The Gatekeepers, an eye-opening Oscar-nominated documentary on the Israeli internal security force, Shin Bet, has caused an enormous stir at home since being released in January last year. In cinemas it has smashed box office records to become the biggest grossing Israeli documentary, while its extended, five-hour television version has become the highest rating doco ever screened on that country's government-owned channel.
It was endorsed by almost everybody as a very strong, powerful and important movie
The reasons for this spectacular success become obvious when you watch the film, built around a series of unusually candid, in-depth interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet. Structured to chronologically trace the history of the relationship between Israel and the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, the film begins with 1967's Six Day War, when those lands were first conquered, before proceeding through the first Intifada (Palestinian uprising) of 1987-93, the peace process of the Oslo Accords, the rise of an underground Jewish terror movement, the 1995 assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Zionist extremist, and the second Intifada of 2000-05.
The film is compelling from the start, but by the time it reaches its final stretch it has viewers' jaws dropping as these former heads of Israel's equivalent of ASIO or MI5 reveal their opposition to the continued occupation of Palestinian land in no uncertain terms. One had earlier appeared a die-hard conservative when he appeared to justify Shin Bet's execution of a captured Palestinian bus hijacker with the words “there is no morality when it comes to terrorism”. By the end of the film these words sounds more like a criticism than a justification as he is compares Israel's behaviour towards the West Bank and Gaza with that of Germany and its conquered European populations in WWII.
To underline how explosive this is, bear in mind these men represent the heart of the Israeli security establishment. They are the formerly powerful senior figures prosecuting the fight against what they term Palestinian terrorism (although, says one of them, one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter).
In Israel the response to the film has been “overwhelming,” says its director Dror Moreh, visiting Australia as a guest of the Israeli Film Festival where the film is screening ahead of its September 5 commercial cinema release. “It was endorsed by almost everybody as a very strong, powerful and important movie. As to the political message, which is definitely controversial in Israel, I would say the moderate centre right and centre left endorsed the film completely.
“The right and extreme right tried to discredit the movie, but it was very hard for them. Normally the people who would advocate a two-state solution and reconciliation would be left wing people. When this message comes from the centre of the defence establishment of Israel, when all of them are saying that, it was a really hard task for those extreme right-wing people to tackle the message of the film.”
So how did he persuade them to appear on camera, let alone to speak so candidly? “You know it's interesting, because I've been asked that question many times and only recently have I dared to ask them. I would say it was for a combination of reasons. One part of the answer – this applied to all of them – is that they feel the window for a two-state solution is closing fast. When I started this project I said to them, 'listen, it is very important you speak, because nobody else has this kind of position towards the Israeli public as you have, as the head of the most professional organisation that knows more about the Israeli-Palestinian [experience] than anybody else'.” The key was persuading two of them initially, and then others started to come aboard.
While there were some differences of opinion between the six, “at the end of the day, all of them are for a two-state solution,” says Moreh. “All of them say there is a partner on the other side [LB - the Palestinian Authority], that the claim of Israel that 'there is no partner' has no basis. There is a partner and we can do peace. All of them believe the occupation is corrupting the morality of Israeli civilian society. All of them. Having said that, you cannot say that all of them are similar or saying the same thing. There are differences. But it's more in the nuances, it's not on the major issues. ”
It's been a year and a half since the film was first shown at Jerusalem Film Festival, he says, and since then all six interviewees have stood behind the message of the film and none have come out against it, “although it was very difficult for them; they got a lot of criticism from colleagues, about how they speak so openly, candidly in front of the camera, that those things should not be said openly because they are kind of civil servants.”
Moreh got the idea for The Gatekeepers when making a film about former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Trying to understand why a man this right-wing had decided to withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza in 2005, he found a newspaper article in which six former Shin Bet chiefs had expressed their views had made a huge impact on Sharon because they were hardly the usual left-wingers you'd expect to be against the occupation of Gaza. The second influence on his decision to pursue the film was Errol Morris's US documentary The Fog of War, in which former US Robert McNamara, the architect of the US's Vietnam intervention, expounded a revisionist perspective on those events.
Next up he has two films in the pipeline. One is a fiction film dealing with terrorism in the US, but he's certainly not abandoning documentary. “I have good access to politicians now” he says, giving an intriguingly vague clue to the subject of his second project, a non-fiction film, “and not only in Israel.”
So can film help to change the world? Absolutely, he says. The role of documentary today is much greater than it has been previously. “I've been here one day. I watched television yesterday about the election, and the depth of the debate is shocking. It's a debate that uses sound bites and isn't really going in depth into real issues.
“This is the importance of documentary today, because the debate in the media is shallow. You don't get a real perspective of your life, your real problems, which is really good for the administration. Documentaries are shedding light on those corners where the administration doesn't want light shed. They're showing people what the world looks like really.”
The Gatekeepers screens at the 2013 Israeli Film Festival and will be released nationally on September 5.