Wow, 2013 has been a crappy year in cinema so far. I thought that things were finally starting to pick up, and then this weekend happened. We’ve got a poorly-received sequel/toy commercial for an ’80s nostalgia franchise I could barely care less about (that, lest we forget, was supposed to come out last summer), we’ve got Tyler Perry’s watered-down modernization of “Anna Karenina,” and we’ve got an adaptation of the only non-Twilight atrocity to come from whatever Stephanie Meyer uses for a pen. That’s a pretty big and smelly heap of shit to be piled on us all at once.
Blessedly, the arthouses are still here for us. This weekend sees the limited releases of Wrong and The Place Beyond the Pines, both well-received movies from promising new auteurs. Alas, neither of these movies have yet been released here in Portland. Luckily, I still have some options.
First and foremost among them is The Gatekeepers, a documentary about the Israeli military and its role in Middle Eastern politics. With a subject like that, I’m sincerely grateful this film stuck around at the Fox Tower. I really wanted a chance to see a film about such a complex, multi-faceted, and highly relevant topic.
Yet somehow, I was bored to tears through the whole running time. That might be my own fault, however.
This documentary is an oral history of Shin Bet, which is more or less the Israeli equivalent of the CIA. The directors of Shin Bet are among the most powerful authorities in Israeli’s national defense, and they’re the only agents of the highly secretive organization whose identities are publicly known. In fact, Shin Bet’s activities are so highly classified that no current or former director has ever agreed to an interview about the details of their job. Until now.
Somehow, documentary filmmaker Dror Moreh persuaded six former Shin Bet directors and a then-current director to sit down and share their stories on camera. On paper, this sounds like an awesome idea. In practice, it’s just seven old guys rambling on about how things were back in their day.
A common pitfall of documentaries is that they tend to be preachy. Documentary filmmakers are at constant risk of getting caught up in their own messages and getting their heads irreversibly stuck in their own rectums. This movie, however, has the opposite problem. It’s clear that Moreh had no plan for this documentary, other than to let the old guys talk about their time in Shin Bet, let the camera run, and stitch the footage together in a semi-chronological order later on.
What makes the problem worse is that this movie is only 100 minutes long. For a film to be that short — especially a documentary — it has to have an end goal in mind and a plan for how to get there quickly. To wit, A Place at the Table was only 84 minutes long, which made it all the more imperative to present its case as thoroughly and quickly as possible. Searching for Sugar Man — last year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary, you may recall — was 86 minutes long, and every second built toward that moment when Rodriguez was finally located.
By comparison, The Gatekeepers just drags on and on because there’s really no point to be made. The film has too little screen time to show too many differing viewpoints on too many disparate subjects. Don’t get me wrong, the panel of speakers talk about a wide variety of important topics (the ethics of war, the ethics of torture, Israeli/Palestinian relations, why peace in the Middle East has proven so elusive, etc.), but the film never addresses any of them with enough depth to make a cohesive or interesting argument.
Even worse, the film spends a majority of its time detailing the history of Shin Bet. That was incredibly stupid, because Middle Eastern political history is so insanely complex. Whole college courses have been devoted to the subject. Hell, entire college majors have been devoted to the subject. Students, professors, politicians, and various intellectuals have spent their careers studying all the various facets of these drawn-out conflicts, and this movie thinks it can adequately sum up 50 years of Israeli/Palestinian history with an hour’s running time? There’s just no fucking way, especially not in a way that can be understood by those with no prior knowledge of the subject.
Of course, the presentation doesn’t help matters. The film does occasionally make use of some CGI visualizations, and I’ll grant that those are pretty neat. Aside from that, the interview segments (which make up almost all of the movie, remember) are overwhelmingly white. There’s no color, no warmth, no flair to the visuals in this movie. By a similar token, the music is so bare-bones that it might as well not exist.
It’s like Dror Moreh made The Gatekeepers with the intention of completely removing himself from the subject matter. The entire film rests on the testimonies of its speakers, and I must admit that they talk with a candid sort of brutality that’s rarely seen nowadays. The downside is that if you don’t know who these people are, if this is the first you’ve ever heard of Shin Bet, and if you’re generally ignorant about Middle Eastern politics, then this film has no use for you. It will leave you behind from the word go.
If you already know about the Six-Day War and everything that’s happened in Israel since, then I’m confident you’ll find all of the behind-the-scenes commentary fascinating. But if you need a beginner’s course on the subject, you sure as hell won’t find it here.