A known terrorist is within your reach and in a moment he can be killed. A man who threatens the safety of your nation can be stopped forever. He sits in a car alongside two others. Are they terrorists as well? If you fire, you may slaughter two innocent people. If you do not, three criminals could continue to plot against your homeland.
The subjects of Dror Moreh’s Academy Award-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” have faced these types of dilemmas throughout their careers. In this film, six men (Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri and Avraham Shalom) — each a former head of Israel’s secret service, the Shin Bet — speak of their work in front of a camera for the first time.
Moreh, an acclaimed Israeli cinematographer-turned-director, combines archival footage masterfully with still photographs and computer graphics to recreate the events described by the eponymous Gatekeepers. These sequences are depicted with elements of an action film, breathtaking in their style and suspense, allowing audience members to experience firsthand the Shin Bet.
With a running time of just over 90 minutes, we never get the sense that we truly know these men, but it is unlikely that any documentarian could have done a finer job than Moreh. These leaders have been sole decision makers in matters of life and death. When questioned about morals, one speaker responds, “Forget about morals.” Throughout the film, the six men, who took turns leading the organization over the years, appear perpetually tired, still emotionally recovering from their service.
“Gatekeepers” is defined by its universality. While the film focuses focuses on the Shin Bet of Israel, any race, religion or nation that has been involved in committing acts of war violence can identify with its themes. Like U.S. soldiers returning from World War II or Vietnam, the Gatekeepers have been changed forever, hardened to the point where they will never be able to separate themselves from the Shin Bet.
Through these hellish accounts, the glory of Israel’s secret service is not stripped bare but meticulously examined. At no point do these men support unnecessary violence against terrorism. They understand that they are to their enemies what their enemies are to them. One former leader declares that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” a statement that is key to the integrity of the film.
“The Gatekeepers” is a challenging look at war, and it is bound to garner one-sided attacks as the film continues to expand in theaters. Regardless of views on the war in the Middle East — or on war in general — Moreh’s film is an raw presentation of men changed forever by their own conflicting morals. For that reason, “The Gatekeepers” is a masterpiece.
Jordan Axelrod is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]