Film review

Second Israeli Oscar nominee arrives in US theaters

Opening Friday, ‘The Gatekeepers’ takes a complex look at the men responsible for Israel’s security — and offers a clear contrast with its competition

File: Yaakov Peri. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
File: Yaakov Peri. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

After a remarkable string of Oscar nominations for scripted dramas, Israel’s film industry has managed a new feat in 2013: earning two nods in a different category, in a single year.

A regular Oscar presence over the past decade in the foreign-language feature competition, Israel this year is represented twice among the nominated documentaries.

“5 Broken Cameras” — by far the weaker of Israel’s two films — opened months ago in the US, but has returned to American theaters on the heels of its nomination.

Landing Friday in US cinemas was the second, superior entry — “The Gatekeepers,” a complicated, compelling portrait of the men who lead the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of the FBI.

Responsible for domestic intelligence and security, the heads of the agency are its only members known to the public, and have traditionally kept their political opinions to themselves.

That long-held pattern is shattered in director Dror Moreh’s new film, which features testimony from all of the Shin Bet’s leaders going back to 1980, except for the current chief, Yoram Cohen, and Yossef Harmelin, who served for two years in the mid-1980s.

Skeptics have already rushed out to criticize the documentary, claiming Hollywood has embraced it and “5 Broken Cameras” because of their allegedly negative depiction of Israel.

The country indeed comes across problematically in Moreh’s film, but not in the manner opponents seem to expect. The Israel described here is instead a complex, deeply conflicted place, a country with much to regret, but also much to respect.

In a tightly edited 97 minutes, “The Gatekeepers” covers a wide range of issues and incidents, some highly familiar and others largely forgotten.

While the film spends much of its duration looking at Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, it also looks at scary, painful moments primarily involving Jews, such as the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and a foiled effort in the early ’80s to blow up Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.

Through it all, the six participating Shin Bet heads comment and contradict one another, offering their views of the triumphs and failures of their tenures. One of the men in particular is hard to figure out — Avraham Shalom, the early-’80s chief who both halted the Dome of the Rock plot and resigned in disgrace after a newspaper revealed the summary executions of two terrorists who had hijacked a bus. Now in his 80s, Shalom has the look and demeanor of a particularly well-meaning grandfather, but is described by his former colleagues as a ruthless tyrant in the office.

"5 Broken Cameras," another Oscar-nominated documentary,  is undermined by its one-dimensional viewpoint. (Courtesy of Alegria Productions)
“5 Broken Cameras,” another Oscar-nominated documentary, is undermined by its one-dimensional viewpoint. (Courtesy of Alegria Productions)

For his part, Shalom shows flashes of anger more than a quarter century after his dismissal, claiming he was at first protected, then betrayed by politicians more concerned with keeping their own jobs than with what was best for the country.

Tensions with the political establishment provide a running theme, although not always in predictable ways. A brief, poignant vignette recalls Rabin’s refusal to wear a bulletproof vest — essentially the refusal of a decorated war hero and public servant to believe he could truly be in danger from his own.

Like Rabin, the film’s subjects are all passionately committed to Israel, a feature that should puncture any claims the film seeks to demonize the country. But while the men care deeply for their homeland, they also fear it’s headed down the path of self-destruction, entangling itself ever deeper in the conflict by refusing to compromise over settlements. (As one of the men points out, the Jewish presence in the West Bank expanded even after the Oslo Accords.)

The Palestinians are by no means given a pass, and the Shin Bet chiefs sometimes express pride in strong, decisive actions taken in the fight against terrorism. Carmi Gillon, who ran the agency between 1994 and 1996, can’t help but smile while describing an initially botched, then successful operation in which a high-ranking Hamas official blew off his own head with a booby-trapped cell phone.

But as much as they’re aware of Palestinian intransigence and violence, these are also analytical, sober thinkers who’ve concluded that Israel cannot solve its problems simply by force.

“When you leave the Shin Bet,” says Yaakov Peri, the agency’s leader from 1988 to 1995, and now an incoming Knesset member for the new Yesh Atid party, “you become a bit of a leftist.”

Those words — and his colleagues’ similar sentiments — should give pause, even if viewers ultimately conclude they know better than elite security experts. No matter how convinced viewers may be of their own rightness, it’s worth wondering why these six men — representing multiple backgrounds and generations — each exited the Shin Bet with a strikingly similar view about the need to negotiate.

That said, “The Gatekeepers” also showcases the complexity of the region, revealing nuances in Israeli society and the conflicting concerns that drive the country’s leadership.

Except for asking an occasional follow-up question, "The Gatekeepers" director Dror Moreh lets his subjects speak for themselves. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Except for asking an occasional follow-up question, “The Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh lets his subjects speak for themselves. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The key weakness of “5 Broken Cameras” — about the construction of Israel’s security barrier near the West Bank village of Bil’in — is its one-dimensional portrayal of the situation. In that film, Israel builds the barrier because of greed and religious fanaticism — also because it is mean — rather than because of the suicide bombings that terrorized the country for a significant part of the preceding decade. The film’s unwillingness to acknowledge legitimate Israeli fears fatally undermines its credibility, a problem “The Gatekeepers” avoids completely.

From any angle, those who write off the new film as propaganda are mistaken — it’s simply not that straightforward.

As critical as its voices can be of Israeli policy, they also embody exactly what you’d hope for in leaders — critical thinking, open-mindedness and a refusal to become ideologues.

Opponents who depict Israelis as oblivious or hateful won’t find much support for that here. Even some of the documentary’s villains — the Jewish extremists who fomented Rabin’s murder — get their own counterbalance: an image of an ultra-Orthodox Jew with a sign that says “I’m ashamed” soon after the killing.

Beyond its individual participants, “The Gatekeepers” reflects positively on Israel in another key way, demonstrating the relative transparency and accountability of the establishment.

As in “The Law in These Parts,” a recent documentary that examined Israel’s legal system in Gaza and the West Bank, “The Gatekeepers” relies on testimony from top officials — men who believe it is their duty to share important information with the public.

Naturally they have their own biases and agendas, but their willingness to testify in the open suggests good things about their conception of democracy — what even tough-minded intelligence veterans owe their fellow citizens and society.

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