By Gary Berg-Cross
The 2013 Oscars have their big light drama with serious movie contenders like ‘Lincoln’ one at least based on a serious book (‘Les Miserables’). Less watched, discussed or popularized are nominees in the documentary category. They lack glitz and glamour of actors on the A-list or celebrities directors (like Michael Moore). What they have are non-celebrity protagonists living our real dramas narratives.
One that has attacked some attention is called “The Gatekeepers” and is about Shin Bet - the shadowy internal security intelligence, and counter-terror operations brother agency to the Mossad. Director Dror Moreh somehow convinced 6 former living heads of the agency to conduct on-the record and pretty frank interviews along with raw footage and reenactments of dramatic historical events that are sewn together into a documentary with some power. As Newsweek noted:
To tamp down Palestinian rebellions and foil attacks on Israelis, Shin Bet operatives have regularly engaged in some unsavory measures—rough interrogations and targeted killings, to name two—all in the service of maintaining Israel’s grip over territories it captured in the 1967 war.
And this is an important part of what we heard from 6, powerful men breaking their silence as Richard Cohen noted unlike what will ever had with past CIA directors. These are 6 men spanning 1980-2011 with access to the most classified information and long experience to understand events historically.
The movies’ arc included the period of Palestinian terrorism and insurrections, the rise of the Israeli settler movement, the assassination of a prime minister, brutalities (“I think he took a rock and smashed their heads in.” ) and cover-ups. The result is what some uncomfortably call an admirable documentary that raises eyebrows if not angst as it argues for Israeli compromise as it documents errors and perhaps bad political faith. As the film voices make clear intelligence gathering has all shades of gray, wrapped in subtle situations that require nuanced understanding. Yuval Diskin, who led Shin Bet from 2005 until 2011 as well as his former colleagues tell how their nuanced advice have been largely and repeatingly dismissed by most Israeli prime ministers. As a group they accuse the PMs of ignoring the Palestinian territories and the peace process in favor of kicking an increasingly explosive can down the road. To paraphrase Ariel Sharon quip, “ I love the peace process so much it hope it never ends.”
WapPo’s Ann Hornaday 4 star review “An unsettling true-life thriller” (“first must-see movie of the year is a riveting espionage thriller that just happens to be true.” ) suggested the most disheartening messages of “The Gatekeepers” is how many times Israeli leaders squandered opportunities to end the occupation of the West Bank or allowed illegal settlements despite a virtually guaranteed violent response. “What’s the difference between Golda Meir and [Menachem] Begin?” asks Avraham Shalom, who directed the agency from 1980 until 1986. “Nothing. He didn’t visit the Arabs. She didn’t, either.”
One broad theory as to why former Shin Beth leaders allowed the interview is that it involves growing religious influence in Israeli society. According to this view “the film is somehow the parting shot of an old secular elite in Israel, which is steadily being supplanted by another group, this one more religious and less prone to compromise. (The current Shin Bet head is religious.)” from Newsweek’s review which also included this from the film:
Carmi Gillon, who led the Shin Bet from 1994 to 1996, describes the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, where Palestinians are frequently interrogated, as so old and forbidding “that any normative person who walks in the door would be willing to admit to the murder of Jesus” just to get out of there.
Yuval Diskin, the most recently serving chief, tells of the coercive measures required to get Palestinians to snitch on their friends and even family. “[It] involves taking a person who doesn’t really like you and causing him to do things that he never thought he’d be willing to do.”
In one of the more startling moments in The Gatekeepers, Moreh reads to Diskin the comments of the late Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who wrote in 1968 that ruling over the Palestinians would effectively turn Israel into a police state, “with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech and thought, and democracy.”
It’s a long, secular look at difficult times maybe now sliding along down a road with new religious fervor added.