Confessions of the spymasters: Dror Moreh's 'Gatekeepers' takes us inside Israel's Shin Bet


Two questions immediately pop into your head when talking to Israeli director Dror Moreh, the man responsible for The Gatekeepers, the documentary about six former heads of the Shin Bet, the counterterrorist internal security agency of Israel which protects against Palestinian attacks and even right-wing Israeli extremists. The Sony Pictures Classics release, due in theatres on Feb. 1, is a nominee in this year’s Feature Documentary Oscar race and has been named Best Documentary of 2012 by the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics.

1) Why was such a jocular fellow— reassuringly large and cuddly-seeming, comfortable in his skin, blue-jeaned and casually sweatered this fall day while in town to present his movie at the New York Film Festival—drawn to the topic of the sometimes nefarious activities of those he humorously refers to as “the Six Heads”?

2) How did he get the secret operatives, one of whom was still functioning as such during the making of the film, to talk? Clearly he didn’t use, in the words of one of them in a euphemism for torture of Palestinians, “moderate pressure.”

Let’s address the second question first. The Shin Bet is so covert and secret that it makes omerta-bound Mafia dons seem like blabbermouths. So…it was an inside job. In Moreh’s own words, “I got the one, Ami Ayalon, a pro-peace activist, and I asked him to call the others. ‘Tell them I am coming to ask them to be in the movie.’ And then, to the last one I said, ‘I have the five in my pocket.’ I told him, ‘It will be amazing. You better come. There won’t be another film like it, ever.’”

Moreh says the holdout was Yuval Diskin, then still working as a Shin Bet head. Yet perhaps the standout, charismatic “star” of the doc is Avraham Shalom, who ran the Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986. (Moreh admits Shalom is probably his favorite of all the “heads.”) Indefatigable and widely admired, he was responsible for kidnapping Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and bringing him to justice—but also so ruthless that his order to execute Palestinian terrorists after an attempted bus hijacking, and before any trial, brought him to disgrace and ended his tenure. Today, the avuncular octogenarian in suspenders seems engagingly open, charming, wise and even tender, if still wily in his understanding of strategies and tactics. The other five are Yaakov Peri, head from 1988 to 1994, then going forward chronologically, Carmi Gillon, Ayalon, Avi Dichter and Diskin. All were interviewed by Moreh in their homes.

“I believe an interview should be a long conversation,” says the alarmingly disarming Moreh. “In a conversation, in a comfortable setting, defenses get worn down gradually.” It worked. (The six even allowed selections from their cache of personal photographs to be used in the documentary.) In the film, the “heads,” some of whom are still working in academia, politics or business, seem not unwilling to talk. Their memorable quotes, such as “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” dot the film, and are sometimes used as headers, or “chapter” breakdowns. At intervals, too, you hear the interviewer’s—the director’s—voice, often taking them back to the topic of ethical behavior, even in war.

The Gatekeepers is most definitely not the “first time out” for the 51-year-old director, a former well-known cinematographer in Israel who studied filmmaking at Tel Aviv University. The segue to documentary filmmaking seemed natural to him, he says, and it was while making the doc Sharon [about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] that he met Avi Dichter. For Sharon, Moreh used standard talking-head interviewing techniques. But the “Eureka!” moment came when he first saw Errol Morris’ The Fog of War in 2004, a movie he says he has seen “about 100 or 150 times,” and which has unmistakably influenced the thematic kernel of The Gatekeepers, as well as its style and structure.

“I was fascinated,” he enthuses, “because The Fog of War is about power, and a retrospective view from the person who had that power.” As Robert McNamara, the subject of Morris’ film, did, the six reveal strategy, motivations, and what can happen when things don’t go “according to plan.” Morris saw The Gatekeepers at the Telluride Film Festival, and Moreh says, “He loved it, and hugged me.” The six heads have all seen and approve of the film, he reports, and some even attended the premiere in Israel.

In addition to archival footage of historical events, Moreh recreated some on-the-scene moments. There are sequences of private Shin Bet property never filmed or photographed: nightmarish-looking control rooms, file cabinets, interrogation rooms. A few re-enactments are of “carefully drawn and reconstructed drones,” he says, though he prefers not to use the word re-enactment as it implies actors. For much of this he used a French company specializing in CGI. He also believes he may have created a new technique for such re-imaginings, citing a “virtual cameraman who works in an environment we created on the computer using ‘re-photos.’”

All the right elements are there. Unprecedented access. Some chillingly beautiful shot-from-above warlike footage aesthetically reminiscent of The Fog of War. Cleverly edited archival films of the not-so-long ago past (events prior to the Six Day War are not treated). And all in the framework of the behind-the-scenes movers and shakers from their latter-day perspective, such as their conclusion that they were cut loose by the government.

“They abandoned the wounded on the field—us, the Shin Bet,” says Shalom. “That’s why I don’t take the politicians seriously anymore.” The final assessment among all six—astounding when you first hear it—is that maybe the situation cannot be improved through force after all. “I think, after retiring from this job, you become a bit of a leftist,” says Peri. (Still, there is a lurid thrill in learning of the tactics used, war stories made even more dramatic because in many ways Israelis were the first to deal with today’s type of terrorism.) What has occasioned their change of attitude? Overall, Moreh believes the six feel that despite their hard work and sacrifice, Israel is growing weaker.

But what of Moreh? Some decades younger than his subjects, he says his motivation for making the movie is because “Israel is losing.” Losing what? He explains, “If you are always preoccupied with The Conflict, you can’t deal with other things, or move ahead in life.” It is simply more pragmatic, he believes, to make peace with Palestine, and he hopes The Gatekeepers might serve as an opinion-maker for voters in Israel. Forestalling certain accusations, he declares, “I’m not anti-Israel. I love Israel. I’m just pro-peace.”

Not surprisingly, Moreh says he prefers reality-based documentaries (and would like to keep making them, but also narrative fiction films), though it’s a bit startling if funny when he blurts out “I hate them!’ about the entertainment-style documentaries of Michael Moore. He does admire the work of Alex Gibney (the current Mea Maxima Culpa), he says, though it was unforeseen that they might both be in competition in this year’s Oscar race.