The Gatekeepers (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

film gatekeepers_smOne former head of the Shin Bet argued that morals had nothing to do with his job.



film gatekeepers_500

The Gatekeepers is a documentary about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. I should point out that I spent several years at a Jewish school, where I knew teachers and other students who were Israeli. Remember that most recent flair-up a couple months ago? That happened two days after my parents returned from visiting Israel. I am not an objective viewer of this subject matter. I also know a fair amount about the situation over there, making me a pretty tough sell for a documentary that, in theory, will try to inform me and make me feel a certain way about the subject matter.

The most interesting thing about The Gatekeepers is that it is told from the perspective of members of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, normally a very secretive organization. Israel is renowned for its intelligence community, and these are very smart, interesting guys. They recount, in remarkable detail, events and missions which they were directly involved in, or directly impacted by.

The stories are very interesting, but what intrigued me the most was the difference in attitudes among the men. Some are very set in their ways. One former head of the Shin Bet recalls an incident in which soldiers killed a prisoner. When asked if that was justified, he says that it wasn’t, but only because the press found out and there was a negative backlash. He argues that morals have nothing to do with his job. However, other interviewees get very emotional, and some even question their own actions. One jokingly mentions that he became much more liberal once he retired.

While watching The Gatekeepers, I couldn’t help but think about how these events compare to political issues here in America. The film opens with aerial footage of targets being tracked, and it was hard not to think about the recent debates concerning drones and the ethical nature of what they do. I also thought of Zero Dark Thirty and the resurfacing arguments about torture. Let’s just say that in a small country where terrorist attacks are much more frequent, people are less antsy about certain interrogation techniques.

I’m sure this is a film that people can debate, but the nature of the content makes debate seem pointless. This is a conflict where everyone is right, and everyone is wrong. Historically, in the U.S., it has always been easy to talk about wars as contained events that end. In the Middle East, war is a constant. On one hand, the film should be complimented for simply letting the subjects tell their stories and not presenting its own point of view. On the other hand, though, I was kind of hoping for more. The men interviewed seem to be at terms with the fact that this will never end. My point is, as someone who already knows about many of the facts presented here, I didn’t feel like I gained that much from watching this film.

I’m not saying The Gatekeepers is bad. It certainly held my attention, and if you aren’t as familiar with stories of the Shin Bet, you might find it incredibly compelling. This film was one of the five nominees for the Best Documentary Oscar last year, a great year for documentaries. Obviously, the Academy pays more attention to films with heavy subject matter (I’m surprised something as light as Searching for Sugarman won, even though it was probably my favorite of the bunch), but I think instead of a movie like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which is a great character study, but also manages to encapsulate something about an entire country and its ethos. The Gatekeepers certainly works as a character study; I just wish it had more to say. | Sean Lass

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