Israel's Shin Bet — think of it as a combination of the CIA and the FBI — prides itself on secrecy. So when documentary filmmaker Dror Moreh approached one of its past leaders some three years ago to discuss the agency's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he expected silence.
But as in so much of life, timing is everything. When Moreh contacted Ami Ayalon, who headed the domestic counterterrorism agency from 1996-2000, the left-leaning Ayalon was ready to talk — and to help Moreh secure interviews with the other five living former Shin Bet leaders.
Eventually, Moreh recorded more than 70 hours of interviews with the six men who served as heads of Shin Bet from 1980 to 2011. They not only walked the filmmaker through Israel's intelligence operations but also opened their hearts to him.
"I knew I had dynamite in my hands," Moreh said of completing the interviews.
The resulting film, "The Gatekeepers," delivers an extraordinarily frank assessment of both the agency's tactics (there's no morality in war) and a harsh appraisal of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip (nothing short of a two-state solution will fix the problem).
Toward the film's end, one Shin Bet leader even concludes that Israel's occupation of territories claimed by Palestinians is not that different from what the Germans did during World War II.
One of five feature-length documentaries vying for an Oscar and opening in limited theatrical release this weekend, "The Gatekeepers" is far from a talking-heads assembly. Instead, Moreh injects the film with kinetic cinematography, including satellite imagery, stylized photo-driven reenactments and archival footage that takes "The Gatekeepers" into a nearly narrative direction.
"Film is not just about content but what you show cinematically, how you affect the audience with what you show," Moreh said. "I knew my biggest task was to make sure the look of the movie was as good as what was said in the film."
But it is what the Shin Bet leaders admit, rather than the way in which Moreh films them, that gives "The Gatekeepers" its true impact.
While the six leaders are dissimilar politically, personally and professionally — "I don't think they like each other so much," the director said — they ultimately come to say slightly different versions of the very same thing: Even if Israel is winning most of the battles it is losing the war, and the moral price of the occupation is incalculable and unacceptable.
"It's a very negative trait we acquired," said Avraham Shalom, who ran Shin Bet from 1980 to '86. "We became cruel."
Shin Bet was born in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967, when 1 million Palestinians were placed under Israeli military rule essentially overnight. When terrorism started, as Shalom almost fondly recalls, "It was lucky for us. We had work."
That work included espionage, torture and an array of controversial decisions. In the rearview mirror, it all looks worse. "When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist," Yaakov Peri, Shin Bet's leader from 1988 to 1995, says in the film.
The film focuses closely on a 1984 event known as the Bus 300 incident in which two Palestinians who had hijacked a bus were caught, beaten and executed before being tried, with Shalom's blessing. And it revisits one of Shin Bet's biggest intelligence failures, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, perhaps the last best hope for lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was killed in 1995 by a radical, right-wing Orthodox Jew.
One of the more straight-speaking Shin Bet leaders, Carmi Gillon, who ran the organization from 1994 to '96 and quit after Rabin's assassination, said he was initially reluctant to answer some of Moreh's questions, particularly about the targeted killing of Hamas bomb maker Yahya Ayyash by Shin Bet in 1996. But he changed his mind after seeing how well-informed the filmmaker was.
"I never spoke about the details" before, Gillon said in an email interview. "After I understood how much information Dror already had, I decided to cooperate."
A cinematographer by training, the 51-year-old Moreh has directed several documentaries previously. The most prominent was his 2008 film "Sharon," a profile of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Moreh said he was compelled to make "The Gatekeepers" by Errol Morris' documentary "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara." That film, about the U.S. secretary of defense from 1961 to '68 who oversaw America's plunge into Vietnam, won the Oscar in 2004. "When I saw the movie for the first time, I was amazed, first and foremost, by the access — that Morris found people who could testify as to what really happened."
As it turned out, Ayalon was a fan of "The Fog of War" too, which helped open the Shin Bet doors.
Moreh said he also was motivated by what he was taught (and doubted) growing up in Israel: that the only impediment to peace were Arabs, who only wanted to "annihilate the state of Israel" and that "we are fighting because there is no choice." Moreh had been frustrated that "so many missed opportunities" for peace had slipped away, and believed that no one other than the Shin Bet leaders could explain what was really happening on the ground.
"I don't know if it's started a dialogue yet, but I know the audience is listening," Moreh said of the early reaction to "The Gatekeepers," adding that he is presently adding Arabic subtitles to the film so that it can be shown to everyone who has a stake in the crisis. He is also planning on expanding the movie into a five-hour television series in Israel.
Moreh says the film has been performing strongly at the Israeli box office; it's been showing in about 15 cinemas around the country. "It's done as well as some Israeli narrative films," the director said. But he is eager for it to be seen more broadly.
"Any decision-maker in America I hope will see the film. I think [Secretary of Defense nominee] Chuck Hagel and [Secretary of State] John Kerry should see it. And I dare say that President Obama should see it too."
Gillon echoed the sentiment.
"The importance for me is the message the film gives to the Israeli public. The message is that occupation is bad for the future of Israeli society from all aspects — humanistic, economic, moral, etc…I can assure you that all six former heads and some 95% of my colleagues and workers from the Shin Bet from over three decades all agree with the overall conclusions of the film."