Tantura

The phrase “Never Forget” has long been associated with the Holocaust. It’s a pushback against the type of willed, collective amnesia that allows not just the perpetrators of atrocities but their descendants to go through life unburdened by guilt for war crimes and the privileges accrued as a result of their commission. The documentary “Tantura” shows how selectively the phrase is applied when the subject is the founding of Israel, which killed and displaced Palestinians and had a negative multigenerational ripple effect that continues into the present day. The movie focuses on the fate of Palestinian residents of the title village in the summer of 1948. A mass murder by Israeli soldiers was part of a grim event that included beatings, rapes, and looting.  “Tantura” is an ensemble work with a lot of voices. But the main narrative thread is the story of a professor and historian named Teddy Katz. Katz conducted 140 hours of audio interviews with both Palestinians and Israeli witnesses to (and participants in) the events at Tantura, then published a thesis. The project sparked such outrage among Katz’s fellow citizens that he became the subject of a libel suit by a group of his subjects (even though they spoke to him voluntarily, and everything was on tape). He was found guilty and lost his teaching job as a result. The judge who (barely) presided over the libel case listens to some of the tapes on camera for the first time and admits that if she’d heard them 20 years ago, when the suit was brought, she would have felt differently. But one still wonders if another result would have been possible, given how human beings are, how tightly nations cling to self-flattering foundational myths, and how the brain tends to process (and then reject) guilt, responsibility, and reckoning. Finally, near the end of the film, three women and one man who were residents of the original kibbutz created in Tantura after the massacre and displacement argue about whether a memorial to the victims should be allowed on site.  One of the on-camera interviewees describes the incidents at Tantura as having been not merely buried but destroyed. Willed forgetting is the movie’s focus, and the film predictably has limited success in attempting to compel remembrance in most of its participants, who tend to retreat into variants of, “Well, it was war, and bad stuff happens in war,” or “It was a long time ago,” or “We were trying to found a nation so we wouldn’t go through another Holocaust,” or “The Arabs were ruthless, so we did what we had to do.” Every existing nation is founded on the agonies of murdered and displaced prior residents, the United States included, and the descendants of the winning side always say things like that, so it’s no surprise when they are repeated here.  Filmmaker Alon Schwarz was aware of the political minefield he was walking into by choosing this subject, and that’s undoubtedly why the storytelling treads lightly. The result is a bit fragmented and unfocused in its arrangement of different voices, at times letting things “drop,” as one soldier on the audiotape repeatedly puts it, when pushing and probing might have yielded more insight. (Maybe Schwarz didn’t feel he could push things further than that because so many of the interviews were in their eighties and nineties and were already uncomfortable being challenged.) And while one understands why only Israelis were interviewed—Schwarz seems to be going for something like Claude Lanzmann and Marcel Ophuls’ Holocaust documentaries, which attempted to force reckoning among the perpetrators and enablers of war crimes—there are points when the viewer might still wonder if the result might have been richer, though messier and more explosive, if he’d opened up the pool of subjects (remember, the demographic makeup of Katz’s original batch of tapes was 50/50). But the end product is still bound to be controversial in the manner of pretty much every piece of filmed or written media focusing on Jewish-Arab history in the Middle East: even bringing it up tends to start fights. Israelis call the events of 1948 The War for Independence, while Palestinians call it Nabka, or The Catastrophe. It’s hard to imagine how the two could be reconciled, and “Tantura” doesn’t try. Instead, it has its hands full just trying to establish what happened and encouraging participants and beneficiaries to accept what it meant. Now playing in theaters. 

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