The Shin Bet aka the Israeli Secret Service, are charged with overseeing Israel’s war on terror. Their activity and membership are regarded as state secrets. Those who have headed the agency have never before spoken of the controversial events of the last few decades, that is, until now. Filmmaker Dror Moreh dared to do what others have not by sitting down with six former heads of the organization and discussing their actions during the war between Israel and Palestine in his latest documentary The Gatekeepers. What they have to say can be shocking at times, but their insights are equally mesmerizing.
The documentary primarily deals with how the Shin Bet reacted to certain acts of terrorism, but it begins with an event that Moreh felt was an appropriate starting point. In 1967, the Six-Day War between Israel and Palestine resulted in an occupation of the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and other lands by Israel. Over the years, this occupation created a powder keg of a situation that resulted in multiple acts of terrorism in the region.
One of the most famous incidents occurred in 1984 and was known as the Bus 300 Affair, in which four Palestinians hijacked a bus filled with people. The situation was resolved when the bus was stormed by special forces, resulting in the killing of two of the hijackers and one hostage. The other two hijackers were captured, but immediately executed by members of the Shin Bet. It is here where Moreh gets some of his most interesting answers out of Avraham Shalom, the then head of the Shin Bet.
Moreh isn’t particularly forceful with his questioning, but he knows that the truth of the incident needs to be brought to light. Shalom isn’t exactly forthcoming about the events at first, but he does admit to giving the order. The reason why he did it just might surprise you. As for the morality of such a situation, it is his claim that you can’t quibble about morality in an event such as this, a curious statement that proves a rather strange remark given his thoughts about another incident that would change the way the Shin Bet were allowed to operate.
This other major event deals with what’s known as “collateral damage” (the film is split up into segments dealing with specific issues, this being one of them). A known terrorist is tracked to a house that the Shin Bet targets and drops a one-ton bomb on, killing him, but also killing multiple innocent civilians. The film brings up the moral implications of if such an act was worth the lives of the others around the terrorist. Obviously the leader of the Shin Bet at the time thought so, but as we cut back to Shalom to get his opinion of the situation, we find he’s against it on moral grounds, grounds that he was so willing to ignore during the Bus 300 incident.
It’s at times like this that The Gatekeepers is most compelling, exposing the flimsy morals and questionable righteousness of these men who tried to do their best at a job that called for some tough decisions. There were, of course, decisions that weren’t just hard to make, but were hard to accomplish as well. For instance, a number one terrorist in the region was tracked for a long period of time, eventually tracing him and his family to an area on the Gaza Strip. When it is discovered that he is trying to make contact with his father, an elaborate plan is put in motion to place a small explosive device in the phone that he will be using. The plan was quite successful, and the fact that no one else was hurt only pleased everyone involved even more.
The way these men speak of these incidents, as though they are nothing or merely an afterthought, is quite chilling at times. Shalom speaks of wanting his men to kill the hijackers with a rock, while another speaks of the cell phone incident with more fascination in the plan rather than the fact that they had eliminated a big threat. Yet, that’s not to say these are men without feelings. Several times throughout the film, you get the sense that they genuinely want peace between Israel and Palestine. They are particularly disheartened when speaking of the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, one of the signers of the Oslo Accords, which called for the withdraw of Israeli troops from certain areas. Shalom even urges the continuation of peace talks with anyone who’s willing to listen, which shows that at least some of his morals are in the right place.
There’s really nothing quite like hearing all of this straight from the people who were there and in charge. Moreh’s film digs right into the events and, despite him not having a forceful disposition, is able to bring out some amazing truths and anecdotes that shed light on the events that have kept the region in turmoil for all these years. The truths aren’t always pretty, but they’re fascinating to hear all the same.
Turning now to the Blu-ray specs, the film is presented in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Both are top-notch quality and give little reason for complaints. The film is about 90% talking heads, but there are times where it switches to archive footage, or footage created digitally to show past events. However, all throughout, the quality is the best you can get.
Looking at the special features, I’m once again disappointed to say that there’s not much to be found here. The only two extras included are a commentary and a Q&A with Dror Moreh. A sampling of the commentary shows that he doesn’t really have much to say about the film, certainly nothing to compare with what his subjects talk about. The 40-minute Q&A is a little more insightful for his part, delving into such topics as why he decided to make the documentary and how he conducted the interviews, so at the very least you get to learn a little bit about the making of the film.
Luckily, the film is easy to recommend on its own. I have to admit, I didn’t know much about the topic before seeing this film, but now its acted as a kind of eye-opener as to what’s been going on in the region. I’ve always had two basic rules when it comes to documentaries: it should be about something interesting and it should have something insightful to say about the topic. The Gatekeepers easily covers both of these requirements.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.