The Gatekeepers, the explosive new documentary by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, opens wide in February of 2013, but it had already received rave reviews both in limited release and at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals of 2012, including New York, Toronto and Telluride. The film’s power derives less from its themes—Israeli political and military history—than from the director’s unprecedented access to his subjects, all of whom have served at some point or another as chiefs of Israel’s secret police.
Never before have all the living former heads of a secret agency agreed to be interviewed for one film, not in the US, not in England, not in France, and certainly not in Israel, where the agency’s motto is “מגן ולא יראה,’ Or “defender that shall not be seen.” Still, audiences will recognize their faces from six decades of headlines: Avi Dichter, credited with drastically reducing the number of attacks from within the occupied territories, but then accused of war crimes by the New York-based Commission of Constitutional Rights; Carmi Gillon, who resigned in disgrace after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin; And even Avraham Shalom, who was forced to step down after being held accountable for both the extrajudicial killing of two suspected terrorists in 1984 and the resulting cover-up. But even more shocking than their past actions is their collective view of the future of the state of Israel, all based on first-hand experience making moral and ethical judgment calls that few civilians can imagine.
This fall, in a Telluride café directly across the street from a theater in which he had just received a standing ovation, the 51-year old director explained why his joy over the film’s enthusiastic reception continues to take a back seat to fears for his country’s future.
Keyframe: What inspired you to make this film?
Dror Moreh: Like many Israelis, I feel very bleak about our current situation. I have family and children in Israel, and I am terrified. So I wanted to make a film that would ask hard questions about where we are headed. I wanted this to be a movie that no one could argue with, where no one could say, ‘These people don’t know what they are talking about,’ or it’s ‘their bias,’ or, ‘It’s just one opinion.’ So I knew that I needed not just one former chief of the Shin Bet, but all of them. Every single man would need to agree to speak with me.
Keyframe: How did you get former heads of an organization known for its secrecy to speak with you at all, let alone on camera?
Moreh: I started with Ami Ayalon, because I knew that he too had made efforts to change the current political reality. It took a month and a half to get an interview with him, and when we finally met, he interrogated me relentlessly about my intentions. Of course I answered honestly—interrogation is his profession, after all. What won him over was when I told him how much I love Errol Morris’s film The Fog of War. He told me he believes that it’s a film which should be shown in every military academy in the world, to show what actually happens during wartime. When he understood that this was the goal, to make a film that would rely on the insights of the men who were actually in the room when difficult decisions were being made on behalf of national security, he said, ‘I’m in.’ And I said (laughs), ‘Good, now can you call some of the others and put a good word in for me?’
Eventually, they all agreed to participate.
Keyframe: Who was the hardest to convince?
Moreh: Shalom was the hardest nut to crack. He was wounded deeply by the 300 bus scandal. He never spoke about it with anybody. And that conversation was also one of the hardest for me—I was actually shaking when we were done with that confrontation.
Keyframe: What do you think persuaded him to participate?
Moreh: I don’t want to go to far into psychology, but you know, he’s an old man at the eve of his life, he knows that. So maybe it was a good time to approach him, and melt the resistance that he had.
Keyframe: One of your film’s many stunning moments is when Ami Ayalon draws an analogy between Israel’s relationship to the Occupied Territories and the Nazi occupation of Poland. This is the kind of language we would expect from someone like filmmaker Udi Aloni, not from a former head of the secret police.
Moreh: I don’t like the Udi Aloni perspective, because in my point of view he is a professional demagogue—not connected to reality. But it’s different with someone like Ami Ayalon, because he carries the authority of direct experience. But when someone like Ami Ayalon uses an expression like the ‘banality of evil,’ he carries the authority of direct experience. I’m not even sure if he was aware of the historical irony there, since that term originally comes from Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem.
When someone like Ami Ayalon uses an expression like the ‘banality of evil,’ he carries the authority of direct experience. I’m not even sure if he was aware of the historical irony there, since that term originally comes from Hannah Arendt’s book, ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem.’
Keyframe: Do you think he and some of the other men you spoke with are worried about their historical legacies?
Moreh: I think these men are genuinely concerned for the future of the nation. In a part of the interview that I had to cut from the movie but hope to keep for television, [Avraham] Shalom said something else that I think is very important. ‘We paid a horrible price,’ he said, ‘for our military successes. We are isolated completely from our neighbors, we cannot go anywhere, we are a thorn in the side of the region.’ From the point of view of demography—Israel is 7,000,000 people—how long can you sustain yourself by might, by strength? It doesn’t work, and it can’t work indefinitely.
Keyframe: Several of the men featured in The Gatekeepers seem to think the real threat is not from without but from within—from Israel’s religious right.
Moreh: Look how [Yitzhak] Rabin was killed! The rabbis who were inciting violence against Rabin were never prosecuted for what they did. As Carmi Gillon says in the film, the Supreme Court never wanted to address the rhetoric of hatred, because of freedom of speech. But words can kill.
Keyframe: What does this demographic shift mean for the possibility of a two-state solution?
Moreh: A two-state solution basically means that Israel would take out all the settlements in the West Bank. But the religious right is too powerful. They are well armed, they are determined and they have the ideological support of the rabbis. Trying to remove the settlements would start a civil war. And this is why I believe Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president, because sometimes it’s necessary for the people to say ‘enough.’ But I do not believe there is anyone in the country who can take on that role right now. The last one who could have done it was Arik Sharon, and he is in a coma.
Keyframe: You don’t think Bibi could be another Lincoln?
Moreh: (Laughs) No. But believe it or not, he does like to compare himself with Winston Churchill.
I have no faith whatsoever in our current leadership. If you could hear what those heads of Shin Bet say about the period of time from 1996-2000, when Netanyahu and Barak were in power… If you could hear some of the things those two men did to destroy the peace process—just because of their personalities—your head would explode. This is why I feel so… bleak.
Keyframe: There must be some light at the end of the tunnel.
Moreh: One thing that did give me some hope was after a screening of the film in Israel. There were amazing reactions from the audiences. After the first screening, three settlers—with kipas on their heads, you know—they approached me and said: ‘Dror, we have never been confronted with such a thing. And we really have a lot of things to think about.’
Again, I will quote from the film, because the gatekeepers themselves still hold hope. Recently, I met with Diskin again, and when I told him how bleak I feel, he told me ‘Dror, with the right leadership—anything is possible. You would be surprised at what can be achieved.’
But it will take real leadership. On both sides.
This article was originally published Jan. 10, 2013 in the Forward.