In a recent article about documentary films, critic Scott Tobias of the A.V. Club decried the cinematic artlessness of too many nonfiction movies. He used as Exhibit A the documentary “A Place at the Table,” a sharp critique of hunger and food policy in America, and described as justifiable the stereotype of documentaries as serving “a hearty gruel of talking heads and archival footage, spooned out as artlessly as the school lunches ‘A Place at the Table’ criticizes so vociferously.”
“The Gatekeepers,” one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Feature Film, labors under similar aesthetic limitations. Filmmaker Dror Moreh explores Israel’s decades-spanning struggles with terrorism and national security by interviewing six former heads of Shin Bet, its internal intelligence service. Much of “The Gatekeepers” thus involves six middle-aged to elderly men, all interviewed separately, talking to the camera. But, fortunately, Moreh presents much of the material in a dynamic way that loosens the film’s narrative restraints.
As the directors of Shin Bet — not to be confused with Israel’s foreign intelligence service, the Mossad — the interviewees’ tenures spanned from 1981 to 2011. Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter and the current director at the time of filming, Yuval Diskin, seldom come across as warm personalities or demonstrate sharp differences, but they prove surprisingly blunt and candid. They also allude to their careers before and after their time in Shin Bet, particularly the Six-Day War of 1967. Moreh gives a quick summary of that conflict with old footage and some snappy narration patterned after World War II newsreels.
The 1967 war left 1 million Palestinians under Israeli occupation, which created enormous tensions, often exacerbated by simple communication problems. One of the interviewees describes Israeli soldiers’ attempt to take a Palestinian census. Instead of announcing “We came to count you,” a mistranslation caused them to say, in Arabic, “We came to castrate you.”
Primarily, “The Gatekeepers” addresses the issues of how to combat terrorism, touching on Shin Bet’s successes and failures over recent decades. The brief moment when peace seemed to be at hand following the 1993 Oslo Accords imploded with the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, by an Orthodox Jew, Yigal Amir. One of the spymasters laments how Shin Bet failed where Amir succeeded.
The film makes surprisingly imaginative use of computer animation, occasionally cutting to shadowy surveillance rooms or cavernous halls of records. The most innovative sequence draws on real news photographs from the 1984 “Bus 300 affair,” when terrorists hijacked a bus and were then arrested and brutally executed. Moreh presents several snaphots, including an image of one of the terrorists, then moves the camera through CGI re-creations of the scene. It’s as if you could physically step into a black-and-white photograph and look at a significant historical event from multiple angles, frozen in time.
The bus incident leads to one of the film’s most engrossing exchanges, when the interviewer quizzes Shalom about his involvement with the executions. Wearing spectacles and red suspenders, Shalom initially proves the oldest and most grandfatherly of the film’s subjects. But he proves capable of brushing aside moral qualms in the name of making tactical decisions in Israel’s war on terror. Shalom reluctantly admits that he allowed the executions to take place because “I didn’t want any live terrorists in court.”
The film opens with super-enhanced aerial footage that trails a car through empty streets until it silently explodes with a flash. The film’s discussions of such “targeted assassinations,” typically achieved through aerial bombing, overlaps with the current U.S. debate over the use of drone strikes. “The Gatekeepers” wrestles with the risks of causing collateral damage in such cases, citing one bombing that killed many innocents as well as the intended victim, causing Shin Bet to drop a smaller, less devastating bomb on a subsequent terrorist meeting, only to see the targets get away unscathed.
Some of the former Shin Bet directors reveal different levels of willingness to accept collateral damage, one of the film’s rare examples of the subjects sharply disagreeing with one another. Most come across as generally weary of the occupation, bloodshed and elected leaders acting for political gain. One describes having an epiphany at a conference in Paris when a Palestinian diplomat told him that, despite Israel’s military superiority, “For us, the only victory is seeing you suffer.” Overall, the subjects prove more willing to own up to their mistakes and regrets than former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara did while reflecting on the Vietnam War in “The Fog of War,” a film that inspired this one.
Part of Tobias’ article criticizes a tendency of documentaries to present only one side of an argument. “The Gatekeepers” emphasizes how the Shin Bet directors operated in gray areas and grappled over choices involving short-term security benefits that could worsen the Palestinian situation in the long term. An irony lies behind the title of the film, as the various directors discovered, too late, that some gates cannot be closed after being opened.