Eisenhower administration. The picture of Shin Bet that emerges is one of an organization equally brutal and bungling, both contributing and responding to Israel’s crises with Palestine (and the Arab world more generally) in a manner that’s equally brutal and bungling.

“Politicians prefer binary options,” offers one of the Shin Bet heads early in the film, a bit of buck-passing that typifies their attempts at on-camera absolution. Later, another smirks and says that as he grew older, and retired from the counter-terrorism game, his allegiances softened and he became a “leftist.” What a luxury! Moreh attempts to complicate the morals of Shin Bet procedures. But it’s useless. As prominently figured former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom puts it in the film, “In the war against terror, there is no morality.” It’s hard to ensnare someone who believes this.

The Gatekeepers recalls Errol Morris’s Abu Ghraib exposé, Standard Operating Procedure, both in its head-on interviews and extravagant reenactments. Morris’s film worked in part because the rank-and-file U.S. military police questioned managed to incriminate themselves. Moreh’s not so lucky. As skilled an interviewer and documentarian as he may be, he’s squaring off against intelligence officers who didn’t just execute systematic torture, abuse, and other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but devised them. And even when the so-called Gatekeepers offer up damning testimony against their organization, there’s no real threat that they’ll ever be held accountable for it. Rather, their willful participation in this documentary seems to function as a form of tacit forgiveness, rendering all the un-redacted revelations contained within doubly disquieting.

 Cast: Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin  Director: Dror Moreh  Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics  Running Time: 95 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2012  Buy: Video

John Semley

John Semley is a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, The A.V. Club, Salon, and more. He is the author of This Is a Book About Kids in the Hall.

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