The Gatekeepers, an Israeli documentary by Dror Moreh is a coup most film makers could only dream of: not only about events of first order importance caught while they still live, but with participants fundamental to the issues, and crafted with terrific film values.  With fourteen years as a cinematographer but as a director with only one documentary, Sharon, Moreh convinced the six living former directors of Shin Bet to talk to him, on camera, about Shin Bet and the state of Israel.

Imagine David Patraeus, Leon Panetta, Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenant and John Deutch of the CIA honestly talking to Errol Morris — about torture, failure to predict 9/11, and the US support of dictators in the Middle East. Shin Bet isn’t the CIA, it’s more like the FBI, but with responsibility for security issues originating in the West Bank and Gaza their espionage, rendition and killing options far exceed those of most internal security forces.

I don’t know how Moreh convinced these men, or if Shin Bet itself had a final say on the editing, but what an eye-opening conversation! More for Americans than Israelis I suspect, who are famously more varied in their opinions of the state of Israeli politics than their American cousins who have claimed that any criticism of the state hides (barely) anti-Semitic feelings.  But all six of the men have repeated the judgments offered, individually, in the film, that while tactically the organization they led did necessary, if ugly, work, the end result is looking more like failure.  As one of them says early in the film ‘there is no strategy, just tactics.’ As the political leadership has not articulated and followed a strategy to bring Israel security — which for all of these men means negotiating with Palestinians as full human beings, recognizing their right to a homeland — the future looks increasingly bleak.

“It was a long journey,” Moreh tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies of his efforts to get the Shin Bet chiefs to talk. “I think it is timing, and the timing for them to speak was right. … [Y]ou don’t force people like that to speak. They came because they wanted — they understood — what I wanted to say, what I wanted to tell, and I think that the main reason for them to come is the fact that they felt that the state of Israel is walking in a path or in a route where it will only lead to a dire and bitter consequences for the existences for the state of Israel.”

An hour and forty minutes of six men talking to the camera seems an unpromising way to spend a movie evening.  However, as others have shown, taking on urgent, contemporary issues with direct testimony from participants can be not only attention grabbing but informative, provocative and inspiring.  The Fog of War, The Sorrow and the Pity and Inside Job all come easily to mind. The Gatekeeper should certainly be at the top of any such list.

Moreh has found TV clips from the events the men are talking about, famous and infamous in Israeli and Palestinian history, including graphic clips of bus bombings and long black and white segments of Arab round-ups.  He has organized the conversations — in which he is sometimes heard prodding for more– into seven sections, not historically conceived but in rough chronological order.  Forget About Morality lets them talk about the ‘persuasive’ tactics they used, listing some, and honestly engaging in the problem of where it leads, even when, at a given moment –an operation in motion to bomb a bus– the ‘persuasion’ seems justified. Avraham Shalom, the oldest of the men, shrugs off questions of morality, though he resigned from Shin Bet after two Arab prisoners were beaten to death following the 300 Bus hijacking.

Moreh wanted to know what they felt:

“The thing for me is to try to understand if they had another interest in speaking. Especially on those really morally questionable issues that we dealt with: the targeted assassinations, the torture, the right to give the order to kill without a trial. On those issues I can say, first of all, they have to defend the decisions that they took, but I didn’t feel that they tried to whitewash what they did.”

The most explosive segment for many will be Our Own Flesh and Blood – about Jewish, settler terrorism, including the Jewish Underground, the terrifying (thwarted) plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The former Shin Bet commanders directly condemn the unwillingness of the political leadership of Israel to take on the settlements as they grew and changed the calculation of the possible with the Palestinians.

What is best about such a film is that, without a schematic objectivity — the one said this and the other said that– we get real objectivity.  We hear a nonchalance about targeted killing and we hear serious doubt about what can be accomplished.  We hear a man say there is no such thing as morality when it comes to terrorism and an hour later say such and such an action is immoral.  We watch some very tough men wrestling with very tough questions and saying what they have to say, likely knowing they will have to stand up to tough attitudes from fellow citizens who hear them.

Moreh had a goal in mind, I don’t know if when he began but certainly as he came to the final days of making the film.  In his unvoiced Oscar acceptance speech for 2013 which The Gatekeepers lost to Searching for Sugarman, a quite wonderful film with nothing like the importance of The Gatekeepers, he says:

 “We pray that it would echo in the corridors of power in Washington, Berlin, Paris, London and especially in Jerusalem and Ramallah.” [IMDB]

Make sure you see it, and bring some friends who can still see over the walls.