In his recent interview with Piers Morgan, the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef mentioned Tantura (2022), Alon Schwartz’s feature-length documentary, as a reference to the atrocities committed by the Israeli occupation against the peaceful, unarmed residents of the eponymous Palestinian village in 1948.
The broadcast of the popular television program reopened the tragic file of the stricken village, which summarises what happened during the Nakba in many videos on the internet, especially in Arabic. But what is interesting is that the aforementioned film, which exposes the crime with documents, evidence, and live testimonies, was made by a director who belongs to the other side of the conflict.
But Tantura is not the only Israeli film that questions the official narrative about what has happened since 1948. For one reason or another, a number of directors from the other side are driven to dispute the existing narrative and investigate the lies on which it is based.
Among these recent documentaries, in addition to Alon Schwarz’s Tantura, there is also Blue Box (2021) by Michel Weits, and a series of films by Avi Mograbi, the latest of which is The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation (2021).
These films do not present the complete truth, but rather parts of the truth sufficient to make their makers feel at ease, but they remain governed by a narrow and short-sighted framework. But they still provide evidence.
“Most Israelis don’t know their own history,” Alon Schwarz said, explaining why he co-wrote and directed Tantura, which had its world premiere in the Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Documentary Competition. “Most Israelis don’t know what really happened in 1948. Most Israelis believe the naive story that the Palestinians ran away in 1948 by themselves because they were told by their leaders to do so. And they don’t know that the Israeli army went into village after village and drove the people out, sometimes committing war crimes like the massacre of Tantura and others. That is why I made the film Tantura, the untold part of our founding myth. It is not only the story of Tantura, it is not only the story of the Nakba, it is not only the story of Teddy Katz. It’s a story about how people choose to forget or to not remember things that are inconvenient.”
The Tantura massacre took place on the night of 22-23 May 1948 when around 200 Palestinian villagers from Tantura were massacred by the Alexandroni Brigade following the surrender of the village, which was located near Haifa. The victims were buried in a mass grave, which today serves as a car park for the nearby Tel Dor beach. Although oral testimonies by surviving Palestinians were met with scepticism, in 2023 Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group based at Goldsmiths, University of London, published its commissioned investigation of the area and concluded that there were three potential gravesites in the area of the Tel Dor beach that were connected to a massacre.
In the late 1990s, the graduate student Teddy Katz conducted research into the massacre that had allegedly occurred in the village of Tantura in 1948 which was based on 140 hours of audio testimonies with veteran soldiers of the Alexandroni Brigade and Palestinian survivors. However, his work later came under attack and his reputation was ruined.
More than two decades later, director Alon Schwartz revisited some of the Alexandroni Brigade veterans as well as Palestinian residents in an attempt to explore what happened, to find out why the Nakba was a forbidden subject in his society.
In his director’s statement Schwartz says, “One night, I accidentally stumbled across a web page about Teddy Katz and his research on the events of Tantura in 1948. Everywhere I looked on Israeli websites, I found a story about a man that all systems – academic, judicial, press, and social – labelled as a liar. I found it particularly peculiar that someone would find himself in that position after recording over 100 hours of testimonies on audio tapes. After calling Teddy the next morning, I went to visit him, not sure what I would find. I encountered a physically broken man with a deep need to bring his truth to light after everything was taken away from him 20 years earlier. Listening to the tapes slowly opened my eyes to a shockingly complex reality I was not even remotely aware of.”
Alon Schwartz used Teddy Katz’s recordings in his interviews to confront veteran soldiers and various parties involved in the suppression of Katz’s voice, including judges, researchers, historians and academics. He also visited the real places of events whose features have changed at the present time without being able to hide the traces of the ongoing tragedy. Critic Lauren Wissot wrote in Filmmaker magazine that Tantura is “less a history lesson than a deep-dive investigation into the stories a nation chooses to tell about itself. It is a specifically Israeli story that nevertheless echoes America’s genocidal history and even, most ironically, Nazi Germany’s policy of expropriation and extermination.”
Blue Box (2021) by Michel Weits, which had its world premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival, is another feature length documentary that reveals part of the tragedy of injustice. The Jewish National Fund’s blue boxes were part of a successful fundraising campaign to support the purchase of land in Palestine. Joseph Weits, the film director’s great grandfather, was the man who orchestrated the acquisition and expropriation of Palestinian lands. His private diaries reveal an uncomfortable truth that pushed her to explore what really happened.
In Blue Box she delves into her great grandfather’s controversial past, ooking at his personal diaries which take up over 5,000 pages spanning about 80 years of history. She interviews her family members, and uses a significant amount of archival footage and photographs for a voice-over narration that includes her own reflections.
“Joseph Weits was the man who conducted this land takeover as the head of the Jewish National Fund. He was also my great grandfather. I didn’t know anything about the dark side of grandpa’s career. In my family, we never talked about it. I was raised on the myth of him, as a hero. Only when I started reading his personal diary, I discovered that history can be told in many ways, also inside my family. And that my family, just like my country, chose to tell us a different story.
“I belong to a generation, raised on the myth: ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’. We were raised on the myth of the Hebrew pioneers, draining the swamps and building the new towns and villages, which we now call home. We were raised on the myth of the Jewish National Fund’s blue boxes, where people put their spare change to help raise money for the noble mission of acquiring the historic land of Israel. Those little boxes changed the face of the Middle East. The story behind how Israel obtained the land it sits on is one of the most sensitive topics that nobody really wants to talk about even today.”
In POV, Canada’s Documentary magazine, critic Liam Lacey describes Blue Box as a film about “the Big Moral Problem of History. It interrogates a family’s history, and Israel’s history, through an inspired personal approach.”
According to the film director Avi Mograbi, who is a founder and board member, Breaking the Silence is an organisation founded in 2004 by veteran soldiers who decided that there was an urgent need to make the occupation visible to Israelis first and foremost but also to others. “The governments of Israel in the last 54 years have succeeded in making the occupation invisible to us. So the mission of Breaking the Silence is to collect testimonies from their own peers, soldiers who served in the occupied territories, and make them accessible to everyone,” he explains. Mograbi, whose father was born in Beirut, Lebanon to an Arabic-speaking Jewish family, was a reservist in the military, and when in 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, he was recruited to serve as a combatant but he objected and was jailed.
Mograbi’s feature-length documentary The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation (2021) is based on the testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories, collected by Breaking the Silence researchers.
In this film Mograbi sarcastically builds a handbook of the perfect occupier, of how to succeed in an occupation for at least 54 years, based on the confessions of 38 former Israeli conscripts and archive footage.
“Five million Palestinians live in the occupied territories under Israeli military rule, two million of them in the Gaza Strip, under total siege for the past several years,” the synopsis reads. “The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has already lasted for 54 years. This statement does not say much about occupation. What does occupation imply? This film aims to provide an exclusive insight into the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people while it is still ongoing. Describing their orders, their missions and their actions, Israeli soldier witnesses report on the mechanisms of oppression of Palestinians from 1967 to the present. With these testimonies, they reveal the factory of the occupation machine.”
Through the soldiers’ testimonies, the film is divided into different chapters arranged chronologically from 1967 and on, separated by commentaries from the director himself, who confronts the audience from a chair in his living room, analysing and explaining with bitter sarcasm the atrocities of the occupation. Facing difficulties in screening his films in Israel, Avi Mograbi decided to make all the documentary films that he produced and directed, including The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation available to the public online.
The renowned critic Jay Weissberg, in his article in Variety, describes Mograbi’s film as a “step-by-step primer, using soldiers’ testimony gathered under the Breaking the Silence project, designed to walk us through the Israeli government’s undeclared strategy for permanently appropriating the land”.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly