In the Israel-Palestine atrocity doc “Tantura,” director Alon Schwarz gives thorough consideration to the evidence and probable causes for war crimes from 1948 that Israeli soldiers committed in the Arabic village of the movie’s title. Schwarz mostly focuses on testimonials gathered by Teddy Katz, a former University of Haifa scholar who wrote a master’s thesis in 1988 that accused the Israel Defense Forces’ Alexandroni Brigade of the mass execution of 200 Tantura residents.
Schwarz uses new interviews that he conducted not only to support but also to contextualize the damning evidence that Katz gathered over an estimated 135 interviews. Rather than just dramatize Katz’s findings, Schwarz also questions why the surviving Alexandroni vets uniformly refuse to believe Katz.
“Tantura” starts with what at first seems like an unnecessary interview with the four surviving founders of the Northern Israeli Nachsholim kibbutz settlement. In this opening interview, Schwarz puts a heavy emphasis on how un-introspective his four interview subjects appear when they’re asked about what happened in nearby Tantura. These nonagenerians’ opinions may be defensive, but they’re still relevant, especially since Nachsholim was founded in June 1948, one month after the provisional government of Israel established its statehood.
Schwarz eventually returns to the Nachsholim settlers — Yitzhak, Tereza, Drora and Rachel — in a way that compensates for some unconvincing early soundbites, like when Tereza says, “I have only good memories…” Drora agrees reflexively, and then Tereza adds, “Because I’m fed up with remembering bad things.” Schwarz then quickly cuts to the next scene, which makes him seem condescending as well as righteously combative.
Thankfully, a later scene suggests these Schwarz’s establishing interviews with the Nachsholim founders were only ever meant to help thread the needle for Katz’s plot. Because when Drora comes back later on, she suggests that, if the Arab or Palestinian community wants to commemorate their dead, they should be able to. She also handily dismisses Itzhak’s suggestion that such a memorial would do no good. “He’s asking what we think, not what will help,” she shrugs.
Most of “Tantura” concerns Katz and his thesis, which received top marks in 1988 but was removed from university libraries in 2002 following a public scandal. Schwarz interviews some of the surviving Alexandroni soldiers, asking them (and others) why they later turned on Katz, who quoted some of them in his original paper.
Schwarz also sometimes plays excerpts from Katz’s archival interviews, which helps to establish Katz’s credibility. That secondary evidence was not even considered during the Alexandronis’ defamation lawsuit, after the University of Haifa renounced Katz’s thesis and rescinded his master’s degree. (They later granted Katz a non-specialized degree.) University of Haifa Professor Yoav Gelber expresses skepticism for Katz’s thesis that, in Schwarz’s interviews, borders on personal hostility. Gelber’s University of Haifa colleague Professor Avner Giladi immediately makes a credible counter-argument when he suggests the university retroactively disavowed Katz’s thesis “to silence [Katz] as he’d expressed himself in his work.”
Interviews with Teddy and his wife Ruth, who recall being ostracized by his peers, effectively play to viewers’ sympathy but also provide a necessary emotional focus for Schwarz’s otherwise sprawling narrative. Eventually, Schwarz poses some bigger, more existential questions to his Israeli interviewees, like why they prefer to forget painful memories and, more specifically, why a few of them don’t want to consider the allegations featured in Katz’s thesis.
Some provocative and semi-coherent answers to those questions will probably not convince anybody who doesn’t already want to be convinced. Schwarz still does a fine job of selectively expanding the scope of Katz’s story from a highly subjective he-said/they-said dispute into a bigger story about cultural amnesia.
Some of the best interviews in “Tantura” don’t even directly concern Katz, like when Israeli historian Adam Raz recalls the Israeli government’s delayed release of potentially embarrassing documents related to the 1948 War of Independence, especially with regard to “murder not in accordance with combat conditions” and torture that violated the Geneva Conventions. Hebrew University Professor Hillel Cohen also indirectly supports Katz’s thesis when he shows viewers a newsreel dramatization of what happened in Tantura. Cohen argues that this fictionalized recreation also illustrates the Israeli government’s official version of the war, notably “devoid of torture.”
Schwarz covers so much ground with his interview subjects that it’s often hard to argue with his documentary’s variable presentation, which tends to vilify anyone who rejects Katz. It’s hard to imagine that Schwarz didn’t know what he was doing when he interviewed Judge Drora Pilpel — who presided over Katz’s libel case — with her toy dog sitting in her lap. The excited canine pants excitedly while Pilpel listens to some of Katz’s audio interviews. “This I never heard,” she admits. Schwarz only ends this scene after Pilpel shushes her dog: “Calm down, Fifi, it was long ago.”
Eventually, even defensive but relatively benign soundbites help to establish Schwarz’s prevailing conceit: Tantura was deliberately buried and not passively forgotten. Schwarz piles on more than enough damning interview footage to support his and Katz’s case, making “Tantura” a better-than-average work of docu-agitprop.
“Tantura” opens in NYC and LA Dec. 2 via Reel Peak Films.