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January 30, 2013

Gatekeepers or Gate Crashers?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/gatekeepers_or_gate_crashers

A still from "The Gatekeepers" (Photo by Avner Shahaf/Irit Harel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

A still from "The Gatekeepers" (Photo by Avner Shahaf/Irit Harel, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

How can a dubious and unoriginal Israeli movie become the darling of the film world and even get nominated for an Academy Award?

That is the real story behind “The Gatekeepers,” a documentary that, as Jodi Rudoren of The New York Times writes, “has already captured the attention of the world: at least 10 American film critics, including two from The New York Times, put it in their best-of-2012 lists.” 

The film, as Rudoren describes it, “braids the recollections and reflections of six former chiefs of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, into a disturbing narrative of their country’s occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967.”

I saw the film last Sunday at a screening in Beverly Hills, after which I moderated a panel discussion. Basically, the film is an artful pastiche of former security gurus telling us how war sucks, occupation sucks, making peace is really important, if only the politicians would listen to us, and other such “revelations.”

The filmmaker himself, Dror Moreh, admitted in a Times interview that “the power [of the film] is not so much the message as the messengers.”

That, in fact, is the movie’s main claim to fame — that “for the first time ever,” as the press materials exclaim, these tough guys “share their insights and reflect publicly on their actions and decisions.”

That “first-time ever” claim comes up on a title card at the beginning of the film, setting up a frisson of drama that lasts throughout the film, as you think, “Oh my God, these mystery guys are finally talking!”

The problem is that it’s not true.

As Rudoren reveals in her Times story, four of these security chiefs had already broken their agency’s code of silence in 2003 in a high-profile press interview, and the others have spoken out since.

Why is this important?

Because what “The Gatekeepers” preaches — that Israel’s policymakers should heed the advice and criticism of their security chiefs regarding the occupation — was already tried years ago, which you’d never know from seeing this film.

The 2003 interview was published in Israel’s major daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, and featured all four former Shin Bet chiefs at the time. As my friend Rick Richman notes on PJ Media, The Washington Post subsequently reported the interview on its front page, under the headline “Ex-Security Chiefs Turn on Sharon,” beginning the story as follows:

“Four former chiefs of Israel’s powerful domestic security service said in an interview published Friday [Nov. 14, 2003] that the government’s actions and policies during the three-year-old Palestinian uprising have gravely damaged the country and its people.

“The four, who variously headed the Shin Bet security agency from 1980 to 2000 under governments that spanned the political spectrum, said that Israel must end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip …”

It turns out their complaints had a major influence on Israeli policy. As Rudoren reports, the criticism in the 2003 article was “critical in persuading Mr. Sharon, once called the father of the settlements, to evacuate those in the Gaza Strip.”

Now imagine that as a premise for a documentary: Security hawks speak up, policymakers listen up, a heart-wrenching evacuation of 8,000 Jews ensues, terrorist rockets are launched from the evacuated areas, and a nation is left bewildered as to what to do next.

What would you call that film? “The Gate Crashers”?

The problem, of course, is that such a film would be too complicated. It would impose too much nuance on the simplified narrative of “The Gatekeepers” that evidently so appeals to film critics. 

That other film would have to include, for example, the fact that after Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, living conditions for the Palestinians improved significantly, from education to health care to their standard of living.

That film would have to mention that Israel has offered to end the occupation three times, and that the Palestinians walked away each time.

It would also have to include, as Amoz Oz said in a Times interview this week, the fact that most Israelis would wave goodbye to the West Bank, but “they don’t want the Gaza scenario to repeat itself.”

None of these complications ever made it into “The Gatekeepers.”

The filmmaker, Moreh, in published interviews and press materials, does not pretend that the 2003 interviews don’t exist. He admits that the security chiefs influenced Sharon’s decision to disengage from Gaza, but he says he thinks it’s time for these chiefs to “address the people at large and not just the inner circles of decision-makers,” and he wants his film to “initiate that dialogue.”

As if that public dialogue hasn’t been going on for years!

That’s what makes the film so sneaky and manipulative. By using the so-called “revelations” of Israeli tough guys discussing the world’s most famous cause —ending the Israeli occupation — the film creates the illusion of being fresh and “important.”

In truth, it’s only important in one sense: It reminds us that if you want to make a popular film today about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just make sure you follow the popular notions about the conflict, and never, ever dare to challenge the conventional wisdom.

That would only be crashing the Oscar party.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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