“The Gatekeepers” – an Israeli documentary that spotlights former leaders of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency – has been given the National Society of Film Critics award for best nonfiction / documentary film of 2012.
Directed by Dror Moreh, “The Gatekeepers” features interviews with six former Shin Bet directors, who discuss their service and the leaders they worked for. Each of the interviewees takes time to focus on a particularly probing question: Can basic values of universal justice and democracy be upheld in the midst of frequent threats against the State of Israel?
The film, which has been screened at a number of major film festivals and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution, has also been placed on the Academy Awards’ short list for best documentary nominees together with another Israeli entry, “5 Broken Cameras,” directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi.
The National Society of Film Critics is comprised of 60 prominent movie critics from newspapers, magazines and other media outlets across the United States. The group’s awards are one of the last to be presented before the Oscar nominations, which were scheduled to be announced Thusday.
The six individuals interviewed in “The Gatekeepers” committed many acts that – while perhaps appearing extreme to some – were necessary to insure Israeli security. These include sending people into dangerous enemy territory, approving brutal interrogations of security detainees and even ordering assassinations. Each of them used the extraordinary power at their disposal for the purpose of preventing terrorist attacks and protecting Israel’s population. But taking these actions sometimes strained the perpetrators’ personal moral limits.
The documentary brings out profoundly revealing admissions and quite interesting analysis from the former Shin Bet leaders, who acknowledged professional mistakes they made and sharply criticize decisions made by the political leaders to whom they reported.
“Peace is not created through military means. You have to build peace through relations of trust, either after military campaigns or without hostilities. As someone who knows the Palestinians well, I say there doesn’t have to be a problem creating genuine relations of trust with them,” says Avi Dichter, director of Shin Bet between 2000 and 2005, in the film.
“In the State of Israel, it’s too great a luxury not to speak with our enemies,” Avraham Shalom, Shin Bet’s head from 1980 to 1986, opines during his interview. The Israeli government should dialogue with anyone willing to talk to it, he says, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Even if his response is insolent, I’m in favor of continuing. There is no alternative,” Shalom asserts. “It’s in the nature of the professional intelligence man to talk to everyone. That’s how you get to the bottom of things. I find out that he doesn’t eat glass and he sees that I don’t drink oil.”
In the movie, Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000, expresses his doubts about the effectiveness of targeted killings of the enemy’s spiritual leaders. Carmi Gillon, Ayalon’s immediate predecessor at the agency, would not be surprised if Israel experiences another political assassination - along the lines of the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 - when the government orders the evacuation of settlements in Judea and Samaria.
“The Gatekeepers” premiered at the most recent Jerusalem Film Festival before its showing at many of the world’s prestigious film festivals. It has generated a great deal of excitement from audience members, along with excellent reviews from film critics, and it has won a number of awards.
In the competition at the National Society of Film Critics in the United States, “The Gatekeepers” triumphed over “This is Not a Film,” by Iranian director Jafar Panahi. The Israeli documentary also won the best documentary award of the Los Angeles film critics and second place from the New York film critics. Moreover, it was featured in lists ranking the best films of 2012 that appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly.
In a Tel Aviv interview Moreh explained that he came up with the idea for the film while working on his 2008 movie “Sharon.” In interviewing Dov Weisglass, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief, Weisglass described how Sharon had been heavily influenced by a 2003 interview given to military affairs reporter Alex Fishman in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, in which four Shin Bet directors said Israel would come to an intractable impasse if Sharon continued to run the Jewish state as he was doing. Weisglass explained that the prime minister was greatly affected by the agency chiefs’ comments, because they were coming from the heart of Israel’s defense establishment.