Posted April 8, 2013 by Shelley Marsden in Features

Director Dror Moreh

When Dror Moreh revealed that he wanted to do a movie that involved talking to the Shin Bet – Israel’s Secret Service – the reaction was pure disbelief. These men work behind the scenes and never reveal their inner workings. Their motto is “Defender that shall not be seen.” The Israeli filmmaker only told a chosen few of his intentions, but those he told thought he was entirely crazy.

When Dror
Moreh revealed that he wanted to do a movie that involved talking to the Shin
Bet – Israel’s Secret Service – the reaction was pure disbelief. These men work
behind the scenes and never reveal their inner workings. Their motto is
“Defender that shall not be seen.” The Israeli filmmaker only told a chosen few
of his intentions, but those he told thought he was entirely crazy.

“They said, look, the Shin Bet will never come and speak,
you’re hallucinating”, recalls Moreh. They were spectacularly off the mark. Six
former heads of Shin Bet did speak openly and at length to Moreh and the result
– his stunning film, The Gatekeepers, kicked up a storm of publicity. It has
been nominated for the 2013 Best
Documentary Feature
at the 85th Academy Awards and won the LA Film Critics Association Award for Best
Documentary Film

A combination of in-depth interview, archival footage and
computer animation, The Gatekeepers tells the personal accounts of these Shin
Bet men, some now outspokenly against Netanyahu’s
policies. What they say about the controversy surrounding the Occupation in the
aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, their counter-terrorism campaigns and the
on-going Israeli-Palestine conflict is candid, utterly shocking and marks the
first time members of this secretive organisation have spoken publicly about
their work – about the morality of torture and terrorism, arrests and
assassinations, and the moral dilemmas they were faced with on the job each and
every day.

Talking about career highlights and darkest moments, this
film is full of mind-boggling stories, decisions made that potentially affected
thousands of lives – one instance is the blowing up of a city centre house to
kill a ‘number one terrorist’ though they could never have limited deaths in
such a built-up area to just one person.

Moreh’s inspiration for The Gatekeepers began with his
previous movie Sharon (2008), about
Israel’s former prime minister, which explored how the leader became involved
in the ‘disengagement plan’ (also known as the “Gaza expulsion plan”,
with the aim of resettling all Israelis from the Gaza Strip and from four
settlements in the northern West Bank).

Moreh was reading an article in one of Israel’s most widely
read newspapers which, prior to the announcement of the disengagement plan,
included an interview with four former heads of Shin Bet. He found the power of
their words drawing him in.

He says: “They were basically arguing that, if Sharon
continued with his policy, he’d be leading Israel into catastrophe. One of his
closest advisors when I interviewed him told me that Sharon read that article,
and it was one of the key reasons that he went into the disengagement plan.
When I heard that I said wow, if Sharon – the most extreme right-wing
politician in Israel’s history was persuaded by that, if I managed to bring
them to speak, it would create probably the same kind of effect that happened
there. And it did.”

But how do you begin to convince the ex-heads of Shin Bet
that speaking to you for a film – sometimes on very controversial subjects –
would be a good idea? Moreh
reckons that, for one, his timing was good. All these men, some of them hard
nuts to crack, had one key thing in common: the feeling that Israel had been
dragging its heels in the peace process for a long, long time and not doing
anything. So, Moreh fond that they felt prompted to come and say what they
needed to get off their chests.

“They interviewed me to begin with”, he reflects, “and some
were tougher than others. But at the end of the day, they understood what the
message of the film was going to be and they agreed to come on board. They
understood the effect that all them, all these ex-heads of Shin Bet, being
there together would have. All six of them carrying that one voice gave what
they were saying a potency, and a completely different power.”

It sounds gruelling. Moreh interviewed each man at least
three times, and in the end the shortest interview lasted around nine hours,
the longest fifteen. He ended up with some 75 hours of filmed interviews. It
sounds like the filmmaking equivalent of five rounds in the ring with Mohammed

How did he get them to be so open and honest – was there a
bottle or two of whiskey involved? “Haha, no… like everything, it’s a process”,
says Moreh. “It’s a process between two people who are speaking to each other.
I didn’t coerce anyone into speaking in the movie, they wanted to. They
understood the importance of being honest and forthcoming.”

Some of Moreh’s interviewees are clearly more natural
raconteurs than others, but the director never doubted the quality of the
material they had shared with him. As a viewer, the level of intrigue, violence
and political manouvering which they speak about so honestly is quite shocking.
Moreh didn’t go near the editing room until he had finished every interview, at
which point, he says, “I knew I had dynamite in my hands”.

Riveting viewing indeed was Avraham Shalom. An extremely complex character, he comes across
initially as a benevolent grandfather figure, but is revealed as a much colder,
more ruthless individual by the end of his on-camera confessional. But it’s
also clear why, of all the other members, he is the most admired and respected.
Moreh says that, rumour has it, when Shalom would enter the government room,
all administrators would stand up.

Interviews done, the challenge that remained was how to
shape all this material into the form of a film that would match the dynamite
of these extraordinary men’s words, shaping that vast material that he had into
a 90-100 minute movie without losing the good content.

Moreh says, “It was really necessary to keep all the shades
of grey, which was very scary for me. I wanted to portray the problematic
situation on the ground. It’s not a clear-cut situation with the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no black and white, and I wanted to make
sure that was clear. It was one of the most challenging issues I had in
creating this movie.”

The Gatekeepers was also a personal Damascus for the
director. He explains candidly that, as an Israeli, growing up you were always
told that Israel and its leaders always strive hard for peace and that the
problem lies ‘with the other side’. But as with conflicts the world over, it’s
never that simple. Those shades of grey he talked about were brought home to
Moreh in the making of this incredible film.

“I am not saying that the other [Palestinian] side don’t
have their share of guilt in this situation but to understand those people that
spent their life protecting the state of Israel, that were in the room with the
prime minister throughout the years, within those decision-making rooms, to
know that there were a lot of missed opportunities by the Israeli prime
minister, to at least try to reach a better solution, was the most shocking
revelation to me.

“You naïvely think that Israel has only ever strived for
peace, and they say to you that the Palestinians always refused those attempts.
Maybe these missed opportunities wouldn’t have amounted to anything but at
least we would have tried. We need to be as sincere and serious as we can,
while we make noises about supporting a two-state solution.”

The filmmaker inverts an iconic line from a Sergio Leone Western to explain
good-humouredly what he hopes his audiences bring away from The Gatekeepers.
“You know The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? At one point, Tuco says, ‘When you
have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk. Well I say talk, just talk. Don’t shoot. It’s
far easier to talk, it’s less heart-breaking, it’s more prudent and it may
create a better solution. There might just be hope but people on both sides
really need to mean it and act towards it which, up until now, has not been the

Moreh’s next project, he says, will involve dipping his toe
into feature film territory. He’s had “a lot of offers” to work in America as a
result of The Gatekeepers, and is considering a fiction film there, saying it’s
time he “rest a little bit from documentaries”. The project will not take him too far from the subject
matter he’s been dealing with up till now. “Think secret service, espionage, clandestine operations in
Afghanistan and Iraq, something akin to Bourne
”, he says.

He doesn’t promise to return to the documentary genre any
time soon. Let’s hope some rarely explored, eye-opening subject matter grabs
his attention sooner or later though – documentary makers like Dror Moreh don’t
come about every day.

Gatekeepers (Metrodome Distribution) is released nationwide on 12 April.

Shelley Marsden