On Tuesday evening, the Comité pour une Paix Juste au Proche Orient (CPJPO), a Luxembourg non-profit organisation active in the area of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, screened the 2022 documentary "Tantura", in the presence of the film's director Alon Schwarz, at the Kulturfabrik cultural centre in Esch-sur-Alzette.
On the occasion of Alon Schwarz's visit to Luxembourg, Chronicle.lu had the opportunity to speak with the award-winning Israeli documentary filmmaker about his latest film. "Tantura", which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, addresses the controversial subject of the "Nakba" (an Arabic word for "catastrophe"), i.e. the mass eviction of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians from the newly established State of Israel in May 1948. More specifically, the film focuses on one part of the Nakba: an alleged massacre committed by the Israeli Defense Forces Alexandroni Brigade in the then Palestinian fishing village of Tantura.
The documentary centres around the story of Teddy Katz, an Israeli researcher who, in the late 1990s, produced a master's thesis based on oral testimonies in which he concluded that a massacre took place in Tantura in May 1948 - after the surrender of the village. He was later sued for libel, ended up retracting his thesis and issuing an apology, and his academic career was over. Alon Schwarz's 2022 documentary sheds new light on the issue, returning to Teddy's 100+ hours of audio recordings (the testimonies of Alexandroni Brigade veterans as well as former Tantura residents) with the addition of new interviews conducted by Alon and his film crew. The documentary is a mixture of reenactments, archival footage and more recent interviews.
Speaking to Chronicle.lu, Alon explained that after his first documentary, "Aida's Secrets", which explored post-holocaust genealogy, he had planned to make a more political film about current issues in Israel. He stumbled across Teddy Katz's story when researching his original film idea and decided to make Teddy the protagonist of a new documentary about the "Tantura massacre". Alon met with Teddy, who gave the former access to his tapes from the 1990s. Alon and his team went on to conduct fresh interviews with the Alexandroni Brigade veterans who had spoken with Teddy more than 20 years earlier, letting them listen back to their old tapes and observing their reactions (their body language as well as their verbal responses); the team also interviewed former residents of Tantura as well as historians and academics, among others. Whilst Alon recognised that, as others had argued previously, Teddy had made some mistakes in his master's thesis, for instance regarding quotes, it was "very clear" from the tapes that a massacre took place after the fighting ended and that the interviewees remembered these events – even if not everyone was willing to talk about them.
The film moves between the story of Teddy and how he was treated by fellow academics, the media and the authorities at that time, the story of what happened in 1948 and the wider story of the Nakba and how it has been told and "sugar-coated" in Israel. Alon added that "Israelis don't want to deal with this story, because they're afraid that Israel will lose its legitimacy", but argued that it was important to acknowledge the past in order to move towards a better future. An advocate of a two-state solution, Alon said: "Without knowing the story of 1948, we don't understand as Israelis why Palestinians are angry at us". The film thus addresses a larger issue: it is "the story of a nation that doesn’t know its past", explained Alon.
Whilst his first film "Aida’s Secrets" was "much loved" in Israel and picked up by various international distributors, Alon noted that "Tantura" has been difficult to sell internationally, because "no one wants to tell this critical story of Israel". However, he said he did not believe the documentary to be "anti-Israel" but rather "pro-truth and pro-peace". "For me it’s very important to tell this story", he elaborated, "because I think in order to ever have dialogue with the Palestinians, we need to understand their story".
In Israel, the documentary has already been shown on TV and in cinemas. "It's the most talked about film in Israel in years", said Alon. "It has caused a very big noise in Israel because it shatters the very basic founding myth". Outside of Israel, the film has been screened at various festivals and the team is currently looking for distribution (TV, cinemas). As Alon explained, this was the main purpose of the recent visit to Luxembourg (as well as various cities in France): to attract the interest of local distributors through initial screenings of the documentary.
On the relevance of the film today, Alon referred to the recent elections and current events in Israel. He lamented that there has been a "terrible takeover of power, a crashing of democracy in Israel". He argued that Israel needed to be "held accountable for its actions" if peace is ever to be achieved. "I think it's time to criticise Israel. It's time for international pressure", he said. And whilst the film focuses specifically on events in 1948, Alon argued that it is also a portrait of Israeli society and this should resonate with viewers.
Speaking about the film and recent screening at Kulturfabrik, representatives of the CPJPO said: "The film is very important to us because some members of the CPJPO have already been at the location where Tantura used to be and have a direct connection to the place. The film illustrates why it is even more important today to talk about the Nakba [...] and to raise awareness about what happened in 1948, because many people in Israel and the rest of the world are not aware of it or chose to ignore it, which leads to a falsification of collective memory". They added: "The case of Teddy Katz also shows that academic freedom can be very severely limited by political motivations, especially when it goes against the narrative of the Israeli State. Unfortunately the State of Israel denies part of its history and even prohibits the commemoration of the crimes perpetrated during the Nakba".