At Telluride fest, two films cast grim eye on Mideast

An image from "The Gatekeepers."
(Courtesy Telluride Film Festival)

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- This mountain resort is literally half a world away from the Middle East, but Israeli-Arab relations were at the top of the agenda at the town’s film festival Friday. Two of the first features — one a documentary, the other a drama — painted a very bleak picture of the prospects for a lasting peace in the region.

While Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” in which the CIA rescues six Americans in hiding during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, was playing to festival patrons in a theater up the mountain from the ski resort town, audiences down in the city were watching the documentary “The Gatekeepers” and the drama “The Attack.” And if “Argo” made audiences feel that sometimes-perilous situations can yield hopeful outcomes, the latter two films were far less upbeat.

“The Attack,” directed by Ziad Doueiri (“West Beirut”) and making its world premiere in Telluride, is a Lebanese-French film about successful Arab surgeon Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) working in a Tel Aviv hospital. When his emergency room is filled with the victims of a suicide bomber, Jaafari discovers that one of the casualties is his wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem). But she might not have been an innocent bystander: The authorities believe that Siham was actually the bomber, forcing Amin to reexamine his marriage and privileged status.

Desperate to understand how and why his wife came to lead a double life, Amin travels to Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank where Siham has become an instant martyr. “No child is completely safe if he has no country,” Amin is told of his wife’s motives. As he meets with clerics who may have shaped his wife’s militancy, the doctor’s own consideration of the conflict is left in tatters. How did a woman who couldn’t hurt a fly turn into a “fundamentalist monster,” he asks at one point. The answers are all around, the movie suggests, but only to those who want to look deeply enough to see them.


“The Gatekeepers” isn’t nearly as subtle. The documentary, which made its North American premiere at Telluride and is directed by Dror Moreh, is based on interviews with six former leaders of Shin Bet, Israel’s security organization. Using reenactments, videos from drones and other cinematic tricks, the movie chronicles Shin Bet’s tactics, which range from computer-based intelligence gathering to interrogation techniques bordering on torture.

But the techniques aren’t the film’s focus; it’s their ethical price, and the question of whether peace can be created through violence. “In the war against terror,” one of the Shin Bet heads says, “forget about morality.” But the former intelligence chiefs haven’t actually done that at all. In their interviews, they all either renounce or deeply question not only their own deeds but Israel’s larger actions, including the occupations and settlements. “When you retire,” one of them says, “you become a bit of a leftist.”

At the end of the movie, one of the former leaders of the organization even compares the country’s conduct toward Palestinians with the Germans’ treatment of Poles, Belgians, Czechs and the Dutch during World War II. “We’ve become cruel,” former Shin Bet leader Avraham Sharon says. “The future is bleak.”



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