The Gatekeepers

- by Alex Jones - 

Welcome to the second in a series of film reviews which will highlight some of the most interesting issues facing our region. Watching movies and reading books about somewhere you visited is a great way to reminisce and avoid forgetting the places you went, the things you saw and the people you met. It's also a great way to prepare and get excited for an upcoming trip!

Last week we reviewed Five Broken Cameras. This week we are covering...

It seemed fitting to have these two films reviewed in our blog one after the other because they have so often been compared and contrasted. Both films deal with our region. Both films were released in 2013. Both films were nominated for that year's Best Documentary Oscar. And while Five Broken Cameras relies on footage from, well, five broken cameras, The Gatekeepers relies on footage from interviews with six powerful men. While the men reveal their soft sides, they are also anything but broken.

The six men in question are the six living, former chiefs of Israel's formidable secret service, usually known by the acronym 'shabak', or the abbreviation 'shin bet'. What is remarkable about the film is not only that they all agreed to be interviewed, but how open and honest they appear to be. The General Security Service, or שירות הביטחון הכללי‬ in Hebrew, was founded during the War of 1948 when the State of Israel was born. Its motto translates as "the shield that shall not be seen" and its mission is to safeguard state security. Things like highly sensitive intelligence missions to expose terrorist rings have led it into some dark and secret places. Although of course they do not reveal every detail of past operations, it is remarkable how much the former heads are prepared to say.

As a piece of cinematography, this film is nothing to write home about. It is a very classic documentary, relying heavily on close-up, intimately lit shots of the six Shin Bet leaders. Interspersed with this footage are shots of operations and some quite clever computer enhanced images which bring their stories to life. The film does rely a lot on the expertise of the narrators however, and viewers who are not already very familiar with the events of Israeli and Palestinian politics over the last few decades may have some trouble keeping up. Of course, joining one of our tours would bring you up to speed pretty quickly! It seems to be a film primarily aimed at Israeli audiences but its critical success abroad should put to rest any concerns of overseas viewers.

The men veer from blunt descriptions of brutal events, to revealing touching, human sides of themselves as ordinary men in extraordinary positions. One of the most shocking moments is the description of the assassination of Hamas bomb maker Yahya Ayyash, which had never been officially confirmed until that point. Shin Bet approached the uncle of one of the terrorist's friends, and in exchange for a new identity he agreed to give Ayyash a cellphone which had been secretly bugged and rigged with explosives. It was remotely detonated as soon as Israeli surveillance confirmed Ayyash was using it, killing him instantly.

The men all clearly love Israel and spent their lives doing everything they can, in their eyes, to protect it. That is what makes the conclusion so chilling. Every one of them finishes by admitting that they view the ongoing Occupation as a disaster. They are all pessimistic about the chances of future peace and most worrying of all can barely hide their lack of faith in Israel's current political leadership - embodied most obviously by Benjamin Netanyahu himself. They all reveal themselves to be perfectly capable of admitting the contradictions in their duties and the far, far from perfect way they worked. But they are not stupid. They see, as anyone should be able to see, that an impoverished, ignored Palestine cannot survive endless Occupation any more than an isolated, bristling Israel can. Whether their hopes for the future are driven by a fear of Israel's geopolitical neighbourhood or a love for Israel itself, their warning should be heard loud and clear by supporters and detractors alike.

That is what makes this film a must-see for anyone with an interest in the future of our region.


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