Movie Monday: The Gatekeepers and the question of “balanced perspectives”

The Occasional Movie Monday presents critical analyses of recent films from Dr. L. PresumablyDrL is a New York-based educator who works to promote the critical use of documentary film in secondary classrooms. 

You can usually tell a lot more about the state of a society from what its artists are up to than from the pronouncements of its politicians and mainstream media. For Americans, Israeli cinema has long provided a much-needed window on Israeli life and politics. So in the coming weeks, this space will take an occasional peek into recent releases – at least those that have been made available to American viewers with English subtitles – that we hope will add depth to the discussion of the issues at the heart of this blog.

Israeli documentarians in particular have been quite busy of late, and much of their work has engaged in some very deep soul-searching about the Occupation, the rights of minorities, and a bit more indirectly, the whole Zionist enterprise.  It escaped few people’s notice that Israel accounted for two of the five documentaries recently nominated for an Academy Award – The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras (which isn’t really an “Israeli” film at all, but more about that in a future post). Of the two, both of which focus on the Occupation, Five Broken Cameras is the far more interesting piece of cinema, but a headline in Sunday’s papers made me think The Gatekeepers may be the best place to start.

Israel’s US Envoy: Gatekeepers Hindering PR efforts” relates Ambassador Michael Oren’s apparent discomfort at the negative effect the film and the considerable attention it has received are likely to have on “hasbara” efforts – as though it is somehow the film and not the realities behind it that are the actual source of the problem.  This is, of course, nothing but a repetition of the very old and very tired admonition in the Jewish community not to air one’s dirty laundry publicly, lest it give some sort of aid and comfort to the proverbial enemy. (“The other side is well aware of how to act and manipulate the media,” Oren notes.)  It’s an admonition that has been used most effectively in the American Jewish community in efforts to silence open discussion about Israel: You don’t live here, you don’t really understand, so you don’t have the right to an opinion. It’s an admonition this writer took seriously for a good long while – until I realized that all it accomplished was to allow everything one knows is wrong to flourish unchecked and unchallenged. Dirty laundry left in the hamper has a tendency to get ever dirtier.  Only laundry that hangs in the fresh air and rain stands a chance of getting clean.

Which is why recent films such as The Gatekeepers are so important. It’s not exactly clear from his piece whether Oren’s ire is aimed at the filmmaker, Dror Moreh, or at the six former Shin Bet chiefs who were interviewed in the film and the stuff that comes out of their mouths. He seems to have particular ire at viewers who are not getting a “balanced” view of things. He says: “This is a good movie that presents a narrative of 45 years of occupation, but is completely devoid of information on Israel’s peace plan offers – Barak’s Camp David attempts, then Olmert, from the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the rocket fire on us. Whoever views the movie without knowing the background, can leave feeling that Israel is to blame and didn’t do a thing.” (Who exactly does Oren think is plopping down $12 to see a Hebrew-language talking-heads documentary, anyway?)

Oren seems unaware that it is not the documentarian’s job to provide “balance,” but to document, to use the camera to bring viewers to places they would be unable to see and hear with the naked eye.  That is what The Gatekeepers does – or at least tries to do.  If anything, as a viewer, I rather felt that Moreh was a bit too timid with his subjects.  He simply lets them have their say, allowing them to criticize Shin Bet actions and policy without prodding them about their own complicity in it, or their motivations for speaking out at this particular moment. He simply sticks a microphone in front of them and lets them speak.  And while much of their commentary – e.g., Yaakov Peri’s statement that “I think, after retiring from this job, you become a bit of a leftist” – is eye-opening, much of it seems rather self-serving, not unlike Robert McNamara’s participation in The Fog of War. They are quick to point the finger at politicians from Rabin to Netanyahu. But it seems the film fails miserably at asking the larger unspoken question of the role all Israelis play in the perpetuation of an unjust and unsustainable system of occupation. There is no abstract “system” into which these men found themselves pulled and which unwittingly manipulated them into doing things they may now regret.  The “system” is created by individuals who make (or fail to make) decisions, and I’m always inclined to think there’s a particular cowardice in saying after the fact, “I really wish I hadn’t done that,” as though that undoes everything that has happened. (These are issues that Ra’an Alexandrowicz’s The Law in These Parts, addresses head on; much more on that film in a later post.)

All in all, The Gatekeepers is very much worth a look.  It is by no means great art.  As a work of film, its presentation is rather dull and its relentless score of scary-movie music is headache inducing. (One should not find himself thinking midway through a film, “Damn, this would have made an excellent New Yorker article.”)  Still, it is an important document.  Viewers should by no means take what the six subjects have to say at face value, but if they care at all about the futures of Israel and Palestine, they most certainly should hear them out.   The fact that it so gets under Ambassador Oren’s skin, and that the current Prime Minister flatly refuses to see it, speaks for itself.


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