The Gatekeepers-Keeper

Posted on January 16, 2013

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Raving reviews, both in the Israeli and the foreign media, set the expectation bar for The Gatekeepers high. Perhaps too high. It is indeed a must-see, for Israeli audience. Foreign viewers will definitely be absorbed, and to some extent informed. But it is a historically incomplete movie, and cinematically unimpressive, failing to ascend the sum of the six interviews it comprises.

Despite suspicions that certain Israeli viewers might have, I did not find it to be one of those foreign audience-oriented self-bashing movies, designed to reaffirm preconceived views of left-leaning European crowds. Far from it: In a way, it is very similar to Waltz with Bashir – It presents one of the most problematic aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the point of view of the Israeli man on the ground. It deals with the internal conflicts, dilemmas, and self-doubts inherent to the experience of Israeli security men and decision makers who are still inclined to regard themselves, whether rightfully or not, as conscientious humanist agents, while fulfilling their duty of protecting the short-term security of Israeli citizens. No speech, article, or demonstration can bring the viewer any closer to identification with the struggles of Israeli security makers.

What is most impressive about The Gatekeeprs is its building blocks, the mere fact that it got the last consequent six living heads of the Israeli secret service, still known in English by the Hebrew abbreviation Shin Bet, talking in front of the cameras, for the most part honestly and revealingly. It adds little on what they had to say, and misses out on certain important issues they ignored, avoided, or talked around.

The six were not cast in the same mold, and their contributions to the movie vary. The two that have already made their ways into politics, Ami Ayalon (who headed the Shin Bet during the period 1996-2000) and Avi Dichter (2000-2005) were the least inspiring, although Ayalon’s last-room-in-second-floor monologue provided a great thematic climax for the film – in that room inside the prime minister’s office, he had always imagined, sits a responsible and deep-thinking man who weighs issues and makes the tough decisions (a fitting portrait of Ben-Gurion appears on the screen); but he went up there, he says, and found the room empty. Carmi Gilon (1995-1996) was mostly boring, except when narrating the incredible story of the cellphoned assassination of master-bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash, while businessman and politician in the making Yaakov Peri (1988-1994) seemed intelligent yet contrived.

The freshest Yuval Diskin (2005-2011) led the pack. He appeared to be honest, eloquent, sharp, outspoken yet cool, and convincing. He told how the moral consequences of even the “cleanest” and most justified targeted killing would later surface at random moments, such as during the morning shaving, and confront his conscience: I gave an order, and a man is dead. It did not sound like a cliché or a disingenuous retrospective self-justification. It sounded real.

But by far the most interesting character was that of Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), for what he said, for how he said it, for what he did not say, and for how he did not say it.

He stood out first by his appearance, with grandfatherish suspenders, intonation, and lightly shaky hands. Not the look you would imagine for a ruthless, possibly the ruthlessest, head of the Shin Bet. When he spoke, his trembling hands were often floating mid-height in the air while taking a few quiet moments for finding the right words, but soon the correct phrasing would be found expressing a purely Machiavellian view in an unlikely package. He did not make attempts, honest or fake, at moral justifications. He was plain and clear-cut: morality when fighting terror – no such thing exits.

Related to this point, the reserved role played by the director-interviewer made him miss an interesting moment – at a certain point, Shalom denounced the policy principle of not speaking with terrorists as immoral, unethical, and unjust. By that he virtually named the list of principles he elsewhere said should not guide decision making in counter-terror campaigns.

Another way in which Shalom stands out from his successors is by having been more than merely a man of shadows, having to deal daily with crucial issues on the murky line dividing right from wrong. In fact, he had crossed that line, and by many miles. His term has ended with the turmoil of the shameful Bus 300 Affair, in which he had ordered the unlawful killing of two already-arrested terrorists – an act which, as he all but declared, he would have repeated today had the circumstances occurred again. But the almost successful conspiracy to cover-up and to frame general Mordechai for the acts that he himself had ordered are to this day one of the low points of moral and legal corruption in the history of Israel. As the Landau Commission has revealed, they epitomized an organizational culture of extra-legal practices, a tradition that the five other interviewees were given the task to eradicate, and one can only hope that this task has not yet to be completed.

Very little of that would be understood by a viewer that is not familiar with the details of the Bus 300 Affair and the history of the Shin Bet. The director Moreh explained in an interview given recently to Ha’Aretz that Shalom initially agreed to participate in the movie but was unwilling to discuss the Bus 300 Affair. Eventually he did, and Moreh takes great pride in that, and in the special animation effects that were used during the segment dealing with the affair. Indeed, the animation was impressive and creative, and a remarkable moment emerged in the interview when Moreh asked Shalom about ordering the killing of the arrested terrorists; but he failed to pursue it further and ask about the cover-up, the framing of Mordecahi, and about the endemic culture of institutional corruption and unlawfulness he had led. His choice to avoid narration and let the talking heads do the talking failed here badly.

It is a pity. First, because this will turn out to be a movie that will shape historical perceptions of the events, just as Waltz with Bashir has done its share shaping the historical perceptions of the 1982 invasion to Lebanon. The failure to pursue important details in the interviews, or to complete the missing information by narration, left this movie historically incomplete. In a way, the cover-up was covered-up, and the director served as the gatekeepers-keeper.

But more than that, exposing the full scale of the drama would have made it a great film with a great protagonist – ruthless, admittedly immoral, corrupt, yet wise and not unlikeable. The character of Avraham Shalom is too good to be partly left out in the shadows.

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Posted in: Cinema