The Gatekeepers is a documentary about the people behind the closed doors. Like America’s Homeland Security, Israel has the Shin Bet, their internal security service. The Shin Bet is comprised of anonymous individuals who work with politicians to make decisions that prevent, or sometimes create, disorder in Israel.
With the Shin Bet having the motto of “Defender that shall not be seen,” The Gatekeepers marks the first time that members of the security group have spoken publicly. Director Dror Moreh’s doc features six former heads of Shin Bet, each with their own stories, and decisions to defend, concerning the difficult choices they have made at the cost of an innumerable amount of lives.
This is Moreh’s second documentary, but the first to be nominated for an Academy Award; he previously made Sharon, about Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2008.
In an exclusive interview with Moreh, we discussed crafting a narrative on firsthand storytelling, the film’s relevancy to Americans, which member Moreh interviewed that he would adopt as grandfather, and more.
The Gatekeepers opens in Chicago on February 22.
I had read somewhere that you said some of your interview subjects were better storytellers than others. Did it feel like there was any risk in putting the narrative of the movie in the hands of people who aren’t usually asked to tell stories from work?
I had enough; I felt confident with the movie. I am very experienced in that as well. After you finish, you know if you’ve made it or not. And I knew very early on that I had made it. My challenge was to create a visual language that would match the content. I knew that in terms of content, only if I fucked it up, it would be bad. But I managed to do my job well. [The subjects] provided me with all the tools to provide a fascinating, amazing story. Now I had to really think about how to bring that richness to the 90 minutes, which was the most difficult part. The second most challenging task was to create the visual language of them. But I knew from finishing the interviews that I had really great stuff.
Did anybody not believe you when you said you were going to talk to the Shin Bet?
A lot of them. All of my friends said, “You are crazy! They’ve never spoken. They’ll never agree.” Especially when I said that I wanted all of them. They said, “Maybe one will agree.” This is something that I say to every journalist … even those voyages that you think will never be achieved, try. You never know. What will happen if they say no? Okay. But if they say yes, then you are nominated for the Oscar [laughs]. There was a nice cartoon in the most prominent Israeli newspaper, which showed the six heads of Shin Bet, and then the Academy Award. And then Avraham Shalom said in the cartoon, “How do you think he will behave if we shake him?”
One of your biggest “characters” in this documentary is indeed Avraham Shalom, who at first tries to put on a grandfatherly type of appearance. However, as the movie goes on, the jolly facade falls.
He didn’t want to speak about the Bus 300 affair in the beginning. At the end of the interview it was like, “You have to speak about it.” I asked him about it, and he started to speak. When you are interviewing someone for a long period of time, for hours, the personality goes out. In one of the interviews that I did in Israel, I said I wished that he was my grandfather. I really wanted to adopt him as a grandfather. But he has this cold eye. All the descriptions from the other members about him, Shalom is the most admired and respected. The fable says that when he would enter the government room, all administrators would stand up.
How long did each interview take to film?
Between three and four hours, but it was more; I did some of them two times, or three times. Some of them were six hours. With each one I have about 12-18 hours of footage interviews.
Do you think in a different dimension you’d be able to do a job like this, to be a leader in the Shin Bet?
No. Never. I would never want to put myself in a situation where I would have to decide if someone would live or die. Never. Not in a million years. It’s part of my attraction to this subject, because it seems to me, how do you do that? How do you make those decisions? Because I don’t have that in me, and I am always attracted to things that are beyond my reach, in terms of human beings.
You knew these events, they were prominent. But didn’t have answers. Why hadn’t they spoken until your film?
I think like everything else, it’s timing. When I came to them, the timing was right. They wanted to speak. They wanted to speak because they feel like although they’ve sacrificed a lot in their terms, they gave their life maintaining the security of Israel, and they feel it is now going to catastrophe, and this is coming to the serious part of the movie … if there is anyway I could describe them, it is that they are pragmatists. They use the power frequently to suppress uprising, whatever the uprising was, and they express very intimately the limitation of power until what level power can get you. This is something which is very meaningful also to the American population. With Obama’s inauguration, I’m so happy. I have to tell you that I am so happy that he is the next president of America. It is very important for Israel. He is someone I think who understands the limitation of power, and how much you can go with power. You see that with the decisions he makes, and the time he takes to make such decisions. You are lucky to have him as a president, which in my country, you just have to be happy that you have such an amazing leader, and someone you can understand from what it means to be a leader. If there is something that [the subjects] are afraid to, coming back to Gatekeepers, all of them are afraid of the lack of leadership they see; this is why they came so straightforward and spoke openly.
Quick Questions with Dror Moreh
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
If you could be someone else for 24 hours?
Steven Spielberg, directing a movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark, nowadays. To recreate that movie with the technology now.
Favorite summer movie or blockbuster?
The Return of the King. I am a big fan of Tolkien. I read his books hundreds of times. I think what Peter Jackson did with those films as a Tolkien fan was amazing. He managed to create something that equals the strength of Tolkien’s work, which is unprecedented. I never thought I could say that someone would be able to manage that.
Age of first kiss?
It was with an American girl; an American came to this school where I was there learning. 14.