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.

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.

Shalom is easily the most fascinating figure here. Early on, he talks about how he and many others supported the idea of a Palestinian state after the Six-Day War, but as the debates over that became tiresome, he eventually welcomed the rise of terrorism because it gave Shin Bet a job to do. He also bluntly states that no Israeli leader ever considered the Palestinian people much beyond the containment of violence, whether that leader was Menachem Begin or Golda Meir. Later, he even compares Israeli behavior to that of the Germans in World War II—with respect to occupation, not to genocide: "We've become cruel." It's like watching Reagan's CIA chief William Casey come to the conclusion that maybe we were too rough on the Soviets in the '80s.

Other interviewees may not be quite as overtly provocative, but their segments are no less revelatory. Many wax philosophical. Ami Ayalon, who led Shin Bet in the late '90s, talks of how Israeli wins in battles are not synonymous with victories. For Yaakov Peri, it's the memories of the wives and children of men who Shin Bet captured in their homes that stick with him. "When you retire, you become a bit of a leftist," he adds. That certainly seems true of Yuval Diskin, the man to leave the post most recently. When Moreh asks him his thoughts on the writings of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Israeli intellectual who predicted in 1968 that retaining the occupied territories would eventually erode Israel's moral stature, he responds, "I agree with every word he wrote."

How'd Moreh get such candor out of his subjects? Who knows. It could have been that they were eager to get these things off their chests, or it could have been Moreh's skill as an interviewer. Either way, an unadorned reel of the interviews would probably be engrossing on its own. But Moreh doesn't go that bare bones. In addition to a wealth of archival footage illustrating the content of the interviews, he adds in some fairly subtle computer-animated "re-enactments" that take existing still photos and animate scenes around them. In a lesser documentary, that little trick might be a focus, but here it simply blends into the background.

So in its own way, The Gatekeepers demonstrates just as fully as the recent spate of more experimental documentaries just how flexible and exciting documentary storytelling can be, no matter how you go about it. Getting good subject matter to work with is half the battle; knowing what approach that subject demands is the other half. And sometimes, as Moreh had the brilliance to realize, the right approach is to do not very much at all.