The Mossad is famous the world over as the foreign intelligence service of Israel. Munich was a film about how the Mossad was tasked to hunt down and kill the terrorists responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. Mention the Mossad and the average person will say “that’s Israel’s CIA”.
But if you mention Shin Bet, they will probably have no clue what you’re referring to.
Shin Bet is actually an acronym in Hebrew for Sherut haBitachon haKlali (it represents the S and the B) and is responsible for Israel’s internal security, including preventing and responding to domestic terrorism. Aside from the name of the director, everything about Shin Bet is secret. Now we get a look inside a number of the agency’s activities over the last 30 years in The Gatekeepers, a documentary film that contains some astonishingly candid interviews with six former heads of Shin Bet.
Director Dror Moreh, whose directorial debut was a 2008 look at Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, interviews the six men. They are Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Avi Dichtler and Yuval Diskin. Diskin was still leading the agency when he was interviewed, but left in 2011.
This is more than a historical review of Shin Bet and what it did and didn’t do from 1981 through 2011. It explores ethical issues involving torture, targeted assassination and collateral damage. It uses archive footage and images, along with some excellent computer animation to show the real events being discussed in these fascinating interviews.
Moreh has stated in interviews that it was Ayalon’s assistance that was critical in getting in touch with the other five men, and that all were reluctant at first to discuss certain operations. In particular, Shalom said he would not discuss the events surrounding the terrorist takeover of a bus and what happened to the terrorists. But eventually, he did talk about it on the record.
The film is of course in Hebrew, but with clear and good-sized subtitles. It deals with Shin Bet’s activities in the Occupied Territories and the strategies and tactics used in hunting terrorist leaders, while the audience is being shown efforts at bringing about peace (there is footage of Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Bill Clinton at the time the Oslo Accords were signed). The six former directors seem to be unafraid of answering any question asked of them, although it is natural to wonder if there were questions they refused to answer where their responses are not present in the finished film.
What kind of recommendation can I give this film? I’ll say this. Had I been fortunate enough to have seen it during 2012, I would have included it on my list of the 10 best documentaries of the year. It is nominated for an Oscar for Best Feature Length Documentary and by the time you read this, it may have won.