The riveting Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, is history revisited through the cross hairs of a gun or missile launcher. Pure-grade catnip for those who prefer big-picture philosophizing with an elevated heart rate, Dror Moreh’s film blasts past all the stale positions and tired arguments to put us at the crossroads — right here, right now — of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The audaciousness and perversity of The Gatekeepers lies in Moreh’s belief that confronting past mistakes is essential for Israel to change its course vis-à-vis the Palestinians. This is patently naïve, on one hand, because history counts for nothing in the Middle East. Yes, many Jewish settlers wield the Old Testament in support of their claims to the West Bank (on religious grounds, primarily). And countless Palestinian families cherish the keys to the houses they fled after the state of Israel was created in 1948, convinced that one day they will return. But the past is irrelevant compared to current political realities.

Moreh isn’t so naïve, after all, for his goal is to shift the discussion, in Israel and the U.S., and generate a new realpolitik. To that end, he interviews half a dozen former heads of Israel’s intelligence service, the Shin Bet, who are loyal, unimpeachable, and nonpartisan representatives of the establishment. The filmmaker’s calculation is that those on the center-right — the reasonable opposition, if you will — won’t listen to anyone else.

Ami Ayalon in The Gatekeepers. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

When Moreh was in San Francisco in January to do a day of interviews in support of the Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers, which opens tomorrow, February 22, around the Bay Area, he was quite candid about his approach. There’s no point in engaging the extremists at either end of the spectrum, he noted, and people on the left already agree with his view that the solution is two states. If those on the center-right can be persuaded, a moderate, broad-based coalition (in the government, as well as among the citizenry) can be formed to pursue the peace process.

The recurring theme of The Gatekeepers is the Shin Bet’s in-the-moment method of dealing with terrorism, and the unintended consequences of short-term thinking. The name of one chapter, “No strategy, just tactics,” can be applied to vast chunks of the documentary, with the former heads repeatedly attributing this chronic failure (with a certain smug self-assurance) to prime ministers more concerned with polls and political pressure than with demonstrating leadership and courage.

The film takes us far enough inside the intelligence system that we can identify with an individual deciding whether to push the button to take out a wanted enemy from the air, and possibly kill innocent people. That nasty segment is a prologue for “tactics” like the interrogation and torture of Palestinians in a dank, foreboding Jerusalem prison that dates to Turkish rule, the recruitment of informers and undercover agents among the Palestinians, and the 1984 beating deaths of two terrorists captured alive after a bus hijacking.

In its resolve to confront us with the ugly realities of security, occupation and every other other loaded word you can think of, The Gatekeepers includes graphic footage of violence and its aftermath. This extends to grotesque images of the carnage wrought by suicide bombers, which one infers Moreh included to serve a double purpose: As visceral evidence of the once-ubiquitous threat that the Shin Bet was responsible for preventing, and to undermine the knee-jerk complaints of those on the right that movies critical of Israel never show the casualties of terror attacks. By anticipating and eliminating that objection, Moreh forces conservatives to deal with the overarching issue of Israel’s mistakes and abuses.

It wasn’t only Israel’s policies with regard to the Palestinians that kept the Shin Bet heads awake at night. The Gatekeepers deals at surprising length with the so-called Jewish underground, whose extremist adherents plotted an attack on the Dome of the Rock (the Islamic holy site adjacent to a Jewish holy site) and subsequently assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. In fact, this may be the most disturbing section of the documentary for center-right viewers.

The Gatekeepers blends well-chosen news and archival footage with occasional reenactments, but relies most crucially on no-nonsense talking-head interviews with an exclusive handful of pragmatic men. It’s a potent mix that makes Dror Moreh’s tough-minded documentary essential viewing regardless of one’s sympathies, or one’s place on the political spectrum.

The Gatekeepers opens Friday, February 22, 2013 at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, Sequoia Twin in Mill Valley, Albany in Albany, Century Five in Pleasant Hill, Camera 7 in San Jose and Cinearts @ Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto.

History Bites ‘The Gatekeepers’ 8 September,2014Michael Fox


Michael Fox

Michael Fox has written about film for a variety of publications since 1987. He is the curator and host of the long-running Friday night CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute,  an instructor in the OLLI programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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