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The Secret Sharers: 'The Gatekeepers' Exposes a Hidden History

By Tom White

The Gatekeepers, from Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, is one of a handful of recent works that have taken a hard look at the Israel-Palestine conflict and the occupation of the West Bank. As Israel is shifting further to the right politically, films like The Gatekeepers, The Law in these Parts and the Palestinian film 5 Broken Cameras have tried to play a countervailing force in keeping the conversation about the peace process alive. 

The Gatekeepers offers an unprecedented access to six former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's secret service agency, all of whom reflect deeply and openly on actions, decisions and policies of both the agency and the state over the past 30 years. These leaders show a remarkable candor about their successes and their failures, and each of them questions the morality of Israel's statesmanship in the region and advocates a more reasoned and level-headed commitment to the peace process.

In addition to its Academy Award nomination, The Gatekeepers was named Best Nonfiction Film by the National Society of Film Critics and Best Documentary Film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the film appeared on the "Ten Best" lists of many prominent critics. Documentary spoke with Dror Moreh by phone from Berlin, where The Gatekeepers picked up the Cinema for Peace Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Documentary: When you approached the leaders of Shin Bet, how did you present the project to them?

Dror Moreh: Basically, I found that they were ready to speak; it wasn't that I had to coerce them. I went through Ami Ayalon, the director of Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000, because he knew how to approach them. So I met him first. I told him what I wanted to do, what kind of film I wanted to create, especially from their [perspectives], because of who they are, where they came from and the organization that they headed and the tasks that they had to do, and there's a close connection with the prime minister of Israel and the policy makers. So at the end of the day, he said, Yes, I will come. Then I asked if he could give me the phone numbers of those he knew and I would call them, or if he could call them and tell them that I would come. First he [advised] that I should go and speak to them. I went to a meeting with each one of them, and each one of them interviewed me for a long time. This is how the whole process basically started.


Ami Avalon, who headed Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000. Photo: Avner Shahaf. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


D: Were there questions that were off limits? Were there ground rules and parameters with respect to each interview?

DM: No. There was just one thing that Avraham Shalom [the head of Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986] said in the beginning that he would not speak about: the 300 Bus incident. [Editor's Note: In 1984, a tourist bus was hijacked by two terrorists. Although they were captured and led off the bus in handcuffs, Shalom ordered their execution without a trial; he was forced to resign two years later.].

They were the ones who decided what could be said and what could not be said. Usually it was when I got too close into how they worked their methods; this is where they said, No, we will not go into that. All the rest was on the table and discussed.

D: But you do ask Mr. Shalom about the 300 Bus incident in the film.

DM: It took three times ( I interviewed them all a few times). Before I went for the last interview, I said to him, "This needs to be in the movie because that is one of the most important cases that changed Shin Bet completely. And you never gave your account of what happened that night. You never spoke about that. You have to, for the first time, tell everybody what was your point of view—what happened that night and after that." He didn't say he would do that. And the last interview was long. Then I asked him a question, which is basically in the movie. I asked him, What happened that night? He kind of hesitated and he said, "I don't remember." But he started to speak. I knew that he would speak.


Avraham Shalom, who headed Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986. Photo: Avner Shahaf and Irit Harel. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


D: That's probably the most contentious moment in the film, when you're pressing him for details. Over all, you elicited such candor from every one of them. They're very reflective, particularly about the morality of what they did. How did you frame your questions that would draw out such self-reflection from each of the heads of Shin Bet?

DM: At the end of the day, I think my technique as an interviewer is to create a conversation, without fear of confrontation—not something that is an interview, but more of a conversation between two people. I'm really interested in what they have to tell me. I'm not bound by the questions I have prepared, I'm more for going with the course of the conversation, then I follow that. All those issues that you spoke about—morality—were not planned. I had planned to speak about it, but all the time it came out of the conversation: How did they deal with this issue? This was something that I was very interested in, in the first place. When you're doing a long interview, at one point the camera and the setting go away, and it's just being about connecting with each other or speaking with each other.

D: What was most surprising or revealing about the interviews?

DM: A lot of things. I really have to tell you that my jaw dropped at least 30 times in each interview. But if you ask me what was most revealing, it was that as an Israeli and a citizen of Israel, in the educational system we are taught that Israel always strives for peace. Israel is the one that is always striving for peace, and people around us are the ones that are refusing all the time. But what you hear from [the Shin Bet leaders] is that that is not the case; many times Israel could have done much more to work towards peace. There was a chance that some things might have happened so as not to be so tragic as they are now. You hear from them their responsibility to recognize that, also within the Israeli establishment and the government. I think that's what kind of shocked me. The Palestinians have had their share in responsibility, but Israel also had her share in that. The Likud and Labor Party also didn't really strive hard enough for peace. That was something very depressing to me.

D: You've shown this film to American audiences and to European audiences. Talk about the reaction among these audiences--what kind of questions they had, what the conversations were like.

DM: The first reaction I got from either Americans or Europeans was astonishment and shock that that message [in the film] comes from the establishment in Israel, which is prominently perceived as much more right wing. A lot of people didn't understand that the situation is so complicated. I also found that the emotional response to the film was far stronger among the American people because they are dealing with the same issues and subjects that Israelis are dealing with: morality, the means of getting intelligence, torture, drone attacks, the targeted assassinations of terrorists inside civilian populations...The Europeans are much more detached from that.

D: Has your film been shown in Israel? What has been the reaction among Israeli audiences?

DM: We opened a month ago in two cinemas. After two weeks we expanded to more, including a cinema that had never shown documentaries. After a month over 50,000 people have seen it, which is amazing for a documentary in Israel. From e-mails, texts and Facebook messages I've been getting, there are very strong responses to the film. There's also a lot of hatred that I get from the extreme far right, calling me a traitor, collaborating with the enemies of Israel.

D: I have read that you are making this film into a television series?

DM: I'm in the middle of that. I'm transforming the film into a five-part series for Israeli television. We go into much more detail with all the topics covered in the movie.

D: I wanted to talk about your filmmaking career. You started as a cinematographer before becoming a director, and I wanted to get a sense of what you communicated to your cinematographer on The Gatekeepers about what you wanted to achieve with this film.

DM: It was very important to me from the beginning [to establish] the visual language of the film, how you transform their words into a visual language. I was a cinematographer for a long time in fiction. I love fiction films, so everywhere that I could create a feeling which would speak more in fiction [in terms of] a visual language, I endorsed that. You can see that in the Bus incident, where I had to create from four different photographs a complete ride that described what happened that night in that bus hijacking. Also the shooting of the archive material, very precisely... And that got the kind of visual language that you take from talking heads and how they look in terms of depth of field, in terms of what you can tell from their faces, and continues with the inner Shin Bet cabinet, which was created in CGI, or the drones, which were also created in CGI. They were recreated exactly to the point of how those neighborhoods were attacked. It was a big complex issue, how to create a visual languge for the film.

D: You've cited Errol Morris' The Fog of War as an influence in making The Gatekeepers. What was it about that film that was such an inspiration?

DM: First of all, the access. The access to someone who was in power, who sat in those rooms, spoke to those people. It was a very accurate account of what happened in those rooms. You can also look at that in hindsight at the situation in which McNamara was involved, criticizing himself, criticizing the decision-making and seeing if at the end of the day it left his country with a better future or not. This is was the first point I took from The Fog of War. The second thing was Morris' genius work with the archives and how he incorporated the archives into telling his story.


Dror Moreh, director of The Gatekeepers. Photo: Mika Moreh. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics



The Gatekeepers will be screening Saturday, February 23, at 10:00 p.m. as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.