It's a cliché of the voting world that even the staunchest liberals — especially of the privileged, male variety — tend to drift rightward through middle age and beyond. Yesterday's protesters develop the libertarian malaise; its progressives seek to fence in their fiefdoms and tax-proof their stock portfolios.
Not so the members of Shin Bet, Israel's renowned intelligence agency and security force. In The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh's Oscar-nominated interrogation of six former heads of the agency, the most expansive of the documentary's many provocative assertions is that Shin Bet men age to the left — and become more critical of Israel.
Why this might be so is the larger subject of Moreh's searching, engrossing and stylish inquiry, another contribution to the informal truth-and-reconciliation campaign being waged by a growing number of Israeli filmmakers. The Gatekeepers makes an apt companion for The Law in These Parts, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's 2012 examination of the ethical issues plaguing the rule of Israeli-written law in the Palestinian territories. Current Oscar nominee 5 Broken Cameras, co-directed by Israeli Guy Davidi, follows four years in the harrowed community of Palestinian Emad Burnat. And then there is Waltz With Bashir, former Israeli soldier Ari Folman's 2008 reckoning with his part in the Sabra and Shatila massacre of hundreds of Palestinians during the 1982 Lebanon War.
Where Folman's confessions are oblique and impressionistic, the subjects of The Gatekeepers describe their respective ambivalence with stinging clarity. They are direct and dispassionate, having seen and done too much to have use for rhetoric or the evasions of ideology.
Politicians, says Yuval Diskin, Shin Bet's leader from 2005 to 2011, prefer their problems distilled into binaries so that binary solutions might follow. But the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which began in the wake of 1967's Six-Day War, has produced endless problems in infinite shades of gray. Diskin, just a boy when that war took place, joined Shin Bet as a proud young man, wanting to be part of the solution. What he and the others here describe is their moral and political evolution as occupiers, and the devolution they believe is threatening Israel from within.
It makes for compelling viewing, but the enigmatic cross-hatching of insights that emerges from those big interviews makes The Gatekeepers something more essential. Moreh presents his subjects on a defensive plane: They are framed as witnesses, and at first, as we watch, it's hard to be certain for whom they are testifying.
Although he takes a prosecutorial tone in his rare interjections, Moreh is not running a kangaroo court. The men seem to welcome the opportunity to tell their stories and are given room to digress, extemporize and reveal themselves. By turns, they are forthcoming, cool-headed, blunt and reflective. Viewers are invited into that same grayish space to reconcile talk of torture, targeted assassination and collateral damage with deeper expressions of concern and regret.
But the existence of The Gatekeepers is its own chief statement. You don't get the sense that it's any easier for these men to question Israel's leadership, or lack of leadership, from the safety of retirement. All of them insist that continuing to talk to Palestine is the only option.