This is an Israeli documentary directed by Dror Moreh and partly funded by France, Belgium, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and with support from the Moving Image Media programme of the EEC. It was filmed in colour in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio but also includes found footage from film and video material in both black and white and colour. Much of the archive footage has been ‘stretched’ to combine with the 1.85 ratio; a technique accentuated with some of the grainier archive material. There is also specially filmed footage, both documentary style and re-enactments. The film would seem to be influenced by the work of Errol Morris, especially his fine The Fog of War (2003) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008) documentaries. Like the latter film it is often disturbing: some of this because of the events presented, but also because of the testimonies presented to camera by six interviewees. All the main interviewees were, at one time, heads of Shin Bet, the internal Israeli security service.
There is a degree of reflexivity in the film: most notably in a series of onscreen titles which divide up the sections which trace a partial history of Shin Bet’s works from 1967 up until about 2004. They are [as I remember them] – Not strategy – just tactics takes us from the 1967 war to the extended occupation of Palestinian territories, including the West Bank and Gaza. Forget morality includes the early invasions of Lebanon and the mass imprisonment and torture of Palestinian prisoners. Our own flesh and blood focuses on the rise of a particular Zionist extremism including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Victory is to make you suffer is primarily about the first Palestinian Intifada. Collateral damage ….. covers the rise of Hamas and the policy of targeted assassinations. An old man behind a door at the end of a long corridor is a sort of overview of the whole period. The accompanying material, interspersed with the interviews provides illustrations, including targeting Palestinian militants, ‘terrorist’ attacks on Israel, mass Palestinian action, and the workings of this espionage organisation.
Apart from the work of Errol Morris the film has parallels with other documentaries and films. I saw this in the same week as I viewed The Act of Killing and this film also gives a voice to people responsible for numerous killings and violent actions. In a rather different fashion it also allows them to give their comments on these actions. The Shin Bet heads are more self-critical: one draws a comparison with the German occupations in Europe between 1940 and 1945. It also has greater degree of reflexivity than the film set in Indonesia, but whilst it provides more context, it fails to provide a full historical or international context.
This is where it differs from another film seen in the UK this year, the Al Jazeera documentary on Al-Nakba. That film showed a much greater care in it use of archive footage. Al-Nakba also had a much fuller historical context, going back not to just 1967, but right back to an earlier European colonising expedition, that of Napoleon in 1801. And the latter film also provided a voice for the Zionists. Both these films take the position of their constituency, Israeli or Palestinians, but in The Gatekeepers the Palestinians are presented as victims. The nearest we get to their voices is quotations by the heads of Shin Bet themselves.
There is one other film that parallels this documentary: the Sight and Sound review references Waltz with Bashir (2008). And a parallel is that in both films, near the end, we see footage of the violence inflicted on Palestinians: but in both films it is a depiction that is safely anchored in the Israeli overview of the conflict. The Sight and Sound review also suggests that The Gatekeepers has a standpoint shared by both the Shin Bet interviewees and the film, a realisation that as one member comments, “we don’t realise we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle but lose the war.” This final section is mainly critical of the political establishment, though the emphasis is on the post-1967 elite. There are two comments about leaders before this date [David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir] but the film does not develop these. The Shin Bet heads seem to be arguing for a renewed impetus for the moribund two-state solution. Am I being cynical to think that so many European countries were involved in the funding of the film because they share the same despair about that political option? Here again I think Al-Nakba is more realistic as at the end of its fourth part speakers suggest that the two-state solution is now dead.