Throughout “Tantura,” Alon Schwarz will show the fragility of his subjects, many of whom are octogenerians or above recalling the events that followed the United Nations’ creation of Israel in 1948, dividing Palestine into Arab and Jewish states and leading to a war in which the latter was fighting for independence while the former looked to maintain the land they already considered theirs. The director will occasionally leave in pre-interviews in which he’ll ask if someone is okay to speak and the frame is left wide enough to see a walker nearby, signs of age perhaps but more significantly allusions to how delicate a situation he’s entering as he’s collecting memories, one that Teddy Katz, who is a generation younger than most in the film, but still finds himself confined to a motorized scooter after a series of strokes, warns “Be careful, you’ll be hunted down like I was.”
It turns out that while the people in front of the camera may be delicate, history itself emerges as the most precarious element in “Tantura,” centered around a battle that took place in the Palestinian coastal community of the title. Katz hands over 140 hours of testimony to Schwarz that he collected for his dissertation at Haifa University, putting forth the suggestion that over 200 people were killed and buried in a mass grave, with soldiers of the Israeli Alexandroni Brigade opting not to take prisoners even after they had successfully driven residents from the area. The thesis paper wouldn’t have been read beyond the faculty at Haifa, if not for an enterprising reporter sifting through a library who would summarize it for an article, and as Schwarz illustrates time and again in “Tantura,” history often inconveniences those in the present as the firestorm over the charges raised by Katz derailed his academic career, though his belief in what he wrote never appears to have wavered, having spoken to a handful of soldiers who said the mass grave was real.
There are skeptics of Katz’s carefully placed through “Tantura,” but a compelling case regarding the alleged massacre is made as Schwarz retraces the steps of his investigation and builds on it, particularly when the filmmaker on his own comes across raw footage shot for MGM newsreels at the time that were intended to demonstrate the peaceful evacuation of Palestinians that still reflect what the Israel troops left in their wake. However, “Tantura” could be just about any subject from our collective past in which consensus has grown elusive as many of the interviews are less concerned with details that can no longer be concretely confirmed than the hardened stances that start to take their place, whether rooted in truth or not. In the case of the birth of Israel specifically, a fascinating question of moral justification sets in as the film begins to ask whether a country founded under the threat of violence from Nazis could ever see themselves responsible of the same thing and as time moves further and further away from first-hand experience, tribal beliefs supersede what facts are out there.
Surely, Schwarz will be accused of this himself from some corners, but “Tantura” doesn’t leverage uncertainty to drive home its points, but rather illustrates quite impressively what is lost when there is no agreed upon set of facts to start a conversation and any attempts at challenging accepted historical narratives is met with fear. During a time when everything seems up for grabs, “Tantura” gives audiences something to hold onto.
“Tantura” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival virtually for a 24-hour window beginning January 22nd at 8 am MT.