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Dror Moreh unravels the minds of Israel’s Shin Bet leaders in The Gatekeepers

Israeli director Dror Moreh is a 2013 Oscar nominee for his documentary The Gatekeepers.

“I am a big fan of secret operative issues, of espionage. I love it,” says Dror Moreh, Israeli director of Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers. He describes a scene of a suspect leaving his house, appearing tiny as an ant from the bird’s eye view of the military plane watching above. Then, a missile being fired, and the microscopic threat extinguished. To think of the months of sophisticated operations that it took to arrange for that crucial few minutes truly amazes and thrills Moreh. But, he clarifies, “My main objective is not to tell stories that are nice to be told.”

On the contrary, The Gatekeepers aims to unveil the shadowy war behind the scenes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been raging since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. At the front of this war is The Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet), who are charged with protecting Israeli citizens, often by employing the type of espionage and classified operatives that Moreh so admires in abstraction. Following Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the Shin Bet mandate was expanded to suppress Palestinian resistance, maintaining Israel as an occupying power.

It is through interviews with all of the surviving leaders of the organization that the filmmaker attempts to distill his sprawling subject. “I could have gone to the division section heads and so on…but I wanted only the heads of the organization to speak. Their words have a big influence on the Israeli public,” he says. “I had to bring, not one, but all the heads of the Shin Bet to speak about the things that they did while they were in office. To look at it from the perspective of people who have had time to think if their actions brought Israel to a better place.” His initial trouble was, the Shin Bet leaders had never agreed to this type of interview before.

Moreh decided that he could penetrate their inner circle if he found one ally, and to that end he targeted Ami Ayalon, leader of the Shin Bet 1996-2000. Moreh remembers, “We spoke for a long, long time. He interrogated me, as he should. Why do you want to do the movie? Why do you want to do the movie from our perspective? Why the Shin Bet? And at the end he said, ‘Okay, I am with you.’” Ayalon agreed to vouch for Moreh and introduce the idea to the other Shin Bet leaders. After similarly grueling Q&As with each man, Moreh had gained their trust, and then conducted his own interrogations — securing the only existing first-hand, detailed accounts of each leader’s time in office.

The resulting film is a complex portrait of Israel over the years that deals head-on with morally ambiguous tactics of the Shin Bet, including targeted assassinations, counterterrorism attacks that sometimes result in collateral damage, and torture. Avraham Shalom, leader of the Shin Bet 1980-1986, discusses the controversy that arose after the 300 bus hijacking, when photographs of the Palestinian hijackers taken from the scene alive emerged, and it was exposed that he had ordered their summary executions. Shalom maintains that his actions were carried out with the consent of the highest levels of government and defends the decision. However, he acknowledges that more recently, Israel has become “a brutal occupation force similar to the Germans in WWII.” The film corroborates his harsh judgment as it details the Israeli suppression of two intifadas and numerous incidents of bombs being dropped on Hamas leadership in densely populated, residential areas. Carmi Gillon, Shin Bet Leader 1994-1996 adds, “We are making the lives of millions unbearable, into prolonged human suffering, [and] it kills me.”

By the end of the film, the leaders’ unsettled voices coalesce into one, which grants that it is always better to talk to any aggressor before taking violent action, and doubts whether the violence they enacted contributed to long-term security for Israel. In one segment, Ami Ayalon remembers conversing with a Palestinian friend of his during the intifada. The Palestinian said to Ayalon, “We won,” at which Ayalon was stunned. How could he feel that way, when so many Palestinian lives were lost in the amorphous conflict? The Palestinian replied, “Ami, you don’t understand us. Victory for us is to see you suffer.” Ayalon says that he then understood the nature of the conflict more clearly than ever. Simply, the cycle of violence had become vengeful, and Palestinians who had undergone lifelong suffering were unlikely to submit to Israeli rule. Moreh synthesizes the apprehensions of the Shin Bet leaders: “They are concerned for the future of the state of Israel.”

Moreh himself feels similarly. “I am much more bleak, much darker and more depressed than I was before I started,” he testifies. The filmmaker explains that through his interviews, he began to see the preventative task of the Shin bet as giving politicians a “time-out” during which to expedite the peace process. “The problem is that in those times of quiet, of calmness, the time that the security forces allow to the politicians to decide what they want to do, nothing is happening,” he laments. “And I think that those guys who implement the power and force… understand that power and force can lead you up to a certain point, and beyond that, you have to take other measures.” The film’s message seems to be that in the absence of political progress, violence is futile. The Gatekeepers themselves gave Moreh’s interpretation their implicit seal of approval when they attended the premiere in Israel together. Using an American political metaphor, Moreh says, “I can tell you very, very strongly that they say, ‘We are the Gatekeepers, and we approve this message.’”

The daring project has earned Moreh his first nod from the Academy, but a more telling victory is the film’s runaway commercial success in Israel, where documentary films are not very popular. Anticipating a modest response, The Gatekeepers opened in Israel at two art-house cinemas, but has since expanded nationwide, including screenings at the largest multiplex in the country. “Wherever it is, for two weeks ahead it is sold out,” Moreh beams.

Ideally, the film’s cautionary message will be heeded not only by the Israeli public but also by the international community at large. Moreh singles out the United States as a potential benefactor, and mentions that the Obama administration uses more drones than any other administration in the world. He contemplates, “The issues that have been raised in the movie: the morality of killing, the morality of using torture… Where does power lead you? What is victory? All those issues are something that the international community, and especially the United States are dealing with on a day to day basis.” Given the recognition the film has received on this side of the Atlantic, it seems that non-Israeli audiences are responding to its universal themes.

When asked how it felt to be questioned by the Shin Bet leaders, whose jobs compelled them to be masters of questioning, Moreh does not hesitate. It felt “very good,” he assures. “I never lie. Ever… I am completely honest. I have learned in my career that it is better to tell the truth from the beginning. It avoids a lot of problems afterwards.” Obviously, the man takes the same cards-on-the-table approach to his filmmaking — and audiences can rest assured that though the story embedded in The Gatekeepers is not a nice story to be told, it is what Moreh believes to be the honest truth.

Interviewed by Husam “Sam” Asi and Tess Hofmann

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