There are a number of heads that the documentary has managed to secure from a number of periods of the history of Shin Bet and interviewing them delivers an insight into some of the operations they carried out as well as the view of the Israeli government at the time. It also offers a view of the issues facing both countries that will surprise and educate no matter whether you believe in one side of the conflict or the other, or even have no side at all.
The documentary takes each of the former heads through some of their operations and discussing the governments tactics of their time and cutting between each of them, interacting with footage and pulling them back to deliver their verdict on what is and what could be regarding the region and the ongoing war.
The Gatekeepers has an engaging style to the film, not in the interviews themselves but in the footage used throughout them. There is a fair use of satellite footage with some rather smart technical overlays that look like actual satellite and drone footage. Watching it you do feel that you are seeing actual footage, footage that is perhaps never before seen outside the operation, but there's a growing concern with it that causes some doubt about its authenticity and that creeps across into the film itself.
Watching the footage you start to realise that some of it doesn't quite match with what's being said and that some of it looks manually created. This feeling came through a number of the shots of actual footage but it was a sequence of a recording of an explosion which really raised doubts. I couldn't help but think it was a special effect and immediately this made me feel uneasy about the documentary. A documentary should be about the facts, about real life, but when you see something that raises doubts about its authenticity then that raises doubts about the documentary.
There's an example of how strong the footage sequences can be with a scene during the talk about a bus hijacking which was recreated using still photographs. It's a stylistic sequence that brings the photo subjects to life, pulls them apart and makes them feel three dimensional, moving through the stills as though the cameraman was there in real life but always being clear that this is an animated sequence using real photographs. The lines between what is created for the film and what is actually taken from the time are retained.
However with the satellite scenes its not entirely apparent what is real and what is created and for a documentary that's not a good feeling for an audience member to have. The good news though is that this feeling is only there for the satellite footage and doesn't extend to the rest of the film, as soon as you start engaging with the interviewees this feeling is gone and the actual documentary takes over.
The Gatekeepers themselves offer some powerful insights into Shin Bet and the politics within their government. They are questioned about the organisation as they inherited it; about themselves; their time as heads; some of the operations they were involved in that marked their career; about the politicians and views around them, and ultimately reflecting on what their own views are of Israel and Palestine and their ongoing conflict. They capture you from the moment they begin speaking and there are plenty of moments that make you draw breath in surprise and disbelief, there's a lot that you will find yourself agreeing with, whatever your point of view, and that's something surprising I took out of the film.
Whatever your viewpoint before the film if you watch and really listen to what these people are saying you'll find it hard to disagree with some of their opinions. You'll find some of it is shocking and when the credits roll you'll find that on reflection the film was surprisingly partisan and the interviewees reflective closings are definitely not what you expect.
Each of the interviewees have some powerful observations to make and perhaps the most shocking - and I do not apologise for repeated use of that word - was when Avraham Shalom talked about what Israel were doing and made a comparison that stilled the room. Another moment was when Avi Ditcher talks about the chance the organisation had to wipe out the entire leadership of a terrorist organisation but politics intervened. It's moments like these that make you consider your own understandings and beliefs and make you wonder what you would have done in such a situation. These insights bring you closer to the interviewees and the documentary does give you the time and words to process and ponder these key moments.
I've mentioned the styling of footage already and it's unfortunate that the engaging stylish way that the photographs are animated isn't kept throughout the film but that's often because they have video footage to offer and some of that footage is rather upsetting to see. We witness the aftermath of suicide bombings and these aren't the sanitised photos you so often see in the news, although they aren't extremely gory they do show the bodies. They may be upsetting but they are also very powerful in context and I while I was thinking that this might skew the documentary's opinion and therefore the audience's, it still remains surprisingly partisan and that's because of what the interviewees say.
There's even a scene where the person interviewing the heads does seem to get a little heated about pushing Shalom towards revealing something more about the famous bus hijacking, however Shalom's answers diffuse him and the audience as well as offering another surprisingly less controversial view. He may be hiding something else but it does seem as though he's speaking in all honesty.
The film is well made and the tone is superb with the editing delivering some great moments from the interviewees, in fact I never felt there was a moment I wasn't engaged with what they were saying. I can very rarely say this but there really was a palatable atmosphere in the cinema and one you could hear quietly from peoples reactions to certain moments.
One thing I did find was that while the chapters were laid out well and moved the film forward towards the wider view, there were times that I felt the editing resulted in a rather too obvious jerk or jump. This is noticable in a few moments in the interviews themselves and in the larger moves between sections. Perhaps an extended running time wouldn't have hurt the film, but it's never enough to lose your attention or engagement.
There are many scenes that characterised the film and the messages it was powering home well but one that particularly caught my eye was footage of the PLO leader and the Israeli President entering Camp David with President Clinton. Clinton walked through the door first as both the other leaders put their hands on his back and ushered him in, then each went to do the same to the other and try to be the one seen to be in the power position, however neither yielded and it became a scuffle in front of the press.
The Gatekeepers is an incredibly powerful documentary that is both moving and insightful. It has plenty of style to it which often many documentaries miss, a style that doesn't take over from the interviews and the message itself. While there may be a few smaller editing issues it doesn't seem to deliver any wasted moments with the interviews of the hugely important people it has managed to capture. Each of these interviews offers surprising insights into Shin Bet, Israel and Palestine which all bring some obvious comparisons with the ongoing war on terror that the Western world is engaged in.
I was amazed at how willing the ex-heads were to talk about their operations and their own views, but it's something that permeates to their closing summaries of the entire situation. Their words and recollections and the way they deliver them will, at times, hit you hard and affect your beliefs of them, their roles and their country.
Surprising, shocking and forthright, The Gatekeepers will leave you in a thoughtful and reflective state of mind and although it clearly isn't a feel good film no matter what your beliefs are of who is right and wrong, all that it asks is that you watch, listen and think. The film will definitely affect you and alter your beliefs, even if only a little, through the words of these six men. This is a highly recommended documentary that needs to be watched and talked about, and perhaps these six men will continue to affect change beyond their once secret roles.