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‘The Gatekeepers’ documentary questions Israeli terror fighters up close

Dror Moreh

Dror Moreh

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:22AM

For his first feature documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” about Israel’s secretive security agency Shin Bet, director Dror Moreh took some pointers from American counterpart Errol Morris.

Nominated for this year’s best documentary Oscar, “The Gatekeepers” uses testimony from six former Shin Bet chiefs to create a disturbing portrait of the moral consequences of the war on terror. (The film opened Friday at Landmark Century and Landmark Renaissance.)

A longtime cinematographer, Moreh modeled “The Gatekeepers” on Morris’ “The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (2003), a stylized inquest into the career of the U.S. Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-68). His insider perspective reveals tactical thinking in the Vietnam War. Moreh does the same in “The Gatekeepers,” examining Israel’s decades of strife with Palestinians.

The documentary reflects how the six chiefs’ experience in Shin Bet (the name is a Hebrew acronym for Israel Security Agency) changed their philosophies. They accuse prime ministers of abandoning them when a counterterrorism operation was exposed and then exacted political costs. “I don’t take politicians seriously any more,” said Avraham Shalom, head of Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986.

During a recent promotional stop in Chicago, Moreh wore a dark blue shirt, similar in shade to those worn by five of the six former Shin Bet heads he interviews in depth in his documentary. He laughs off any idea that he identifies with his subjects as a gatekeeper himself.

A resident of the Israeli port city of Jaffa, Moreh, 51, entered the inner circle of Israeli politics in 2000 when he made campaign ads for Likud Party candidate Ariel Sharon. He then shot insider footage of Sharon’s 2003 re-election campaign. Moreh completed a TV documentary titled “Sharon” in 2008, two years after a stroke put the prime minister in a coma.

On the front lines of counterterrorism, Shin Bet leaders acquired unique perspectives on Palestinian resistance, Hamas and other threats, including fundamentalist Jewish terrorism. “When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist,” said Yaakov Peri, who led Shin Bet from 1988 to 1994.

Moreh designed computer-generated interiors to replace the real rooms and offices around Tel Aviv where he filmed Shalom, Peri and their four colleagues. But not for security reasons. “I am very much aware of aesthetics, and I wanted to control the look of the film,” he said.

State censors did make him make two cuts. “We took out two words,” he said. One would have leaked a technique for finding information in the occupied territories.

Moreh cannot say much about his own military service. “I served in the air force in a secret unit,” he said. “I didn’t fight at all. I was very happy. I was never in the Palestinian territories. I cannot say what it did, but I’m not traumatized by my military service.

“I believe in psychology,” he said. “I am always drawn to the motivation of people, to why people are acting the way they are, which really interests me deeply. What in your past made you to become what you are? I’m fascinated by that.”

“You know, when you are interviewing you are using a lot of psychology all the time. You have to, whether you are aware of that or not. Always I will look for those human moments where you feel something, where something changes you. Like what you are looking for, with me, now? ‘Where did that director came from?’ ”

“The Gatekeepers” gets inside Shin Bet, whose motto is “Defends and Shall Not Be Seen,” to show where Israel is coming from. His film reveals a pervasive anti-Palestinian mentality. “When you see the racism that is throughout, all over, the Israeli society, racism against anything that moves almost, you understand that this is what they [interviewees] mean,” Moreh said. “This is a sick society, a very sick society.”

Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based freelance writer and reviewer.

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