By Caryn James | James on Screens January 30, 2013 at 9:00AM
After you retire, “You become a bit of a leftist,” says Yaakov Peri – a startling comment considering the job he retired from: head of the Israeli security agency, Shin Bet. 'The Gatekeepers' the Oscar-nominated documentary in which Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh talks to six former heads of Shin Bet, is the very definition of a film that sounds boring but is totally fascinating and unexpected.
Peri’s comment expresses the surprising essence of the film, in which the men – whose identities were kept under wraps for most of their careers - look back on their years running the agency, a period that together covers the last three decades. They are ostensibly answering questions about the West Bank and Gaza settlements, but their observations are more deeply about the effectiveness (or not) of the occupation, about anti-terrorism, clandestine surveillance, turning enemy agents, the commonplace reality of torture, and in one of the most recurring themes, the way moral and ethical questions are shunted aside in favor of making any single operation succeed.
The film’s tone is non-judgmental, as the camera simply lets the men talk. Sometimes they talk about each other. The most chilling figure is Avraham Shalom, who shlumps in a checkered shirt and suspenders looking like he’s ready for a remake of 'Grumpy Old Men,' but whose tenure was considered especially draconian and who sounds blase about the job’s amorality. In contrast, Peri and Ami Ayalon have precise military bearing and piercing directness, but sound positively dovish as they reconsider the past, with none of the “just following orders” recitations or defensiveness you might expect.
Overall, the men suggest that no good can come of the settlements, and that even the best prospect for peace – a two-state solution – is a mirage. They are also very explicit about how right-wing violence in Israel has derailed the most promising attempts to find that peace.
'The Gatekeepers,' which was at the New York Film Festival and had a qualifying week-long awards run last year, was recommended as an amazing film by people with no strong political agenda – but that advice is a little misleading, because there is no bravura artistry on display in this very straightforward, tenacious work. The few flourishes are unfortunate, including distracting computer enhancements and a recreated video of a bus highjacking.
Moreh’s film may be superficially full of talking heads, but its substance is incredibly rich and valuable. The former leaders of Shin Bet might make you think that open-mindedness can flourish in the Middle East -- if only the word “former” didn’t make their dovish attitudes seem much too late.