Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist, famously said that `in war, truth is the first casualty.' For wars to gain the backing of a wider population there must be a taking of sides, a construction of narratives that justify one side's military actions and a determined effort to suppress anything that questions those narratives in case it weakens support. In those circumstances, truth - in the purest sense - doesn't stand a chance.
Which, having been said, makes this film all the more remarkable.
At the end of the 1967 War between Israel and its neighbours, the fledging state gained possession of the territories that had formerly been seen as belonging to the Palestinians. The decision of the State of Israel to hold onto these territories - and to begin the military Occupation of them - undoubtedly satisfied the desires held by many Israelis. But it also created a permanent state of insecurity as the state was forced to justify its actions and faced resistance from many quarters, especially from those in the West Bank and Gaza who objected to Israeli military rule.
Some of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories looked to military solutions, engaging in acts of terror and resistance against the Israeli state. This pushed the Israeli Security Agency - commonly known as Shin Bet - to prominence. It's role in developing intelligence networks, arresting `terrorists' and attempting to foresee and prevent attacks was seen as essential to the survival of the State of Israel. From 1967 Shin Bet agents routinely engaged in morally-questionable activities: covert surveillance of anyone outside of the political mainstream; mass detentions; the creation of networks of paid informers; the torture of suspects; and assassinations of `enemy' fighters as well as those who generated support for them.
Remarkably, film-maker Dror Moreh has persuaded six former heads of Shin Bet to discuss these things in front of his camera. For 100 minutes these former `gatekeepers' open up (to a greater or lesser degree) about the ethics of their activities, about their relationships with Israeli political leaders and even with the role that the State of Israel has played in the `peace process' with the Palestinians.
The Gatekeepers does not take a pro-Palestinian position: the film never veers from a strictly Israeli interpretation of the events of the last 45 years and Palestinian voices are completely absent from this movie.
What it does do, however, is reveal the inner doubts that even those at the heart of the state feel about the things that have been done in the name of protecting Israel. One director is unrepentant about his role in the execution of two bus hijackers but confesses to feeling disturbed at the moral implications of what went on during his period in office. Another notes with disdain the way in which the Zionist terrorists who killed Israeli Prime Minister Rabin were quietly released from prison in order to appease the right-wingers in the government. While one is convinced that political assassinations have helped reduce terrorist attacks, others are more critical about these actions and suggest that efforts to build a genuine peace process with the Palestinians are more apparent than real. All of them express their frustration at the hypocritical and self-serving behaviour of the politicians under whom they have served.
This movie then represents a very rare achievement: Dror Moreh has managed to encourage six men at the heart of controversial policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to talk about what they did with searing honesty. Their exposition of what happened and, more importantly, how they now feel about their contribution to events makes compulsive viewing. It also serves as an intelligent contribution to the whole debate about the conflict - a worthwhile attempt to get to at least part of the truth of what goes on in the Middle East. It's not a normal movie: there is of course no happy ending here. But as a means of advancing understanding this is film-making of the highest order.
If you care about Israel and the Palestinians you simply must watch The Gatekeepers.