Category Archives: documentary

Review – Gilad Shalit: The Interview (N/A) [2013]

Gilad Shalit interview title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Cast:

  • Gilad Shalit (himself)
  • Noam Shalit (himself)
  • Aviva Shalit (herself)
  • Hadas Shalit (herself)
  • Yoel Shalit (himself)

(This is documentary was shown at an exclusive showing in accordance with an event. It has not been widely released or given a rating by the BBFC.)

For anyone Jewish, Israeli, or otherwise who followed the Gilad Shalit situation, 18th October 2011 was an emotional day. In Israel, it is said that no-one worked and the entire population was glued to the TV. For after almost five and a half years in Hamas captivity, following his abduction in June 2006, an asserted international campaign led by his father, and hard negotiations, Private Gilad Shalit became the first Israeli soldier to return home pale, skinny and alive in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. This low-budget Israeli documentary, produced and aired almost exclusively for Israeli TV, gives us an insight into Gilad’s life during his illegal incarceration and how he is getting on with life since being released.

Gilad Shalit, looking pale and gaunt whilst in captivity, wherein he was not allowed to go outside for five and a half years.

Gilad Shalit, looking pale and gaunt whilst in captivity, wherein he was not allowed to go outside for five and a half years.

The documentary is only 40-45 minutes long and skips back and forth between Gilad’s time in captivity and events subsequently. Since there is no footage of Gilad’s day to day life in the hell-hole underground cell that he was forbidden to leave whilst in captivity, interviews with Gilad since returning home (smiling and with the colour having returned to his face) are our only insight into what his life was like.

The empathy one feels for Gilad is heart-breaking as he tells us his monotonous life in the lonely cell. He kept to a schedule and refused to let himself lie on his bed and just think, since that filled him with despair. The schedule often comprised of playing games with himself, such as bundling up shirts/socks into a ball and seeing how many times he could throw it into a basket/bin in a row.

However, as Gilad’s time in captivity went on, he tells us that his captors gave him a TV and a radio (how nice of them), watched games of sport with him, and played chess with him, which all helped to make the time go a little faster. Furthermore, Gilad says that occasionally Hamas broke the monotony by making him record a video or write a letter. Sometimes these were released, as the video in September 2009 testifies, and on other occasions they were not; although, his captors never told him either way.

Gilad Shalit on the day of his release, walking alongside his relieved father, Noam (right), and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu (left).

Gilad Shalit on the day of his release, walking alongside his relieved father, Noam (right), and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu (left).

Yet, it is not just Gilad’s time in captivity that is touching, but how he felt in the days leading up to his release, wherein he says (with some humour) that he hardly slept because he was so nervous, fearing it would all go wrong; and how he has fared in trying to rebuild himself since coming home. After rarely speaking to anyone regularly for years, one can only imagine how hard it must have been for him to re-adapt into a social scene again. Interestingly, Gilad claims that one of the worst aspects of coming out is that he feels left behind since his friends and family had moved on with their lives, whilst he hadn’t.

Moreover, Gilad talks fondly of when he went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of freedom personified, which he believes is symbolic of his life. But his trip also revealed another side of him: a desire to lead a normal life. Gilad is a painfully shy person and being a celebrity sits uncomfortably with his character, even though he knows it is something he has to live with.

Simultaneously throughout the documentary, we are given the perspective of Gilad’s mother and father, Aviva and Noam. Noam appears stern before the cameras. He says little but his determination to bring his son home is evident in his expression, as is his relief on the day of Gilad’s return. Gilad’s mother, though, is different. She weeps and prays for him while in captivity, and cries with joy afterward when he is home and returning to good health.

Gilad Shalit, as he looks today. Although skinny, he looks happy and healthy.

Gilad Shalit, as he looks today. Although skinny, he looks happy and healthy.

Over-all, the documentary is simple, short, and moving. The film covers many fascinating areas about Gilad before and after the events of 18th October 2011 from his angle and that of other members of the Shalit family. The documentary does not discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or re-open the debate about whether the price paid for Gilad’s release was worth it. Nor does it deal with any Post Traumatic Stress Disorders that Gilad may suffer from, or how Gilad feels toward his captors. This is understandable. The first is not something Gilad can answer objectively, and the latter two are personal matters and would be insensitive to ask. (And even if the issues were raised, they most probably could not be aired for political reasons.) In some ways, it is a shame that these topics are not raised. Arguably, they would have made the documentary more interesting.

Nevertheless, the documentary deals with almost all other issues and makes one’s eyes well with water. This is because the story of Gilad Shalit is such an affecting one. It’s a miracle he returned home alive. Two years have passed since his release and he seems to be making the right steps toward a full recovery. Please God he can go on to fulfil his potential. He deserves it!

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Review – The Gatekeepers (15) [2013]

The Gstekeepers - title banner2

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Dror Merah – Sharon

Cast:

  • Avraham Shalom Ben-Dor
  • Yaacov Peri
  • Carmi Gillon
  • Ami Ayalon
  • Avi Dichter
  • Yuval Diskin

Music Composer:

  • Regis Baillet
  • Jerome Chassagnard

There is great interest in the media regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Much of this interest focusses on the social and political aspect of the conflict. However, little regard is given to the security angle. Dror Merah’s Oscar-nominated The Gatekeepers explores this particular viewpoint superbly with openness and maturity.

Avraham Shalom, the most morally dubious of the six men, explaining his view on the 300 bus hijacking in 1984.

Avraham Shalom, the most morally dubious of the six men, explaining his view on the 300 bus hijacking in 1984.

The Gatekeepers is an Israeli documentary about the Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence-gathering security agency. Merah explains the role of the Shin Bet by interviewing six of the most recent heads of the organisation, including Avraham Shalom Ben-Dor (1981-86), Yaacov Peri (1988-94), Carmi Gillon (1994-96), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Avi Dichter (2000-05) and Yuval Diskin (2005-11). The documentary explores seven themes and analyses some contentious incidents and events between the 1980s and the 2000s, and how the Shin Bet dealt with them through a mixture of interviews and digital-reconstructions.

The Gatekeepers is an intellectually heavy film that deals with numerous controversial events. Merah does not shy away from asking his interviewees difficult questions, and the answers are unexpectedly candid on a range of incidents and events, such as what happened to the terrorists who hijacked the 300 bus in 1984; the mistakes the Shin Bet have made regarding targeted assassinations; the organisation’s lack of awareness vis-à-vis Jewish terrorism in the run-up to Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination in November 1995; and the lack of foresight regarding the Second Intifada between 2000-04, among many other issues.

Ami Ayalon, the most passionate of the six men, giving a political opinion on Israel's current security situation.

Ami Ayalon, the most passionate of the six men, giving a political opinion on Israel’s current security situation.

That the interviewees are who they are entails that one takes their opinions seriously. Much of what they say is deep, thought-provoking and utterly relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. For them, invariably, moral and ethical conundrums were not merely academic debates, but life and death decisions that had to be made in minutes if they were lucky, but usually in seconds.

Having to make such decisions (of varying legality) on a regular basis, it would be easy to believe that these six men are so desensitised to taking life and abusing the law that they are now socio-psychopaths and virtually inhuman. But what is astonishing is that all six men have a burdening conscience. They are all extremely conscientious of the powers that they once held in the Shin Bet, and that their actions (or omissions) cost and saved lives.

However, while the former heads of Shin Bet give a political view or two (after-all, it would be impossible for them not to), the political context of their work is mostly absent from The Gatekeepers. This is understandable because to explore the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict in any kind of depth would take much longer than the documentary’s 101 minutes. Yet, for anyone who does not know anything about Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and the wider Middle East, The Gatekeepers is likely to be hard going, since he/she would have little idea as to why Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, or why the Oslo Accords were signed in 1994, or what led to the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, among other matters.

Avi Dichter, the most recent head of Shin Bet to be interviewed.

Avi Dichter, the most recent head of Shin Bet to be interviewed.

Nevertheless, regardless of whether one does or doesn’t know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one is unlikely to come out of the film thinking highly of either the Israelis or the Palestinians. The six former heads of the Shin Bet spare no-one from culpability, whether it be the politicians or the peoples.

Over-all, The Gatekeepers is a stimulating, if morbid, portrayal of what the Shin Bet has done and the problems that the organisation continues to face on a regular basis. The six former heads of the organisation are remarkably frank and honest about their deeds, and demonstrate how responsible they feel for their actions and omissions, as well as for the events that happened under their watch. But one thing the six men do not is believe that the Shin Bet’s efforts to safeguard the Jewish state from threats of violence and terrorism will be lessening any time soon.

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Review – The Imposter (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

  • Bart Layton – Breakout, Banged Up Abroad

Cast:

  • Adam O’Brian
  • Anna Ruben – Eternal, The Fallow Field
  • Frédéric Bourdin (himself)
  • Beverley Dollarhide (herself, Nicolas’ mother)
  • Carey Gibson (herself, Nicholas’ sister)
  • Codey Gibson (himself, Nicholas’ brother-in-law)
  • Charlie Parker (himself, FBI official)
  • Nancy Fisher (herself, FBI official)

The disappearance of children is nothing new, as Changeling and the case of Madeleine McCann can attest. Vanishing children is a deeply disturbing part of society and one that is not as rare as good people would like it to be. In the case of Nicholas Barclay, however, there were a series of unusual twists that would be too far-fetched for a soap opera. In brilliant fashion, The Imposter sheds light on this peculiar affair.

Nicholas Barclay, aged thirteen. This picture was taken shortly before he disappeared without trace after playing basketball with friends.

The Imposter is a documentary-style film about the vanishing of Nicholas Barclay in San Antonio, Texas, in June 1993. After no news for more than four years, in November 1997 the Barclay family received a call from Spain telling them that Nicholas had been found. Yet, when ‘Nicholas’ returned to America, he was no longer fair-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Rather, he had dark Arabic features, brown eyes, looked older than sixteen, and spoke with a distinctly French accent.

Nevertheless, the Barclay family took him in. They looked after him as if he were part of the family, unaware that ‘Nicholas’ was really Frédéric Bourdin (played by Adam O’Brian to depict ‘Nicholas’ when young).

The Imposter is a surprisingly gripping film that feels significantly shorter than its 99 minutes. Despite being neither a drama nor a thriller nor a horror movie, the film is dramatic, thrilling and unnerving (indeed, more so than many thrillers and horror movies). This is because The Imposter has been put together magnificently by Bart Layton by predominantly using old film footage of the actual events; few re-enactments, all of which are grounded; eerie music that gives the film an odd air of surrealism; and question-less interviews with the living members of the Barclay family, embassy officials and FBI-agents involved in the case, as well as Frédéric Bourdin, himself.

Frédéric Bourdin, whilst being interviewed during the film. Even though he is thirty-eight now and balding, with his dark features it is still incredible to believe that he managed to fool the Barclay family, the Spanish authorities, American embassy officials, and some FBI agents into thinking that he was Nicholas Barclay in 1997.

By putting the cameras directly in front of the interviewees, Layton has cleverly made the audience feel as if they are interviewing the cast themselves. Moreover, as the interviews and the storyline follow a logical/chronological order, viewers are able to feel a rare intimacy with the interviewees as well as with the events as and when they unfold.

Layton has also given each member of the cast a fair amount of time to explain his/her reasoning. This ensures that one can understand and empathise with the characters for why they behaved and reacted in the way they did.

That is not to say that all questions arising from the case are satisfactorily answered in The Imposter. (I won’t go into them as that would spoil the film.) It is also bizarre that little is mentioned of Nicholas’ older brother Jason, who died mysteriously of a drug overdose in 1998 not long after meeting ‘Nicholas.’ Surely, Layton could have interviewed some of Jason’s friends (assuming he had any) to get Jason’s side of the story or to get an idea of the sort of relationship Nicholas had with his older brother?

‘Nicholas’ (Adam O’Brian) back in school after returning from Spain. Did it not occur to Nicholas’ friends and teachers that he looked darker than he should have done and much older than a sixteen year old boy?

But the lingering question throughout the movie is: how did Nicholas’s mother, Beverley, not realise that it was not her son who arrived from Spain? Or, alternatively, did she know that ‘Nicholas’ wasn’t her son, yet played along with it for other reasons? It seems somewhat implausible that a mother, regardless of her intelligence, would fail to recognise her son in an instant, as Christine Collins (played superbly by Angelina Jolie) conversely illustrated in Changeling.

All-in-all, The Imposter elucidates admirably upon the weird ‘reappearance’ of Nicholas Barclay. The film powerfully makes one feel close to the events in an impressive, yet utterly unsettling way. This is not merely because of Bart Layton’s bold and well-executed documentary-style approach to the movie. It is because The Imposter is a non-dramatised true story, and deals with a disconcerting issue that is very pertinent to present-day society.

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