The Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers is built around interviews with the last six chiefs of the Israeli intelligence service, Shin Bet. And with all due respect to a "divided America," these guys will tell you what a really divided country looks like.
It's not just their horror stories of their decades-long "war on terror" in the occupied Palestinian territories, spying on, tracking, arresting and often killing those their government has decreed are terrorists. Nor is it the way they failed to anticipate and haven't successfully dealt with the Intifada uprisings that came from that. It's the alarming way they note how generations of politicians have cowered from offending Israel's own resident religious right — shrill, politically untouchable zealots who break Israeli law to set up illegal and provocative settlements and who call for the death of any politician who dares suggest those laws be enforced.
They have the blood of at least one assassinated prime minister, Yitzak Rabin, on their hands, and the Shin Bet chiefs suggest they're as big an obstacle to any lasting peace in the region as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their ilk.
The Gatekeepers narrows its focus and zeroes in on the stakes and conflict at its most basic, taking us from Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel became an occupying power, through decades of seeming successes and failures — the biggest being that this tit-for-tat killing has not worked.
"No strategy" to it all, 1980s Shin Bet veteran Avraham Shalom confesses, "just tactics." And so it was, year after year of raids, "enhanced interrogations," "superclean" air strikes and assassinations.
There were scandals: suspects, caught in the act, photographed alive after the bus they hijacked was freed, only to turn up dead after the photographers left. One of the messages of Dror Moreh's film is to underline the true cost of a long occupation — the psychic and moral scars it leaves on the occupiers.
"We didn't know what we wanted to do there," complains another Shin Bet chief, Yaakov Peri.
Some, like Peri and Shalom, seem eager to kick the blame elsewhere, to politicians. Others, particularly recent chief Ami Ayalon, accept the "systemic" failure they perpetuated.
Moreh is a blessedly dogged interviewer, gently challenging his subjects. Using archival footage, inventive animated recreations of incidents and chilling aerial smart-bomb views of air strikes as they happen, Moreh creates a simple yet elegantly damning film. It cleverly sets us up to take first one side, and then the other, in this ethno-political quagmire, bluntly underlining what has made this the most insoluble of the world's many ongoing land disputes.
The Gatekeepers, in Hebrew with English subtitles, leaves out the Palestinian voices in this story. Thus, the other half of this it-takes-two-to-tangle dilemma gets off comparatively easy. Moreh fleshes out the interviews with graphic archival footage of bus bombings, impersonal mass murder that allows the world to label an entire culture "terrorists."
But as one Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, puts it, the hardest lesson Israeli's intelligence services have learned is the most obvious: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
PG-13 for violent content including disturbing images. Sony Pictures Classics. 1:35. Kentucky Theatre.