"The Gatekeepers"and Shin Bet Deliver the Goods

To judge by Fog of War, Inside Job, and two upcoming features -- No about the dismantling of Pinochet in Chile and At Any Price, an expose of U.S. agribusiness -- all from Sony Pictures Classics, one could be forgiven for imagining the distributor has a progressive agenda. Certainly, it favors films that both entertain and nourish the thinking percentile of Americans who care to comprehend the world around them. The Gatekeepers, an historic Israeli doc by Dror Moreh bowing at the NYFF October 11th (and in theaters early next year), packs a wallop on both counts.

In his unprecedented film Moreh somehow dragooned six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's security apparatus, to submit to the cameras and give us the skinny on topics ranging from preemptive strikes, to confronting terrorists both Palestinian and Israeli, to recruiting double agents. When I saw Gatekeepers at the Toronto Film Festival I was more focused on the filmmaker's "get" than the film's finer points. After a rewarding 2nd viewing at the New York Film Festival, the takeaway was the precarious balance the Shin Bet heads have struck between their mandate to protect Israel from its enemies -- and a scathing critique of both their own political leaders and the religious Right. And this from the guys usually considered conservative.

The film is segmented into telling titles, including, Forget Morality, Collateral Damage, and One Man's Enemy is Another Man's Freedom Fighter. Moreh deftly interweaves interviews with the six talking heads, disturbing drones-eye-views of bombing sites, and archival footage from Israel's long struggle with the "peace process," including the hijacked bus incident that ended with Israeli security forces all but lynching a terrorist who'd already surrendered. Always candid, occasionally wryly funny or regretful, these kingpins of Israel's macho culture exude an iron-man magnetism.

Moreh's sources contend that the friction-generating Settlements were always illegal yet the government looked the other way -- and lest anyone get excited, it's the Shin Bet talking, not me. More than any Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin is exalted for advocating peace, a stance that cost him his life at the hands of a Jewish religious extremist -- "they are our own flesh and blood," marvels one interviewee. Many of these extremists are from the New York area, Moreh later told me.

Another segment discloses an insane plan by the religious Right to bomb the Islamic site The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, an act that would bring all the world's Muslims down on Israel. You could have heard a feather drop at the screening I attended. More than anything on current screens, this reveal conjures images of Armageddon.

Later a group of us met up with Moreh, who's big, lively, and huggy, at an intime dinner at the Atlantic Grill. Between courses he rushed over to Alice Tully Hall for the Q & A for "Gatekeepers," while ever-hungry writers downed oysters and sushi. When questioned about the drone POV shots that run like a sinister motif through the film, Moreh added, "You know, like the drones Americans use in Aghanistan."

Also joining the gathering was Rama Burstein, an American-born Israeli and director of "Fill the Void," along with lead actors, Hadas Yaron and Yiftach Klein. The first feature from Burstein, a member of Israel's Hasidic community, follows a young beauty from that sect whose marriage plans are upended when her beloved sister dies in childbirth. The delicately rendered scenes between the heroine and a potential spouse are all the more erotic for being chaste. On the basis of "Void" Burstein has been dubbed the Hasidic Jane Austen.

In fact, she arrived late at the dinner on account of, I think, Succoth. Asked how she managed to make a film given all the religious holidays, Burstein, who as a married woman covers her head, insisted it worked well for everyone to rest on the sabbath. Filmmaking is not that unusual an occupation among the orthodox because it's women, rather than men, who pursue the arts. I barely recognized Yiftach Klein, much the handsome leading man, who in the film is hidden behind sidelocks, bushy beard, and a tall fur hat.

Israel has quickly become an entertainment powerhouse that has given us In Treatment and the original Homeland, along with the two marvelous films that made the NYFF. We eagerly await the latest from Ari Folman. His Waltz with Bashir was also distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.