Many documentaries with controversial elements are easy to dismiss. Rightwing commentators in the U.S. have never found it particularly difficult to ridicule the work of Michael Moore, for instance, since his films are strictly editorialized. They feature real people and are skillfully assembled, but in the end they are opinions on gun control, capitalism, health care and so on. Opinions and how they are presented can always be attacked. But here’s an example of a documentary that isn’t as easily dismissed.
After making a movie about former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, director Dror Moreh realized what kind of power Shin Bet wielded. This branch of the Israeli security services deals primarily with the nation’s internal security issues, while Mossad is responsible for foreign missions. These so-called “gatekeepers” deserved some attention of their own. Moreh started approaching the former heads of Shin Bet and was surprised to learn that they were more willing to talk about the past than he had thought.
In the end, he gathered six of them, including (years as Director of Shin Bet in parenthesis): Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1995-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2005-2011).
Divided into seven chapters
Together, these men are an important part of Israeli history since the Six-Day War in 1967, the one that ended with Israel controlling the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. They have memories, information and opinions on critical historical events and the filmmakers have done their best to sort them out. As a result the movie is divided into seven chapters. Sometimes, a further need for a structure is solved by adding archive material from various historical events, as well as animated illustrations that are supremely useful, especially in the case of the 1984 Bus 300 affair.
The movie addresses the history and future of both Shin Bet and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its most riveting parts consist of three key events. The first is in fact the Bus 300 affair, where two Palestinian hijackers were executed by Shin Bet without a trial after the end of the hostage crisis. Shalom, who was head of the agency at the time, resigned, but he has little sympathy with the murdered terrorists. The question of morality in the struggle against Palestinian radicals is addressed again and again in the film, and the former Shin Bet chiefs are surprisingly candid. The second key event is the assassination of important Hamas leaders where the chiefs discuss the difference between killing terrorist leaders and preachers of hate such as Sheik Yassin, and what consequences those acts might have.
The third key event is simply the future – several of the former directors, notably Shalom, Peri and Ayalon, do not share a positive outlook. As noted by Shalom, people who work in security services learn things from the enemy by engaging with them. If you refuse to talk to the enemy, you learn nothing. In other words, current leaders should take note. Fascinating stuff, although it might have been even more of a knockout if some of the chiefs had debated each other, because their opinions do differ.
What these men are saying carries real weight. Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed to have no plans to see the film. As long as Israel is run by rightwing hawks, there is no chance of truths learned by Shin Bet on actual battlefields to influence decision-making in Tel Aviv.
The Gatekeepers 2012-Israel-France-Germany-Belgium. 97 min. Color. Produced by Estelle Fialon, Philippa Kowarsky, Dror Moreh. Directed by Dror Moreh.
Last word: “They wouldn’t talk about operational tactics that are still being implemented, of course. And in the beginning, Avraham Shalom [1981-86, pictured right] said he wouldn’t talk about the Bus 300 affair [a 1984 incident in which Shin Bet members executed two Palestinian hijackers, prompting Mr Shalom’s resignation]. But we had three interviews, each about four hours long, and by the third I said, look Avraham, the 300 affair is going to be in the film. All the others have spoken about it. You have to give your point of view. And then towards the end of the final interview I asked him again what happened that night and he started to talk.” (Moreh, The Economist)