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'The Gatekeepers': Confessions of the Shin Bet Six

Gatekeepers Photo - H 2013
Courtesy of AMI Ayalon/Sony Pictures Classics

In his Oscar-nominated documentary, Dror Moreh convinced Israel's top secret-service men to appear on camera, where they renounced their country's war on terrorism and demanded peace.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Tough as tank armor, Carmi Gillon, a former chief of Israel's Shin Bet secret service, has battled assassins. But when Sony Pictures Classics ordered him to face red-carpet flashbulbs at the Producers Guild Awards on Jan. 26, he was terrified. "I was so embarrassed!" says Gillon, who appears in The Gatekeepers, Dror Moreh's PGA- and Oscar-nominated documentary, in which all six living former Shin Bet chiefs recount their long war on terrorism, call it a failure and advocate peace talks. "Can you imagine heads of the CIA talking about Guantanamo?" says Gillon. "I can't."

Gillon's unlikely trip accompanying Moreh to Hollywood can be traced to 2004, when Moreh saw Errol Morris' doc The Fog of War, in which former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara discusses modern warfare and international security. "It blew me away," says Moreh. "To get someone so strong in the circles of power to speak out firsthand on what went wrong and analyze it!" Moreh, interested in doing something similar, was advised not to contact the secretive Shin Bet veterans. "My friend said: 'You're crazy! They've never spoken to anyone.' " But at least one of the former terrorist hunters also was a fan of Fog. Fed up with Israel's negotiation-disdaining political leaders, one by one they agreed to be interviewed.

"The film cost about $1.5 million," says Moreh. "In Israeli terms, that's very large. I don't think even fiction films have had that kind of budget. I knew I'd need expensive archive research and a lot of time in the editing room."

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Despite its stark criticism of Israel, the film was co-funded by the government. "I asked Dror if the government asked for their money back," jokes Gillon. Says Moreh, "Most of the money came from Europe." He screened a few of the interviews with English translations for about 150 film-commission representatives in Lyon in 2009: "There was a long silence. And then almost all of them rose and said, 'We want to be in.' "

Moreh chose the best funding partners then spent 3½ years artfully pruning his interview footage, leaving out 98 percent and adding animation to dramatize still photos of the notorious 1984 killings of two Palestinian bus hijackers. "I wanted to put the event in the point of view of the photographer," he says. "It was because of his photos that it came to light that Shin Bet murdered people whenever they liked."

Point of view became an issue when Moreh's doc premiered at September's Telluride Film Festival, where he did a panel with Argo's Ben Affleck and Ziad Doueiri, the Lebanon-born director of the suicide-bomber drama The Attack. Doueiri told Moreh that Gatekeepers' "Collateral Damage" section, in which Palestinians appear as dots obliterated by real explosions on video-gamelike war-room monitors, made him "plenty pissed." "But I wanted the audience to feel what it's like to be the Shin Bet commander, looking at the screen, deciding who will live and who will die," says Moreh. At Telluride, Morris applauded the film and quizzed Moreh on its technical aspects: the animated passages as well as the intentional lack of depth of field in the interview shots, forcing the viewer to concentrate on the subjects' faces.

STORY: Dror Moreh on How He Convinced Israel's 'Gatekeepers' to Let Him In (Video)

Gatekeepers has won awards from the L.A., New York and National Society film critics, and Indiewire's 204-critic poll ranked it 2012's No. 6 doc, ahead of Searching for Sugar Man.

So Moreh and Gillon wound up on the PGA red carpet, alongside nominees for other Middle East-themed hits. "I told Ben Affleck Argo was great," says Gillon. And acknowledging his own past as an interrogator, he told Homeland's Damian Lewis, "I was one of the bad guys."