Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 09, 2012 11:28 am 
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Security chiefs explain why Israel's not secure

First-time filmmaker's compelling documentary feature focused on six of Israel's latter-day Shin Bet security heads reveals the extent of the nation's violent preemptive or retaliatory actions against Palestinian "terrorists," who as one of them points out, are always somebody's "freedom fighters." This makes a good companion piece to Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's The Law in These Parts (2011; SFIFF '12), which focuses on a group of Israeli judges who sentenced Palestinians, coaxed into revealing a similar degree of moral queasiness about their work. Warning, though: both these films are relentless unreelings of talking-heads-plus-archival-footage. The speakers get challenged more in The Law, in part due to ingenious staging that makes the judges look like they'r on trial, partly because they are more prone to stonewallng and the interviewer is more aggressive in challenging them. The Gatekeepers comes across as less manipulative, its interviewees more cooparative. Moreh deseres credit for getting the six men to speak very freely, though they're not immune to the occasional question-dodging or fake memory lapse more frequently observable in The Law.

The reason for this freedom on the six Shin Bet retirees' part is an idea also expressed by the judges -- here Avraham Shalom (Shin Bet head from 1980-86) says it most bluntly: they do not trust the politicians and often look on themselves as the victims of their policies. One of them says the Occupation was a mistake, and ought to have been ended early on. From the immediate post-1967 War period, Gaza and the West Bank became breeding grounds of Palestinian resistance. Israeli security didn't know how to deal with the situation. Shalom says this and Avi Dichter (2000-06) confirms it. Eventually Shin Bet became an efficient operation. But the question arises: how much good could it do anyway? Both the cold-blooded 1996 assassination of the Hamas engineer and chief bomb maker Yahya Ayyash by an exploding telephone, "clean," quiet, killing only him, and the one-ton bomb on a populous neighborhood that killed a dozen or more innocent people, equally caused public outrage and motivated acts of retaliation by Palestinians. The failure of the ill-fated 1993-1995 Oslo Accords is mentioned as another factor leading to violence on both sides.

Another angle the Shin Bet heads bring out is the dangerous, essentially irresistible power of the Israeli right wing and orthodox rabbis, responsible for the 1995 assassination of the conciliatory prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (which caused a Shin Bet shakeup). Shin Bet was efficient enough to block a right wing plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque, but because the plotters all had powerful connections, they were very soon out of jail and back in the community with positions of honor. A similar problem the film addresses, even more sweeping, is that of the settlements, which one Israeli prime minister after another has chosen to ignore and allow, covertly even boastful of increases of settlers on their watch.

Shalom describes the IDF, the Israeli army today as “a brutal occupation force that is similar to the Germans in World War II." Another says the country has become "cruel" and "a police state." Needless to say such statements on screen will inflame the Israeli right or Zionist hard liners, but underline that even today as the Jewish state drifts toward rightward, it still permits more criticism of Israeli policy than can be heard from US politicians or mainstream American Jews. The Shin Bet heads are insiders. They have seen where the Israeli security structure has worked and where it has failed. They never had any power to change the direction in which the country has been moving. They also are freer to adopt a liberal, critical stance than they were when in office.

The Gatekeepers gains more action-picture atmosphere than The Law in These Parts could, jazzing up shots of the 300 Bus hijacking and the capture and killing of its Palestinian hijackers with fast edits and sound effects and using computer simulations of security assaults on moving targets with an ominous soundtrack. Crowd sounds have been used to bring to live old still footage. But all this works only if the subject matter interests you intensely enough to overlook the familiar mix of talking heads and old footage.

The film's speakers -- and this is what makes it interesting -- are morally ambiguous and hard to judge. They take pride in ruthless targeted assassinations (though acknowledging that the power involved in such arbitrary decisions is questionable). But they are also as noted, highly critical of policies by which Israeli has created a constant state of war on itself. Four of the six retired security heads, Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri and Carmi Gillon, gave a joint 2003 interview warning there would be a "catastrophe" if the country did not opt quickly for a two-state solution. Of course this has not happened, and they are no less concerned. Their voices need to be heard and, again, this is a good companion piece to The Law in These Parts' depiction of the legal double standard Israel has applied to Jews and Arabs. Note: both these films are excellent and deeply question Israeli policies. But they are from an Israeli, not a Palestinian, point of view. P.s.: Calling the Shin Bet "gatekeepers" seems to bear little relation to its counter-terrorist and retaliatory functions. Nonetheless: for any student of the Israel-Palestine issue, this is required viewing. The film's website is here; it gives bios of each of the six interviewees.

(The films competing for the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 2012 were Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers, 5 Broken Cameras, How to Survive a Plague, and The Invisible War. Winner was the non-controversial Searching for Sugar Man.)

The Gatekeepers, 96min., debuted at Jerusalem and showed also at Telluride and Toronto; it is a Main Slate selection of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. Released in the US by Sony Pictures Classics, the documentary opened 26 Nov. 012 in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Broadway at 62nd Street.

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