The American National Society of Film Critics on Saturday awarded Best Nonfiction Film accolades to the Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers,” director Dror Moreh’s exploration of intelligence operations by Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet.
The group of 60 prominent movie critics from around the country met at Lincoln Center in New York City to make its picks.
The film features candid interviews with six retired directors of the agency, a position so secretive that, until recently, the director of the Shin Bet was only known to the public by his first initial, and his identity wasn’t revealed until retirement.
But in Moreh’s film, they sit before the camera dressed informally in polo shirts or suspenders, speaking frankly about their memories of tracking Palestinian terrorists and radical settlers.
Their accounts are woven together with animated graphics that bring to life archival photos and news clippings, to reveal the behind-the-scenes calculations during targeted killings and interrogations.
In more private moments, the spymasters speak about the morality of their actions.
“For them (the enemy), by the way, I was also a terrorist,” said Yuval Diskin, Shin Bet chief from 2005 to 2011. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Together, the security chiefs’ testimonies offer biting criticism about Israel’s failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying military might alone cannot bring peace.
“These moments end up etched deep inside you, and when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist,” said Yaakov Peri, Shin Bet head from 1988 to 1994.
“We’re winning all the battles,” said Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000, “And we’re losing the war.”
Moreh said he wanted his film to change the understanding of the Mideast conflict by featuring the people whose job it was to manage it.
“They are responsible for targeted assassinations, for torture, for getting information,” Moreh said in an interview. The criticism they voice “didn’t come from the leftists, it came from the heart of the defense establishment. If they say such things, then, OK, there must be something to it.”
The film is also shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination in the Best Documentary category along with another Israeli-produced film, “5 Broken Cameras.”
The big winner alongside “The Gatekeepers” on Saturday was “Amour,” which was selected as the best picture of 2012.
The critics chose the star of “Amour,” Emmanuelle Riva, as the best actress, and Daniel Day-Lewis was chosen best actor for “Lincoln.”
Austrian director Michael Haneke won best director for “Amour.” The French-language movie depicts the slow deterioration of the elderly woman played by Riva. It has been praised as an unflinching look at old age and life’s end.
Playwright Tony Kushner won best screenplay for “Lincoln.”
Amy Adams was chosen best supporting actress for “The Master,” and Matthew McConaughey was selected best supporting actor for “Magic Mike” and “Bernie.”
Mihai Malaimaire was honored for best cinematography for “The Master.”
The film critics’ society, founded in 1966, works to promote film preservation and historically important movies.
This year’s awards were dedicated to the late Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, a founding member of the society, who died last year.