I can only imagine being an Israeli citizen watching the documentary ‘The Gatekeepers’. The closest thing for an American like me would be the experience of ‘The Fog of War’, but there’s really no current comparison. This film about the history of the anti terrorism unit Shin Bet, as told in interviews with 6 former heads of the department, is incredibly fascinating and made me long for a similar type of movie concerning the war on terror for the United States and the decision makers behind that. Documentarian Dror Moreh keeps things pretty simple here, mostly just using talking head interviews with each retired Shin Bet leader to move the story along. At times things threaten to get a bit boring, but by and large this incredibly interesting stuff. The documentary isn’t coming out in theaters until February of next year (minus a qualifying run this month in New York), but it’s an official 2012 release in play for a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Oscars. I don’t know that it can actually win the Oscar, but it’s probably one of the more likely nominees. I can definitely see the Academy going for this flick. I didn’t find it perfect, and probably like it a bit less than most, but I still can easily recommend it, especially to foreign policy/Middle Eastern political enthusiasts.

Starting the with the group’s legal inception in 1949, we follow Shin Bet’s evolution from its baby steps to the present day, with 6 of its former heads detailing their decisions and thoughts on where the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is currently. What started as more of an internally focuses organization during the country’s early days turned to primarily looking at anti-terrorism measures in the late 60’s (specifically after the war in 1967). The 6 heads interviewed are Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin. Some where considered successes, some failures, but each has a conflicted relationship with their former occupation. Each man is brutally honest, offering up sometimes harsh truths about the conflict that Israel continues to deal with to this day. In fact, some of them seem to be overtly pessimistic about where things have gone, and where they might be headed. Anyone expecting an overly jingoistic celebration of Israel’s military might will be shocked by what’s on display here. Plenty of mention is made of the word “peace”, in fact arguably more often than the word “war”, though that’s definitely on display as well.

What I found interesting about how Dror Moreh presents things is also where my main issue with the documentary comes from. Moreh is content to simply let Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin talk about their experiences while we see visual representations of what went on. You’re often just looking at one of the men as they tell the story of their lives and history with the Shin Bet. For the first half hour or so, it’s often riveting, but as we move into the second half things become a tad repetitive and slow down in terms of how interested you are in what they’re saying. The film picks up again with its final minutes, including a surprisingly abrupt ending, but Shalom, Peri, Gillon, Ayalon, Dichter, and Diskin do threaten to bore you by the time you’re about an hour into the flick. Moreh is so confident in the power of their testimonies that he lets that be almost the sole focus of the doc. I applaud his decision, but I do wish that it had been slightly more effective…to me at least. Moreh is very interested in exploring the concept of what it means to take a life, how one deals with the possibility of collateral damage, and whether proportional responses to terrorism are actually effective, but here and there he’s unable to fully sustain your interest in these fascinating topics.

In terms of the Oscar race, I can definitely see this being nominated for Best Documentary Feature. There’s no real frontrunner in the category right now, and there’s clearly some strong love for this flick. I actually believe that by holding off on releasing it until nearly the time of the Oscars is a real sign of confidence. I could be wrong, but I wouldn’t bet against a nomination here. Winning the Academy Award is another story, but that’s still one prize that’s as up in the air as any.

If you’re intrigued by this particular story, it’s a safe bet that ‘The Gatekeepers’ will represent a very interesting 97 minutes in the theater. I liked it far more than I didn’t, but I’m not nearly as unequivocal in my praise as many of my colleagues are. Dror Moreh has a great idea on display, but his pacing could have been better. Overall, this is an important documentary, and one that deserves an audience…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!