Docutopia #32: Are Israel’s Acclaimed Docs Swinging Public Opinion?

Last Tuesday, the results of Israel’s elections surprised many: the country’s conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not receive as much electoral support as expected. While the venerable hardliner received enough votes to hold onto power, a new, more moderate party, called “There is a Future,” placed a strong second, suggesting a shift towards the political center and a better chance for compromise with the Palestinians.

Just a few weeks before the election, on Jan. 1, Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers—a stinging critique of Israel’s policies as elucidated by six former chiefs of the country’s foremost internal security agency Shin Bet—opened in Israel. While reports suggest that only about 22,000 people have seen the movie in the roughly dozen theaters in which it has played, Moreh has noted that these aren’t bad numbers for a documentary in a country of eight million.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that The Gatekeepers helped swing the election against Netanyahu. But following such stellar Israeli nonfiction films in the last year, such as 5 Broken Cameras, which was also nominated for an Academy Award, and The Law in These Parts, a major winner at various international film festivals, it’s been a particularly strong year for Israel docs with an agenda. Taken together, the three movies suggest the pivotal role that documentaries can play in expressing a population’s hopes and fears, and even in shaping those hopes and fears.

The last time such a critical mass of noteworthy documentaries with similar political goals were made and released around the same time was in 2004, the year of George W. Bush’s presidential election fight to stay in office after his controversial decision to launch the war in Iraq. A slew of leftwing films—Fahrenheit 911, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, Control Room, The Corporation, Super Size Me—all came out within months of each other, each aimed at fighting back against the country’s pro-war and pro-corporate conservative tilt. Bush won, of course, just as Netanyahu did. But we all know what happened four years later.

The Israeli docs may express a similar leftward turn for Israel. As with 5 Broken Cameras and The Law in These Parts, The Gatekeepers exposes Israel’s longstanding security policies as ultimately counterproductive and inhumane. What’s most stunning about the film, as has often been mentioned, is that the criticism is coming directly out of the mouths of the country’s most senior security experts. Can you imagine U.S. F.B.I. chiefs J. Edgar Hoover or Robert S. Mueller coming out publicly to say America’s domestic surveillance and security operations were ineffective and deleterious to the safety of the country?

When Yuval Diskin, whose tenure at Shin Bet ended just a year ago, is asked whether he concurs with Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a progressive thinker who warned that Israel’s occupation would create a kind of “Shin Bet” totalitarian state, the security chief answers, “I agree.” And in the amazing two seconds following this startling admission, one of his eyebrows rises up, as if to say: You didn’t think I would say that, did you?

But throughout the film, these professional torturers and assassinators say the darnedest things: “We’ve become… cruel,” admits Avraham Shalom, the oldest Shin Bet head, a genteel-looking elderly man who, in his day, we are told, was like an Israeli Dick Cheney, as fierce as he was uncompromising in his fight against the Palestinians.

While The Gatekeepers isn’t entirely talking heads—it includes a judicious mix of archival footage depicting Israel’s history of internal violence, along with some digitally animated reenactments—the simple first-person testimonials are the documentary’s most persuasive and powerful aspect. As another famous documentary about the Jewish experience once taught us, sometimes faces, voices and recollections are worth more than any clever structural or aesthetic device.

The fact is that Droh doesn’t have to add much in the way of direct or even implied commentary, because the Shin Bet heads do it all for him. Indeed, The Gatekeepers makes its final push against Israel’s policies through the words of Ami Ayalon, a former Israeli navy commander, who concludes that Israel’s policies—of targeted assassinations, empowering settlers, military incursions, etc.—may significantly damage the Palestinians, but they ultimately do little to help the future of the Israeli state. “We win every battle,” as he says, “but we lose the war.”

It’s this kind of sentiment, spoken by the former head of an ostensibly hawkish intelligence group, that progressive Israelis are latching onto. If you look at the columns and op-ed pages of Israeli newspapers, writers have continually been referencing The Gatekeepers, and the words of its main characters, as rhetorical ammunition. Since its release just a month ago, Haartez, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, has published at least six pieces on the film, including one cartoon.

In one such op-ed, Tel Aviv University professor Carlo Strenger wrote, “The Gatekeepers is a wake-up call. I wish it were mandatory for all Israelis to watch it, and I hope that some of Israel’s well-meaning right-wing friends, who keep telling the peace camp that we are unrealistic at best or self-hating Jews at worst, will take the trouble to find out how utterly wrongheaded their position is.”

Perhaps the results of Israel’s recent election indicate they already have.

Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.

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