Tower of babble: Shin Bet gatekeepers talk

Being in charge of Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency, is a job with an afterlife. For better or worse, decisions are made; accepting the course of history­ – where there’s no room for ‘what ifs?’ – is mandatory. But the telling of history is always open to interpretation. Potentially this year’s most brilliant and unnerving documentary film, The Gatekeepers, directed by Dror Moreh, restages and retells the Israel–Palestine conflict, systematically constructing and destabilising his own narrative complexity like a well-played game of Jenga. In the absence of any single version of events, Moreh interviews six men, all previous heads of Shin Bet, using their opinions and stories as a departure point from which to create a cohesive – yet still fractured – historical narrative.

The film opens with ‘facts’ typed against a visual fog, letting us know upfront that clarity will be absent from this story; the facts, after all, are inscribed over an image closer to the truth. We then hear an account of how politicians always want binary opposites from their intelligence advisors – making decisions must be black and white – and yet, everything within Moreh’s frame remains foggy and grey. The film’s title then appears, white on black: here’s certainty, or at least finality, behind the filmmaking decisions of The Gatekeepers.

The film will no doubt garner notoriety based purely on its talking–head interviews with the former leaders of Shin Bet – certainly a rare insight not to be dismissed. But the film is most skilful in its visual construction of historical narrative. The problem of representing the past is one that plagues all good historians. The use of stock footage blended with contemporary reflective account is common for documentarians retelling recent history and the use of CGI reconstruction is usually saved for instances of ancient history or in place of absent recordings. But Moreh uses CG rendering and visual effects to literally expand the view of the historical document and  ‘flesh out’ the facts.

The best example of this is when we get to the Bus 300 affair, when in 1984 Shin Bet killed two Palestinian bus hijackers in custody. There is a newspaper photograph of one of the men, handcuffed, accompanied by two Shin Bet agents whose faces are blurred. The prisoner looks directly at the photographer. There is no mistaking that this man is in Shin Bet custody and, at the time the photograph was taken, he is alive. Employing the sound effect of a snapshot, accompanied by a brief camera flash, Moreh reverses the ‘capturing’ of a moment and instead uses the image as a phenomenological gateway to open up historical time and space. The camera moves beyond the confines of the photographer’s perspective to examine and interrogate the Bus 300 crime scene, showing an expanded picture of the events. Moreh shows us the faces of the Shin Bet agents. From this moment on Shin Bet is no longer an omnipresent organisation, it has a face and it is human.

It is through the CG rendering that Moreh moves beyond the gatekeepers, but not before presenting them as human too.

For viewers who want to take sides this film will disappoint. The men admit the power they held was ‘unnatural’ and they lament failures, before declaring that dialogue between Israel and Palestine is the only way to make progress and affect change. There are no monsters in Moreh’s version of history and there isn’t any blame. There is only earnest talk about the organisation’s systematic dehumanisation of the conflict.

Refusing to engage in the language of conflict, The Gatekeepers also re-humanises the people damned by the term terrorist. Language has created barriers for as long as humans could utter words and Moreh exposes ‘terrorist’ as a non-human category, more insidious even than binary separations. ‘Terrorist’ connotes something destructive, to be feared, a force unmerciful. Through examining the idea of freedom fighting and the cyclical nature of state oppression, Moreh soundly presents the greatest ideological victory for contemporary warmongering as the replacement of the word human with the term terrorist.

The language of conflict is also casual and the words of the six men seem almost weightless when they say: ‘No Israeli Prime Minister took the Palestinians into consideration’, or ‘We forgot about the Palestinian issue’, or ‘Forget about morality’. These statements in the context of the documentary are far from shocking; rather, they become another casualty of the ‘banality of evil’ as they intermittently reinforce the notion that the only clarity ever seen within this conflict is that people are no longer viewed as human beings.

The casual language and the conversational tone of the interviews reveal the organisation’s remove from the subjects they interpolate. Moreh uses this language as an example of failure precisely because it is also the only outlet for peacemaking: all six men concede that dialogue between Israel and Palestine must take place. In this way, Moreh’s film might be considered hopeful. If these six men are willing to speak up then maybe those in power now might consider doing the same. Jenga is an unstable game full of holes and shaky foundations; through a truly remarkable film, Moreh is suggesting its time to topple the complex and flawed tower of conflict, time to build an even foundation.

The Gatekeepers 2012, directed by Dror Moreh

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Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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