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The Gatekeepers (2013)

September 3, 2013

9/10 Vicious Cycles

Can’t we all just get along?

The Shin Bet is an intelligence organization that was formed in the wake of the Six-Day War and was tasked with preventing terrorism on Israeli soil by eliminating threats in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Gatekeepers is a documentary about six men who headed up the organization during their respective tenures from 1974 through 2011. After decades of attacks, retaliations and fledgling peace talks, the six men sound off on why things are the way they are and how each of them played a role in the conflict’s evolution.

I read a lot of fiction in my free time. As much as I enjoy it, I don’t know why that is. I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time before the non-fiction fix kicks in since those are the only books that my parents and grandparents seem to read. Not to mention how hard it is to find a bad documentary and how I can’t say the same about almost every other genre. Anyhow, the primary reason why the bug hasn’t bit is because there are only so many moments and figures in history that make me want to pick up a biography or the like. Such is life in the age of Wikipedia, I suppose.

However, there are always exceptions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being one of them.

From an early age, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict always struck me as something important, something I should really know more about but always seemed out of reach. Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly hitting the books to verse myself on the matter, but there was good reason behind why Google wasn’t helping. Hell, I watched half of this movie before I started it over in the hopes of making heads or tails out of this conflict and its roots.

For a documentary that revolves around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was hoping for a clear-cut explanation. A fair expectation, so I thought, being that’s how these things usually go. I’d like to say that I could hold a halfway intelligent conversation about it now, but I’m not fooling myself. On any other day, I’d usually count that against a documentary. However, it was a naive expectation to begin with.

It kind of makes me think of the way Inside Job tried to explain what derivatives are, how they work and why they led to one of the worst economic crises in history. There’s so much more to this conflict than the history between Israel and Palestine, and while it can be explained, there’s no easy way to break it all down into mere bullet points. The motivations and actions of those involved are by no means black-and-white and the goal of this film is not to simplify the situation so that viewers like myself can be on the level. Even if you are on the level, there’s nothing simple about it; it’s a conflict mired in grey, and therein lies why The Gatekeepers is so effective.

I’ve often thought about what it must be like to hold a position of power such as the one these men once held. Here in the States, everyone grows up wanting to be the President and wanting to make the world a better place. It’s the ultimate job title, a privilege among privileges that’s idolized for good reason. It isn’t until you get older and start voting that you realize the burden that comes with having the final say on national matters. Even if you are trying to make the world a better place, even if you’re saving lives by eliminating a terrorist threat, you’re still the one who has to make those calls and live with the consequences. You may not be the one who drops the bomb or pulls the trigger, but that blood’s still on your hands. I can’t imagine living with a burden like that.

Needless to say, these six men make for some compelling interviewees.

Director Dror Moreh approaches his subjects in the same way that Errol Morris did in The Fog of War. Each individual recounts how they came into their position, reflects back on the tenures of their peers and is challenged by Moreh on decisions each of them made along the way. The results are as harrowing as the ones we got out of McNamara.

It’s fantastic to hear Moreh press these men on matters that I’m guessing they would have pleaded the Fifth to while in office. I’m so used to seeing journalists throw softballs to whoever’s in front of the camera that I almost forgot they could grow a pair. Speaking of which, it’s crazy – if not strangely refreshing – how frank these men are about the realities of what they were up against and the decisions they made along the way. Being that it seems almost impossible to ever get a straight answer out of anyone in the military or politics, I can only imagine how much stuff these guys had to cover up and deny while they were doing their jobs. So the fact that there were only one or two times where a question was avoided – and even then, someone else  was always quick to provide an answer – that’s not something I was used to hearing. That’s something the world could really use more of.

But that’s not to say Moreh is trying to pain these men as anyone other than who they present themselves as, or at least that’s how it seems having just met them. Nor does it present itself as a means to point fingers. It’s the kind of thing you’ll wish every military and political leader would have the gumption to participate in, and while they may not come off in the most endearing of lights, it’s hard not to respect them for speaking their mind. Moreover, there’s an air of respect about the whole process and a common understanding that, with a subject like this, there’s nothing to lose by being honest.

Being a lapsed Catholic of sorts and living in the most secular state in the nation (Vermont of all places), I can’t even pretend to understand what life must be like for an Israeli or Palestinian. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, to say that their faith plays a defining role in their being couldn’t be more of an understatement. When you spend so much of your life in one place, it can be easy to forget how different the lives of others can be. Not only are reminders like these important in respect to understanding and accepting cultural differences that may be different from our own, but, given the context we’re dealing with, they’re a  huge step towards understanding the “terrorist” mindset through a different set of eyes.

The great thing about The Gatekeepers is that you don’t need a working knowledge of the conflict’s history to appreciate its weight and the testimonies given. While the finer details of the conflict might elude me for the time being, the benefits of watching this certainly weren’t lost.

But as enlightening as it is, The Gatekeepers is a sobering experience. Being the eternal optimist that I am, I can’t help but hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel here, that the fighting will stop, talking will continue and peace will eventually come to the Middle East. But to see the defeat and inexpression in the faces of these men who have long since arrived at the futility of their efforts, there’s a case to be made for there being no end in sight. However, one can hope and those who can make a difference can always try.

Regardless of where you hail from or how familiar you are with the subject matter, there’s a lot to be learned. It’s a testament to the cycle of violence begetting violence, the weight of which has been and will continue to be felt throughout history. And with the US on the verge of attacking Syria any day now, the takeaways are hardly exclusive to those in Israel and Palestine. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to war, but as the words of these six men will show, lending an ear certainly doesn’t hurt.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2013 12:16 pm

    Very astute review of an important doc and, as you infer in the last paragraph, very timely. There seems to be very few good options nowadays on these matters…

    • September 6, 2013 12:19 pm

      You said it, man, and it’s a damn shame. Just gotta keep on spreading the word.

      Thanks for the kind words and thanks for stopping by!


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