I’m just back from Cinematheque Tel Aviv where I saw Dror Moreh’s brilliant new documentary, The Gatekeepers.
The film did the film festival circuit in North America and Europe at the end of 2012, and you’ll likely be able to see it at a theater/cinema near you over the next few months. Do! Along with the unspeakably moving and equally brilliant film Five Broken Cameras (by Palestinian Emad Bernad & Israeli Guy Davidi), The Gatekeepers has been nominated for the 2013 Best Documentary Feature Oscar Award. If it results in gold, or even if it doesn’t, the film is a victory and it has the potential to change how Israeli’s and Israel’s supporters see the occupation. The single most important thing about this film – indeed both films – is that it demonstrates that Occupation has a cost beyond that which can be calculated, and beyond which can be considered humane. It asks the viewer, the coloniser, the occupier, the supporter, the status-quo enthusiast to reconsider Occupation.
It has been getting a lot of attention here in Israel, and has sparked conversations on both the left and right of the political spectrum. Having just witnessed it myself, it’s not difficult to see why the film is causing such a sensation here. The Gatekeepers are the former heads of Shin Bet (Israel’s secret service and a cherished and revered part of Israeli society), and Moreh has managed to do what no other film-maker has ever done before: he persuaded six of these Gatekeepers to be spill their hearts in front of a camera. No Israeli can reasonably write the film off as Palestinian propaganda, or accuse these men of being disgruntled marginal figures, and this is the power of Israeli film when it critiques the Occupation, especially when it does so from the belly of the beast, so to speak. The topics covered range from 1948 to the present, and include insights into what famous leftist Historian Yeshayahu Leibowitz in 1948 called the “Shabak state” – Shabak being the Hebrew for Shin Bet. We glean much from the rich accounts that these six figures provide: everything from details about how the Shin Bet track and kill suspected terrorists, to frank admissions from one of the men that the work of their own intelligence agency is not so dissimilar from a form of terrorism itself. These are remarkably introspective men, at least in retrospect. No doubt this will lead many to conclude that it is too little too late from the men who were in charge of one of the worlds largest and most sinister intelligence agencies and there is certainly these sense in which they might be said to be ‘shooting and crying’, but I’ll leave you make your own conclusions.
The style owes much to Erroll Morris’ Fog of War, and his famous interview with Robert McNamara. The Gatekeepers stare frankly – and we suppose honestly – into the camera, their words spliced through with poignant archival footage that speaks to the event or issue they are talking about. The effect is powerful, which I why I use the verb to ‘witness’ rather than to ‘watch’; because I don’t believe that one can merely and passively watch this film – I certainly couldn’t, anyway. The details divulged, and the footage showed are nothing less than monumental: the men narrate how the inner apparatus of this machine works. One even speaks of the ‘banality of evil’ (a la Hannah Arendt), and another of how Israel’s approach was, for many years “no strategy, and all tactics”, by which he meant short sighted and without real aim. In one of the more emotional parts of what is a very difficult film, one of the men tells of how he gave the orders to ‘finish off’ two Palestinian terrorists who had been badly beaten up by the Israeli military because he did not want to see ‘live terrorists in court’. When pushed on the issue he admitted that there was no morality to such things, ‘forget morality’, he says.
What are we to make of such films? At one level the Gatekeepers is an indictment of the Shin Bet itself, and coming from some of Israel’s most revered living figures, their story packs a fair punch. People left the theater looking horrified, but at least those who have witnessed it cannot say “I didn’t know”. At once I want to ask these people whether they thought the Shin Bet were a band of angels, but on the other I understand that what was revealed to them went way beyond the imagination of even the most cynical Israelis I have met. One of the key themes which emerges from the film is that of complexity and the ‘no easy answers’ kind of nuance that we are allegedly seeing with series like Homeland and films like Zero Dark Thirty. I’d like to take up the question of ‘nuance’ in another post, but want to say for now that (for me) this film had nuance while also being categorical. It is nuanced in as much as we are left wondering whether these men – men who oversaw massive killing operations and untold incarcerations – are victims or perpetrators, angels or demons , but categorical inasmuch as the film clearly shows a failure on behalf of Israel’s leadership; failure to reach peace, failure to be sincere, and failure to listen to what these men were telling them. But then I wonder if they pass on the buck too easily to the Israeli leadership as a way of deflecting responsibility for their own actions.
One thing is for sure is that this is an important film, and more for Israeli’s than anybody else. When we put together some of the recent films made about the conflict – both Palestinian and Israeli – I think we are seeing a move in the right direction toward well-made films that challenge the the legitimacy of the occupation, and do so in sophisticated and clever ways. Emotion and affect, of course, remain important resources, but when film-makers tap into our emotions insidiously, slowly and carefully – rather than brazenly, overtly and without what some would call ‘taste and decency’ – the effect can be more (and not less) powerful.
Film list to follow…