It’s almost impossible to walk into "The Gatekeepers" without already feeling intrigued. Director Dror Moreh has taken care of that with the premise of his new documentary alone. Six ex-leaders of Israel’s top counterterrorism and security organization, Shin Bet, describe their experiences through a candid interview process. They answer (or at times cleverly avoid) tricky questions regarding their perspective on Shin Bet’s role, successes, failures and moral standing in the ongoing vicious feud between Israel and Palestine. This is unprecedented stuff right here, on a topic so volatile it feels like it's just waiting to explode. And as a film, it’s effective – for the most part.
As it ebbs and flows from beginning to middle, patience is put to the test a few times, until it kicks into 5th gear by the midsection and doesn’t let up till the end. At times, one must dig deep to find something to hold onto for interest; sometimes, the sheer weight of factual information is overwhelming, especially when it's made of stuff you can wiki with a single click.
Nevertheless, there is a lot there to keep the focus sharp, especially for someone who is unfamiliar with this particular slice of history (as this writer humbly was). In particular, moments like the “Bus 300” incident during Avraham Shalom’s (perhaps the most fascinating of the interviewees) command of Shin Bet, when Arab terrorists hijacked a bus of people in 1984 and were, after the hijacking was quashed, tortured and executed by Shin Bet operatives. This segment makes particularly compelling viewing, particularly given Shalom's initial claims not to remember anything about the incident.
The stories recounted are a select few of the most controversial incidents (bus killings, covert op assassinations) or historical turning points (the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin). And the deeper the old men delve into their experiences and thoughts, the deeper the viewer's interest goes. Together with some expertly recounted stories which sound like something plucked out of a Jason Bourne movie (a cell phone bomb...?), the most compelling aspects of the documentary are the interview subjects themselves. Watching and listening to these men, who used to hold a government position that couldn’t be more important in today’s fear-smeared way of life, with all their unique mannerisms, glances, jokes (they find time for some of those too) and afterthoughts, is nothing short of engrossing.
One can only wish, once the ball really started rolling, that the documentary was a tad longer. Moreh, who was on hand to answer audience questions after the screening, confirmed that there are about 100 hours of interview footage with all six. If he trimmed down on the factual information or the on-and-off digitized re-enactment sequences, which evoked a TV Movie of the Week feel, we reckon the structure of the doc still would have held up nicely throughout.
Regardless, there’re more than enough emotional punches packed in this doc to emphasize its importance and validity. When asked whether he thinks his film can help change some perspectives, especially because it doesn’t shy away from criticizing Shin Bet’s and Israel’s politics, Moreh responded with a short story. Three settlers came to him after a screening in Jerusalem, told him that they saw the "truth in their own voices" after watching "The Gatekeepers," and would go home that night to think about how their own ideology may be contributing to the on-going problem. If there was ever an example of how you measure the success of a documentary, that’s the one. [B+]