The Gatekeepers

Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

Avraham Shalom is this close to kicking your ass.

(2012) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon, Yaakov Peri, Avraham Shalom, Simon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meier, Yassir Arafat, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by Dror Moreh

It is hard to watch certain films without one’s political beliefs coloring them and one with a subject as touchy as the Israel/Palestine conflict it’s almost unavoidable. Nearly everyone has a point of view; the Israeli government has attempted to be reasonable in the face of ongoing Palestinian terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation and therefore they are entitled to protect themselves, or the Israeli government has oppressed a nearly defensive Palestinian minority and occupied their sovereign territory repeatedly attempting to crush their wills through intimidation and murder.

The Shin Bet is Israel’s anti-terrorism defense agency. They are more or less our Homeland Security Agency on steroids; they operate both domestically and internationally and have a broad mandate. What they do is essentially cloak and dagger stuff; ferreting out information through interrogation, infiltration and reputedly, through torture. They are the most shadowy of Israel’s three intelligence agencies; the Mossad (their version of the CIA) and the Aman (military intelligence) being the other two.

It is said that the Shin Bet is not just an enactor of policy but a shaper of it as well and there is no doubt that the heads of the Shin Bet have had the ears of the Israeli prime ministers through the years so it is a pretty big deal when six of the last seven of them (not including current director Yoram Cohen) consented to sit down for extensive interviews for this documentary. The six are Avraham Shalom (1981-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1994), Carmi Gillon (1995-1996), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-2005) and Yuval Diskin (2006-2011).

That these are tough, unsparing men goes without saying. Most of them have a good deal of military background and like many in the military/intelligence community in Israel, they look that they could beat up a grizzly with one hand and tear a great white shark jaw off with the other. Still, there is at least an intellectual curiosity in each of them and a certain amount of wisdom.

Through their eyes we see Israel’s history basically from the Six Days War in 1967 until recently. Several events in Israel’s history are examined, from the Intifada to the hijacking of Bus 300 to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It is the latter event that proves to be a watershed event in the conflict between Israel and the PLO. Rabin had just signed the Oslo Accords and was working to establish a lasting peace in Palestine. Then, as Gillon put it, a punk with a gun decided to change the course of history and in doing so derailed the peace process, which may well have been what conservative elements in Israel wanted all along.

The general consensus of the six directors is that this event forestalled the peace process and might have been the worst failure on the part of the Shin Bet (an operative posing as a radical extremist apparently knew the assassin and of his plans but thought that the plans weren’t serious). There is certainly a pretty good case that the attitudes of the Israeli government towards the peace process changed after that event which is very much what the assassin wanted to accomplish. The directors to a man felt that this put Israel and Palestine in a neverending spiral  of blood and tears which remains to this day.

I was surprised by the attitudes of these men. They are all very similar although they regularly criticize one another for how one thing or another is handled. I found them to be somewhat liberal which you would think would not be the case for the director of an intelligence agency dealing with terrorism; you would expect those sorts of men to be more conservative in timbre and perhaps they were when they first began their jobs.

There is a good deal of talking head kind of stuff here and all of it is in Hebrew so the subtitles flow and that can be static. Moreh breaks it up nicely with the nifty special effect of taking still photographs and digitally making them three dimensional, adding filmed recreations (mostly in black-and-white) giving the viewer more of a “you are there” feel. There is also as you might expect plenty of archival footage.

Some of the images can be pretty disturbing; of blown up busses and buildings and people so do be cognizant of that before heading to the theater. My other criticism is that I would have appreciated more insight into Israeli politics and the role these men had in it. Obviously this was initially meant for an Israeli audience and so there might have been familiarity with the events and processes involved but I felt a little lost in places.

It’s fairly chilling at times; these are men who had life and death decisions on their hands and clearly it affected some of them more than others, or at least more than they are willing to admit. This was one of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees this year and although it lost to Searching for the Sugar Man it deserved to be on the final ballot. I found it to be flawed but fascinating myself; it is certainly worth the effort to check it out and get a little bit more understanding of that conflict between those two parties which seems to be endless with no hope in sight of changing that.

REASONS TO GO: Insight into the inner workings of the Israeli intelligence, military and government agencies. Excellent 3D photographic effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit of the talking head variety. May rub conservative Israelis the wrong way.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few images of violence and some disturbing sequences although probably nothing worse than you’d see on a television news magazine program.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head of the Shin Bet is the only publically known member of the organization.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100; you couldn’t ask for much better.



NEXT: The Core


A particularly lovely image of Hend Ayoub in the Italian drama "Private."

A particularly lovely image of Hend Ayoub in the Italian drama "Private."

(Typecast) Mohammed Bakri, Lior Miller, Hend Ayoub, Tomer Russo, Areen Omari, Marco Alsay, Sarah Hamzeh. Directed by Saverio Costanzo.

In an occupied territory, life is very different than what it is in a land that is free. In an occupied territory, what you thought was yours can be taken away in a moment.

Mohammed (Bakri) is a Palestinian academic living in the occupied West Bank. He and his wife Samiah (Omari) have been arguing. They have received word that their home is scheduled to be commandeered by the Israeli army. Mohammed wants to stay – it is an issue of principle. “I don’t wish to be a refugee,” he explains. “A refugee is a non-person.” Samiah is concerned their five children will be placed in harm’s way. One night, they are awakened by troops led by the ramrod-straight Lt. Ofer (Miller) and are ordered to leave immediately. When they refuse, Miller reluctantly allows them to stay on the bottom floor only but will not allow them upstairs, where the Israelis will be billeted.

What follows is a tense standoff. Mohammed and Samiah try to go about their lives as best they can, while their eldest daughter Miriam (Ayoub) seethes and their eldest son Jamal (Alsay) commits little rebellions. At night, they are contained in what they call the “prison room,” not allowed to leave even to use the restroom. One night, when there is gunfire, their youngest Sarah (Hamzeh) is caught outside their locked doors. Mohammed desperately tries to comfort the terrified girl through the doorway.

While some of the Israeli soldiers, particularly Eial (Russo) are sympathetic, Ofer is paranoid and brutal – even his own men are scared of what he’ll do. While Mohammed counsels passive resistance, his children grow more and more frustrated and willing to resort to acts of violence to get the unwanted soldiers out of their home. In point of fact, they have no home. They have no privacy.

Surprisingly, this is an Italian film from a filmmaker better known for documentaries and this is shot in documentary style. Hand-held cameras help heighten the tension and occasionally Costanzo shoots in night vision-like black and white to ratchet up the tension and sense of reality.

His cast, mostly Palestinian and Israeli, are superb, particularly Bakri as the patriarch whose resolve is crumbling. He’s an intelligent man caught in a situation where reason disappears. Ayoub is also compelling as the hot-headed daughter. She spies on the soldiers in her bedroom, leading to some of the film’s most tense moments when she is on the verge of being discovered.

The problem I have with the movie is the ending. First, it’s rather abrupt which is fine, and it leaves the story unresolved, which I can also accept, but it launches into an English-language ballad which derails everything. Those last few moments are inappropriate given the tenor of the film.

This is one of the better films to come out of Italy in quite a while. Originally conceived as a direct-to-video program, its success on the European festival circuit prompted a limited release here in the States. It’s a bit difficult to find, but worth checking out (I know Netflix carries it).

WHY RENT THIS: A tense and satisfying portrayal of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and what it means to those living there. Wonderful performances, particularly from Bakri and Ayoub, are worth noting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is abrupt and a bit weak.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject is adult and there are moments when children are placed in extreme jeopardy.



TOMORROW: Love Happens