ISRAELI FILM FESTIVAL: 'I made a decision and x number of people were killed," says Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011, remembering the draconian calls he routinely had to make during his tenure at the top. 'There’s something unnatural about it, the power you have."
a marvel of innovative yet low-key visual effects
The observation comes not long into director Dror Moreh’s extraordinary documentary on the agency, its work and the legacy it has established, The Gatekeepers. Key to the film’s impact and subsequent success was his ability to persuade six former heads of the Shin Bet to speak candidly and on-camera about their work. This vague sense of intimidation at the scope of their authority and an almost rueful late understanding of the effect their agency has had in Israel’s development, is a theme that runs throughout the film.
Not that the film is an apologia for the agency’s existence and track record. Far from it, in fact. The half-dozen men who ran this secretive agency at various points since 1980 speak frankly and forcefully about their methodologies and track record. These are, for the most part, hard-looking men; appearances commensurate, one supposes, with the magnitude of the decisions they’ve made over the years.
One remembers living through the Six-Day War at 11 and not understanding what it was, whilst another, ironically the softest looking of the bunch, is the only one disparaged by a colleague as 'a bully". A third remembers debate over the size of a bomb (called 'small appliances with lots of power") used to assassinate a dissident—one-tonne or quarter-tonne? How to predict and contain collateral damage?
Proceeding chronologically from the late sixties to the present and organised thematically into chapters with such titles as 'one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter" and 'victory is to see you suffer," the film’s chief revelation is that all six oppose the continued occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and are in no uncertain terms in favour of the so-called two-state solution.
Technically, the film is a marvel of innovative yet low-key visual effects that don’t distract from the riveting testimony of the immobile talking heads. Chief amongst these is a method in which still photographs can be made to appear as film footage, which creates an eerie aura around the examination of a bus hijacking and its controversial resolution. Credit Paris-based effects house Mac Guff with an approach that near perfectly complements the film’s content and narrative.
In his compelling interview with Moreh elsewhere on this site, critic and journalist Lynden Barber quotes the director explaining how he was able to persuade his subjects to participate: '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’."
'We are making the lives of millions unbearable," concludes one, near the end of the film, 'we’ve become cruel." In the wake of The Gatekeepers and the revelations it contains, it is difficult indeed to argue with this assessment, even as it prompts a sense of shock that it was ever admitted on film in the first place.