Arts and Culture

Shin Bet ‘Gatekeepers’ revisit history in Oscar-nominated documentary


Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh embarked on “The Gatekeepers” with the intention of stirring things up.

He has everyone’s attention now, with his film playing to sellout audiences at home and opening across the United States last month on the buzz of an Academy Award nomination for documentary feature.

“The Gatekeepers” unflinchingly examines the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and the rise and impact of right-wing Jewish violence, through the recollections and insights of six former chiefs of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service.

The film opens in Tucson on Friday, March 29 at the Loft Cinema.

“The heads of the Shin Bet are not center, are not left and are not right,” Moreh declared in an interview at a downtown San Francisco hotel in January. “They are pragmatists. They use power, they understand what it means to use power, they understand very, very thoroughly the limitation of [what] power can [get] you, and they are very, very worried.”

Moreh, whose credits include campaign commercials for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well as the 2008 documentary, “Sharon,” acknowledged that he had been looking for a way to influence Israelis on the center-right. He reasoned that impeccable, respected establishment figures expressing their doubts and concerns would be heard without the usual resistance.

“If there is someone who understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if there is someone in the Israeli society who knows firsthand — and not only knows but was inside those rooms with the Prime Minister when those decisions [were] made through all the years — you better listen.”

Through black-and-white aerial surveillance footage, the documentary immediately thrusts us into a moral thicket: To kill a suspected terrorist remotely by missile or bomb, or not. In what becomes its recurring theme, “The Gatekeepers” gradually exposes the pitfalls of focusing on tactics at the expense of strategies. Even if successful in the short term, it’s not a plan for the future.

“This is the motor that goes throughout my film,” Moreh asserted. “Regrettably, to the heads of the Shin Bet most of the prime ministers of Israel were tacticians. Very good tacticians, but tacticians who looked two meters in front of their eyes. Besides Rabin, and maybe Sharon as well, and Begin.”

Moreh, who does not dream small, readily admits that he always wanted an international audience for “The Gatekeeepers.”

“I wish that Barack Obama would watch the film,” he says with a smile before quickly turning serious. “I think that he would understand a lot about the lack of leadership in Israel, what the history of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is and what those security guys are telling him. I wish we had someone like him in Israel. He’s the most powerful person on earth now, and he treats power with sanctity, almost like something that is sacred to him. He doesn’t rush to adventures.”

The handsome, gregarious filmmaker, who was born in Jerusalem and lives in Jaffa, thinks “The Gatekeepers” is relevant to a country that is also more focused on tactics than strategies.

“The problems that America is dealing with now are the same problems that the film deals with: How much physical pressure can you [apply] while torturing people? How much can an occupation succeed? Is targeted assassination a good technique or not a good technique? Will it lead where we want it to lead?”

The most chilling portion of “The Gatekeepers” for many American Jews will be the section on the Jewish underground before and after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing settler. Moreh, whose father is an Orthodox Jew and whose sister is a moderate who lives in a settlement — and who both changed their votes from Benjamin Netanyahu after seeing “The Gatekeepers” — found that he could only get so far talking with ultra-religious settlers.

“At a certain point you reach a wall, and that wall is God,” he relates. “‘God ordered that the land of Israel should not be divided, and everybody that gives [away] a piece of Israel is a traitor and should be treated as [one].’ The settlements are the biggest obstacle to peace.”

Coming from a man who exudes enthusiasm and energy, his perspective is deeply sobering.

“I’m very pessimistic. The main problem is the lack of leadership. I’m totally for what Abba Eban said once, ‘The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’ But this is true, also, for the Israelis.”

Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.