Film Review – The Gatekeepers (Second Take)

The Gatekeepers Movie PosterThe Gatekeepers is an insightful and blunt look at the security situation in Israel and how it has gotten so terrible. Director Dror Moreh’s accomplishment in getting the six former living heads of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, to talk about their work dealing with the occupied territories and the extremist groups (both Palestinian and Jewish) is impressive just on the face of it. How much he got them to reveal so openly about the situation is stunning.

Through these six men, a picture is painted about how Israel’s security works in getting information about Palestinians who are planning attacks. We see their interrogation methods, including some of the more brutal, and how they acquire informants. We get a picture of what Shin Bet is, its history good and bad, what they are good at, and where they have failed. While providing an understanding of where they stood at different times and where they are now, what is most surprising is how often these six people have come to a similar conclusion. What they are doing isn’t working.

The men talk about different missions they have done, both successes and failures, but describe how even when they succeed, Israel is still no safer. They admit how little they (the Jewish people and Shin Bet) understand the Palestinians. The phrase that they have all come to is “there is not enough talking.” There is no is conversation with any of the Palestinian groups, and this is the result. The six state that there are Palestinians who do not want to change the situations. But, the Israelis being the occupying force, these six also see how the situation has been created by them, and the results have played out so that they are scared for the future of their country.

We get insight into why so little has been done to change the situation, based on religious and political ideologies. One of the most telling moments is seeing Shin Bet break up the hard-right group the Jewish Underground, who believe the occupied territories are theirs by holy right. Seeing some of the atrocious things the Jewish Underground did and were trying to do will give you chills. But it was in the government’s response to these groups where things got really scary. While Shin Bet was congratulated for stopping them, in the end all were let off because they were Jewish people, and in many cases were local leaders and friendly with the government. That the security Shin Bet was trying to create was undermined by politics and double standards is made very clear.

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For many unfamiliar with the events, people, and organizations in Israel, this film could cause some confusion. The structure focuses on lessons and ideas rather than direct chronology of events. This can cause some sense of loss of place, but the film is very good at staying grounded in what these six people who have been at the heart of this issue (more so than any others besides the Prime Ministers) were thinking. As such, if a sense of time is lost, the sense of what the stakes continue to be is not.

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This focus is helped by how Moreh creates the mood for the film through his use of music, imagery (still pictures of Palestinians that were taken after arrests), and videos of protests. It helps show the human face of the ordeal and also the horror of what the Israelis and the Palestinians have done to each other. This is heightened by the honest, matter-of-fact way that he gets these men, bit by bit, to talk about the deaths they have caused and how they can justify it. This provides insight into the ways that people in these kinds of situations work, and some of the harshest realities. All of this keeps the tension high, while never sacrificing the lessons the film tries to impart to us.

This is documentary work at its best, getting insight into a complex situation by talking to those who know it best, while never compromising to create an easier answer. Seeing this entirely from the Israeli standpoint, with them saying that so much of the blame is on their own end, is gut-wrenching. That Moreh got these six to speak in such honest ways about some of the hardest decisions that any human being has had to make elevates this film to as close to a masterpiece as there is.

Final Grade: A


Benjamin is a film connoisseur and Oscar watcher who lives in Minneapolis and, when not reviewing movies, works at the Hennepin County Library.

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