Sometimes watching a film on the big screen can make all the difference. I had seen Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers in tiny form some time ago and while I didn’t question the film’s emotional capacity, I identified it unfairly as a typical historical/political documentary. However, my recent viewing on the big screen changed my feeling quite a bit. Documentary has been nothing if not an ever-evolving form. Yet, The Gatekeepers appears as a classical, straight-forward, and talking heads presentation reminiscent of the most typical nonfiction media. This type of documentary has been on its death-bed over the past few years. It might have just taken a film like The Gatekeepers, with its candid, morally-conflicted, and relevant subject matter to resuscitate the stilted execution.
Tracking decades of conflict between Palestine and Israel, The Gatekeepers tells the story of the last six surviving men in charge of the Shin Bet, an Israeli internal secretive service that controls all major military decisions regarding the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. With little historical or religious context given, The Gatekeepers, similar to another compelling Oscar Nominee, How to Survive a Plague, allows its subjects to explain their roles in the saga without seeing any easy answers or putting on an agenda-driven overview of the greater scope. From within these characters, the spider web of political and public emotions becomes clearer. These men wittingly took lame duck jobs where success seems to be measured only by the degree to which massive amounts of people did or didn’t die. As peace settlements fail and further murders occur, each “Gatekeeper” emotes a sense of failed power and helplessness.
Central to The Gatekeepers is the moral quandary between hard-line self-preservation and assuming the responsibility of overseeing military action in the longest lasting international conflict of the past 50 years. The issues between Palestine and Israel have too many threads for there to be any way out. By focusing on the people literally ordering the triggers pulled, director Moreh allows for the conflict to remain objective yet uniquely personal. Most compelling is when one “Gatekeeper” defends his actions but questions others. For instance, the elder and most engagingly taciturn Avraham Shalom defends his decision to kill Palestinian hijackers, only to later condemn the actions of the Shin Bet in charge of a bombing that murdered innocent people. At a level deeper than national conflict, The Gatekeepers is a story about humans and the stories we tell ourselves even when we know we are lying.
On the grander scale, The Gatekeepers is entirely about justification, or the ways in which we need to justify to exist. To fight for your country is to stand for something you are told to believe in. Even when faced with the corruption of your side as deeply as on the opposite side, there’s a moral code that you must stand by. The word “morals” comes up again and again, sometimes as a deflection and often as a point of contention. To think that millions of people over several decades have woken up either committed to a cause that could take their lives or in fear of being killed at any moment, is the hard reality that The Gatekeepers conveys. Similar to national pride, on the edges of The Gatekeepers is religious commitment. At one point, one of the subjects discusses a very intelligent man who, because he’s intelligent, “Must have Judaism in his lineage.” Perhaps the most trying moment in the film comes when Israelis begin turning on their own people as a response to the widely despised Oslo Accords. Each of the “Gatekeepers” expose a sadness at having never really understood what they were fighting for or who they were fighting against. In this regard, the lack of historical base gives the film a sense of confusion that works in its favor.
It’s easy to dismiss The Gatekeepers since its presentation has numerous hang-ups for American audiences. It’s a subtitled film about a difficult and uncomfortable subject. Save only a few very creative and inspired (in ways lacking from many of these kinds of docs) animated sequences, the story is told only in stock footage and talking head interviews. What keeps this from being a Social Studies video is the human beings at the center. There’s something earnest about what’s burning under the surface of The Gatekeepers and that makes it one of the most important films to come along in a while. By avoiding any answers at all, the film becomes a reflection of the kinds of knots people allow themselves to be tied in. As a global community we still have a long way before making the kinds of change that might relieve terror and irrational pride.