Getting ‘The Gatekeepers’ to talk

The Gatekeepers, which is playing both in Israel and abroad, has made numerous critics’ 10 Best lists.

The Gatekeepers (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Gatekeepers
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dror Moreh, the director of the acclaimed documentary The Gatekeepers, which may well receive an Oscar nomination this week, will have to spend the rest of his life answering one particular question, but he’s pretty upbeat about it.
“This is what everyone asks me: How did I get them to talk?” he says, referring to the interview subjects in The Gatekeepers: the six surviving heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service.
The Gatekeepers, which is playing both in Israel and abroad, has made numerous critics’ 10 Best lists, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter. On Saturday, the film was named best documentary by the National Society of Film Critics in the US.
The film is a masterful combination of interviews, newsreel footage and computer-enhanced clips.
Israelis may find it shocking that several of the men make statements that echo slogans of the far Left, and it has inspired a national debate on editorial pages here.
It turns out it was easier than you might expect to get the Shin Bet heads – who know a thing or two about conducting interrogations – to open up themselves.
“I knew I wanted to do a film that will involve people from inner circles of defense, and I wanted it to be people from the Shin Bet,” he says, because “their raison d’etre is dealing with the Palestinian issue and security issues and that’s what I wanted to look at.”
When he was making a documentary about Ariel Sharon in 2003 (the film was released in 2008) he spoke with Sharon about criticisms that several former heads of the Shin Bet – Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Carmi Gillon and Ya’akov Peri – had leveled at him in interviews.
“Sharon said it had a huge impact on him. It came from the heart of the defense establishment. He knew these people personally,” he recalls.
Later, Moreh saw the Errol Morris film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamera.
A large part of the film was interviews with McNamera, about what he had done as US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. Moreh was intrigued and thought about making a similar film that would feature interviews with former heads of the Shin Bet.
“Ami Ayalon saw the film [Fog of War] and said, ‘I’ll deal with you, I’m coming aboard.’ And he gave me the phone numbers of the five of them. They all asked me, ‘Why do you want to make this film?’ and I told them, ‘Because you are the most responsible for maintaining the security of Israel.’” That, and Ayalon’s recommendation, apparently did the trick. Ayalon, Shalom, Gillon, Peri and Avi Dichter all agreed to be interviewed, and Yuval Diskin, who was still the head of the Shin Bet, consented after his term was finished.
“There were no ground rules for the interviews,” says Moreh. Except for one in the case of Avraham Shalom, who resigned in disgrace over the killing of terrorists captured alive in the hijacking of Bus No. 300 in the Eighties.
“He didn’t want me to ask about Bus 300,” and Moreh agreed. But he kept pushing and Shalom did eventually agree to speak about the incident, although his answers are evasive.
This part of the interview with Shalom is not likely to inspire sympathy for him, but Moreh has clearly come to empathize with all his interviewees.
“This was the toughest part for me, with Avraham Shalom. It wasn’t easy for him to confront a thing like that. It ruined his life.”
Moreh interviewed each man for about 16 hours and says what surprised him most about them was “the gap between what I thought about them and what they were actually like. There’s this persona you create for yourself of this powerful man and then there’s the person you meet. It was a shock for me each time how complex they are, how deep they are, and how pragmatic.
It’s interesting to examine all these questions through the eyes of a pragmatic person.”
For Moreh, their pragmatism and experience was what made their words important.
“When these criticisms of policy come from these men, people can’t dismiss them. It’s not coming from Amos Oz or David Grossman” whom people on the political Right won’t listen to. “You can love them or hate them,” Moreh says of his subjects, “but they know more than anyone about what goes on. They are pragmatists who love Israel.”
This description could apply to the filmmaker himself. Moreh, 51, served in a secret IAF unit and then went on to study film and work as a cinematographer on many movies before beginning his own directing career. He is currently working on a book based on the film, and a five-part series on Channel One that will be an expanded version. Following the film’s international success, Moreh has received a number of offers, but he says he’s putting those on hold until he finishes everything connected to The Gatekeepers.
In the end, Moreh says making the film taught him that “power can lead you only to a certain point. In the Errol Morris film, he says, ‘Learn from your mistakes.’ I wish our leaders would understand that. I’m not lifting the blame from the Palestinians. But I wanted to make a film about the Israeli side. I hope one day a Palestinian will make a film about the Palestinian side of this.”
The Gatekeepers is currently being screened at cinematheques throughout the country.