In Praise of People Talking to Cameras (a.k.a. Traditional Documentaries)

The Gatekeepers, about the Israeli internal security service, reminds that great stories—not just flashy presentation techniques—can still make for fascinating nonfiction films.

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Sony Pictures Classics

One of the great joys of recent years for any fan of documentaries has been seeing just how malleable a form it is. Last year, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders applied 3D to their docs, yielding more immersive results than any of the big-budget 3D fare hitting multiplexes. The year before, Steven Soderbergh and Asif Kapadia made biographical docs (And Everything Is Going Fine and Senna, respectively) without shooting a single frame themselves, both telling narration-free stories entirely with archival footage. That same year also brought us actors lip-synching to interviews with real people (The Arbor) and the reality-blurring puzzle of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

With all the evidence that documentaries are evolving rapidly, does that render obsolete factual films with more-familiar structures? Dror Moreh's Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers, out in New York and LA recently and going to wider release soon, has an answer as simple as its traditional form: nope.

The Gatekeepers tells the story of Israel's internal security service, Shin Bet. The vehicle for that history is a bit of a surprise: Moreh manages to get all six of the surviving former heads of the organization to discuss in detail the evolution of Shin Bet since the 1967 Six-Day War. It's as if an American director gathered the likes of Robert Gates, George Tenet, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus and grilled them on the specifics of CIA counterterrorism strategy.

Moreh coaxes astounding material out of these men, which makes his structural decisions in putting together The Gatekeepers a no-brainer. The standard rhythm of alternating talking-head testimony with archival footage of the events described is so often simply the default setting for documentary films, but in The Gatekeepers, the remarkable candor of the interviewees makes it essential. It'd have been unthinkable not to place the interviews front and center.

The Six-Day War marked a turning point for Shin Bet, the point at which the group's focus turned much more intensely to counter-terrorism. Their history since then has reflected the constant conflict in the region, and so it also makes sense to present that history chronologically, as Moreh does. Major events, tackled for the most part in the order they happened in, are used as the focal point for each of the movie's sections, from the war to the Oslo Accords to Yitzhak Rabin's assassination to the Second Intifada of the early 2000s.

The subjects' openness is refreshing—and sometimes frightening. One Shin Bet director says blithely, "In the war on terror, forget about morality."

Given the sensitive information, and the thorny moral and ethical issues at play, you might expect the heads of Shin Bet to hedge and stonewall. So their openness is impressive and refreshing—and sometimes frightening. When Moreh presses former Shin Bet director Avraham Shalom on his role in ordering the execution of two Arab bus hijackers who had already been restrained and cuffed during the notorious 1984 Bus 300 Affair, Shalom responds blithely. "In the war on terror, forget about morality," he says.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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