Co-written and directed by Alon Schwarz.
In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, hundreds of Palestinian villages were depopulated. Israelis call it “The War of Independence.” Palestinians call it “Nakba” (or “catastrophe”). The film examines one village, Tantura, and why Nakba is taboo in Israeli society.
Director Alon Schwarz’s (Aida’s Secrets) sophomore documentary feature offers a righteously angry yet clear-eyed voice to those who suffered and lost their lives in one of history’s great unspoken atrocities.
After the state of Israel was established in 1948, the ensuing Arab-Israeli War caused hundreds of Palestinian villages to be rid of their populations. Israelis commonly refer to it as “The War of Independence,” but Palestinians have dubbed it “Nakba” or “catastrophe.”
Schwarz’s film is focused intently on a single Palestinian village, Tantura, where as many as 240 Arabs were allegedly murdered by Israeli forces. This horror was first brought to light by graduate student Teddy Katz in the late 1990s, who recorded 140 hours worth of interviews with both Palestinian residents and members of Israel’s Alexandroni Brigade, some of whom admit to witnessing or even committing the acts themselves.
Sadly Katz’s reputation was tarnished by pushback from prominent Jewish academics who didn’t much care to debate the seemingly troubling formation of the faith’s modern mythology, resulting in both Katz and his thesis being discredited for two decades. When legal action was brought against Katz, his audio recordings weren’t permitted as evidence, but today they stand as damning confirmation of the claims in his writings.
With a combination of audio recordings, new interviews, and archive footage from the period, Katz’s film provides a shocking, devastating account of a story that deserves to be told and widely known, of a village stripped of its populace while another community sought their own home – a community which now wishes to hide that difficult past for the sake of self-preservation.
The most inherently impressive thing about Tantura is the staggering level of access Schwarz has obtained; beyond Katz allowing him to pore over his entire archive of recorded testimony, he has interviewed Tantura’s few surviving elderly residents of the period, and even many of the Alexandroni soldiers stationed there when the massacre took place.
One Israeli former resident says early on, “I have only good memories, because I’m fed up of remembering bad things,” serving as a fitting primer for Schwarz’s own thesis; are those keen to downplay the massacre motivated by their own trauma as Jews, themselves living through a mass genocide, or through guilt at what they have been party to? The answers certainly aren’t easy to come by as Schwarz’s film proves, but in the digging the filmmaker pokes at cultural scabs just begging to be picked.
Tellingly, Katz advises the director on-camera to mind what he does with the audio recordings, suggesting he’ll be “hunted down” should he decide to stoke the fires of discourse once again. This is, after all, a deeply incriminating testament to summary execution and systematic murder of citizens whose “crime” was simply living. Both the recordings and the new interviews with Israeli soldiers paint a fascinatingly soupy – and certainly not-entirely-reliable – picture of both the motivation to and impact of murder.
One soldier rationalises it away with the simplicity of “they killed Jews first,” while in Katz’s recordings several soldiers aggressively instruct him to “move on”, because they “want to forget.” When one soldier is asked if he ever talks about it with his family, he says, “What would I tell my wife? That I was a murderer?” Others are more outward in admitting their actions; one indignantly recalls, “Of course we killed them. No qualms at all,” and yet another, “If you killed, you did a good thing.”
The generally detached, casual nature with which these declarations are made is quite chilling, reflecting the banality of even war’s most horrific events. Yet it’s not always quite so mundane; hearing one elderly former soldier laugh as he admits to losing count of how many unarmed captives he machine-gunned to death in Tantura is utterly horrifying.
Despite the oft-conflicting perspectives there’s a very clear overlap to suggest what happened in Tantura was a concerted, organised massacre, no matter that some might downplay it as mere business of war. Given the horrendous, stomach-churning quality of some of the soldiers’ reported conduct, though – namely acts of rape – it’s impossible to pawn this maniacal behaviour off as part and parcel of “progress.”
The flippancy of the soldiers’ perspectives is juxtaposed quite heartbreakingly with the testimony of a woman whose family was killed in the massacre, still bearing the formed scars of that pain over 70 years later – an unimaginable emotional load for anyone to bear.
The fear and uncertainty on both sides of the equation, where absolutionism and a lack of compassion rule, is an apt, powerful encapsulation of most all human conflict. But as important as the conflict is how society parses it, and in the case of Israel, this massacre and the Nakba in general has been a tough pill for them to swallow. Given that modern Judaism is so firmly entwined in the post-Holocaust mythopoeia of Zionism, it’s naturally tough for Israelis in particular to admit that their home was created amid the destruction of another’s.
Israel has historically attempted to control – that is, hide – this narrative ever since, to protect the purity of the Zionist story, a story which its followers will defend to the hilt. At this point Tantura segues into a wider discussion about how we teach future generations about their nation’s and people’s own history, and how so often humanity will frame its atrocities as an exceptional or necessary evil.
It may be harder for anyone to deny the Tantura massacre if Katz and like-minded individuals are ever able to have the supposed mass burial sites in the village exhumed, providing the ultimate physical proof of what took place. Trying to rouse international interest in the task hasn’t been easy, though, especially when the locals scoff even at the idea of erecting a mere monument to memorialise the massacre. Today, with families blissfully parking their cars over where the graves are believed to be situated for a day at Tantura’s beautiful beach, it seems unlikely the deed will ever be done.
All in all, Schwarz’s film is a highly impressive achievement, in obtaining unthinkably comprehensive access to both recordings and people, and presenting such an horrific untold story with clarity and conviction. It speaks to the impact of the revelations that despite the film largely consisting of little more than talking heads interviews and footage of people listening to recordings, this is a compulsively affecting piece of work.
A shocking, sobering testament to public record as vital for widespread consciousness of past atrocities, Tantura is a courageous feat of documentary filmmaking that raises fascinating questions about notions of national trauma.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.