Double Review: The Gatekeepers and How to Survive a Plague

In the past day or two I caught up with two of this past year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries – time for a rare double review! Two movies for the price of one! (as in, less writing for me)

The Gatekeepers

Morality and ethics, in theory, are supposed to be binary options: this action is good, that one is bad. You must do this, you can’t do that. “The Gatekeepers,” an edifying series of interviews by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh with six former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal intelligence service), quickly and constantly reminds us that in practice, such decisions come in infinite shades of gray. The task assigned to agencies like the Shin Bet often directly clash with our philosophically set rules of right and wrong – so what are we to make of the men in charge? Are they immoral or amoral? Principled or unscrupulous? And regardless of our opinion, even, what do they make of themselves?

In some ways, “The Gatekeepers” is remarkable for existing at all: like most former heads of secretive intelligence organizations, the men who have led Shin Bet have been historically reticent about discussing  their process or rationale. But here they are, brought before the camera to explain and justify Shin Bet’s actions against terrorism and insurgency dating back from the Six-Day War in 1967 to the present.  If the motivation behind their leadership is often unclear, their willingness to participate in this film is even murkier. Some, like Ami Ayalon (the first subject to agree to the film, and instrumental in convincing the others) clearly seek to push an agenda of diplomacy and pacifism between Israel and Palestine; others (particularly the eldest member of the little club, Avraham Shalom) seem vaguely befuddled to be there, offering little in the way of critiques but simply justifying their actions and waving away Mosreh’s concerned interjections. We weren’t there – we cannot judge in-the-moment decisions by black-and-white standards.

Frustrating as that may be to both Mosreh and the audience, it’s true, and to the director’s credit, he doesn’t let his obvious moral objections to some of the decisions made by these men derail what is ultimately a humanizing peek behind the veil of a major international power. While the surface of “The Gatekeepers” is a fairly straightforward historical overview, with some brief but enlightening discussions of the ethics torture, collateral damage and targeted assassination, what emerges between the lines is a subtle portrait of the division between a person and the office they hold. The film ends with a fairly surprising montage of every subject, to a man, agreeing that the Palestinians have a right to their own state, and that it should be entirely possible for Israel and Palestine to reach such an agreement peaceably. How do people who believe so strongly in the superiority of non-violence once out of office reconcile the death and suffering that they often directly ordered? All of the subjects dance around the notion of “the greater good,” probably because not even they are completely sure that they truly served it.

In form and tone, Mosreh’s film owes a huge debt to Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War.” Unfortunately, the lack of Morris’ patented Interrotron camera and the sheer number of subjects involved makes “The Gatekeepers” a far less intimate affair than that masterpiece. Too often Mosreh seems content to find the choicest sound bite to sum up an issue and quickly move on, rather than really delving deep into the challenging questions posed; and besides Shalom’s clearly deceptive grandfatherly appearance and Avalon’s passionate advocacy, most of the subjects don’t spend enough time on-screen to make much of an individual impression. Still, deft editing and some haunting CGI work that transforms old archival photos into immersive, 3D environments makes “The Gatekeepers” a riveting, insightful work.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

 

How to Survive a Plague

If “The Gatekeepers” represented a Herculean effort just to get its subjects together, David France’s journalistic account of the efforts by two advocacy groups, ACT UP and TAG, to combat the 1980s and 90s AIDS crisis is at least an equal accomplishment, albeit of a totally different form. Told for the vast majority of the film through archival footage, “How to Survive a Plague” is incredibly streamlined and propulsive, a documentary work that brings the past to life with a startling immediacy. The journey that France reconstructs is not only meticulous and informative, but highly emotional, as the anti-AIDS movement fights an often desperate and despairing battle against not only a disease, but a society that was generally apathetic to the gay community’s suffering.

Focusing on a core group of treatment-oriented activists, including figures like Peter Staley, Bob Rafsky, Mark Harrington, Iris Long, David Barr, Stanley Kramer and Garance Franke-Ruta, “How to Survive a Plague” often takes its title quite literally. It follows the the efforts of ACT UP (and, after an internal rift in the organization, TAG) to hasten the development of effective HIV/AIDS medication by directly confronting the FDA, NIH and various pharmaceutical companies. The film is by and large a testament to the dedication displayed by these leaders, and credits their self-education in the medical complexities of AIDS as a major factor in the ultimate breakthroughs in combination treatment. Shouting protestors and raucous sit-ins are all well in good if you’re trying to draw the public eye, France seems to be saying, but in the end to be persuasive our leaders have to really, really know what they’re talking about – a lesson that is surely relevant to the current state of political debate in this country.

France bounces from newsreel footage to home movies to contemporary interviews with incredible ease, even managing to enhance events through technical explication of medical developments rather than bogging them down. Granted, it would be hard to miss with material this infuriating and tragic, but France never goes too far with the most emotional material. Every time he brings in ghastly footage of late-stage HIV-positive patients, it’s like a precise strike of the hammer, a shattering reminder of the human toll behind all the debates. Even the talking heads, that most reliable but stale tool of the documentarian, carry a heavier significance in this context: given the knowledge that several of the people we are seeing in flashback are HIV-positive, any absences in the contemporary material become dreadfully conspicuous.

That’s most true in the case of Rafsky, who quietly emerges as the film’s closest thing to a protagonist through France’s use of his home videos. These interactions between Rafsky and his daughter and ex-wife (Rafsky came out when he was 40) provide a sweet, personal counterpoint to the furious public cries that occupy most of the film, making his inexorable death all the more gut-wrenching.

“How to Survive a Plague” has no ethical qualms about its subject. It is determined to tale of suffering and redemption, and perhaps narrows its scope a touch too much in order to do so (a recurring ticker records the growing number of worldwide deaths from HIV/AIDS, but otherwise the film completely ignores the infection’s devastating spread in Africa). But for many, this is a necessary tale, told nimbly and powerfully; it’s difficult to fault that too much.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

 

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