The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most perpetually gruelling conflicts in the whole wide world. The degree might vary, but there is no lack of awareness in the world when it comes to the existence of this Arab-Israeli conflict. The history of this conflict is long, and brutality and bloodshed besmirched and besmirches each foot of its length. Numerous contents have been produced over this. Any new content on the topic runs the risk of overabundance, which in turn might inspire a lack of gravitas that the topic so dearly needs while being handled in any form of expression.
Alon Schwarz’s Sundance documentary ‘Tantura’, however, is not devoid of gravitas or the emotional resonance of the victims of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the 1948 war, what the Israelis called ‘The War of Independence and the Palestinians called ‘Nakba’, hundreds of Palestinian villages were depopulated. In 1998, Teddy Katz, a student of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University, submitted a thesis. The subject of his thesis was the depopulation of one particular village, Tantura. Hence, the name of Schwarz’s documentary.
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Katz used audio interviews of both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian villagers to establish the premise of his thesis. From the interviews, he could conclude a massacre at Tantura. The interviews indicated that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) troops killed around two hundred unarmed villagers, mostly men, even after the village was surrendered to them. The thesis received immediate acclaim from Katz’s supervisor, however, it, subsequently, would be at the receiving end of the heavy critical barrage from former Israeli soldiers. Eventually, Katz would be sued for libel.
Now, after more than twenty years, Schwarz revisits those audiotapes and tries to find the truth. Or the hint of it. Schwarz interviews former soldiers who were present at Tantura in 1948, and also sits with former residents of Tantura. Some of these interviewees had been interviewed by Katz too, in 1998. Schwarz deftly shuffles between these documentations of various degrees of timelines. It was a tough ask to produce a seamless flow of visual information without getting cumbered by the numerous pieces of evidence that the documentarian had been presented with. Schwarz manages to achieve that task.
As the film progresses, ‘Tantura’ tries to discover a humane eye amidst its inhumane subject. The ‘participants’ of this play are real, as is the case with documentaries. The aged lines on their faces either alleviate or aggravate the seriousness of the reality of their past. For the old and wrinkled former soldiers, their words and nonchalance towards killings would appear a little sardonic, given how close they are to their demise. For the apparent victims, however, their age would serve the purpose of the grievous reminder of brutality gone unpunished.
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Schwarz, with his documents, also poses a question of historical revisionism. History, in its principle, deals with truth only, however unpleasant it is. States, however, do not always adhere to that notion. It often chooses a comforting lie instead, for the sake of protection of its existence. A documentary also, like history, should have its allegiance towards truth. Schwarz tries to navigate from any sort of bias but the nature of his findings often tilts his allegiance in picking one side. Understandably so, if I might add.
Editing of a documentary is of paramount importance. The clips are not fabricated. In ‘Tantura’, Schwarz’s Verite style making implies more from the interview clips. Schwarz uses the duration of the clip just enough to create an atmosphere for its aged participants. He starts rolling the camera when an old retired soldier starts his walk towards the chair to start the interview, and not when he is already seated. It is both sad and indicative of the time passed since the event of the documentary.
The topic that is being displayed on the screen is also old. It is dredging of memory that would ring the bell of injustice. The interspersed old photos and clips only heighten the intended discomfort that the subject exudes. Schwarz juxtaposes the materials, which were at his disposal, quite well. As a result, ‘Tantura’ becomes a comfortably uncomfortable watch. Nevertheless, it is an important piece of documentary filmmaking.