To Israelis, it was the War of Independence. To Palestinians, it was the Nakba — the catastrophe. “Tantura,” from Israeli documentarian Alon Schwarz, begins with audio from the 1948 U.N. Declaration that led to the founding of Israel and the subsequent clearing of Arab populations from the region. While it aims to contextualize self-perpetuated myths of national glory, it focuses more specifically on the tiny Palestinian fishing village of Tantura, the site of an alleged massacre by the IDF, and one Israeli researcher’s squashed attempts to expose that history 50 — now almost 75 — years later.
Though it features brief moments of confrontation with elderly Israeli subjects — some of them soldiers who were present at the time — the film depends too greatly on its sense of academia to unearth its story, and it struggles to fully engage with the explosive topic at hand for its first hour. However, in the final stretch of its 85-minute runtime, this approach proves foundational for chilling revelations and quiet, cinematically self-evident questions about the way we remember history.
If “Tantura” is about one person, it’s Teddy Katz, the researcher whose Master’s thesis resulted in a national scandal and the end of his academic career in 1998 (he also claims one of the several strokes he suffered was a direct result of this fallout). Early into the film, Schwarz learns — on camera, no less — that Katz possesses over 140 hours of audio-taped interviews with Jewish and Arab subjects close to the event, a revelation that feels like the movie is discovering its purpose as if by happy accident. Much of its subsequent runtime revolves around these tapes, which were disregarded during Katz’s trial, and even disowned by the interviewees themselves, but the contents are crystal clear. During his own sit-downs, Schwarz presents the taped eye-witness testimonies to people whose voices can be heard to discern what they remember and how much of it they still claim is true. These interviews about interviews speak to the opaqueness of this history, given how many layers of obfuscation and altered confession Katz and the film must wade through to find some semblance of the truth.
However, Schwarz’s aims become quickly scattered. His camera seldom lingers on the confrontational nature of posing these questions to former soldiers or presenting judges with Katz’s tapes. Rather than capturing their cognitive dissonance with any cinematic flair, the film instead depends on explanations about its aforementioned themes from academic and psychological experts, who extrapolate from deep-seated denial we don’t see. Comparisons to Joshua Oppenheimer’s Indonesian massacre docs “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence” come easily, both because of their similarities and because of the specific ways in which Oppenheimer succeeds, whereas Schwartz might not. “Tantura” is conceptually brave as an Israeli film that challenges the country’s foundational myths, but it’s aesthetically timid, constantly averting its gaze from its most rigorous investigations as soon as they become emotionally thorny. The resultant edit is at times haphazard, given how it hops and skips between audio clips, archival footage and present interviews before letting each one resonate; Schwarz juggles dynamite, but only after dampening it.
However, while the tale of Katz’s expulsion from the academic world takes up two-thirds of the runtime, it’s really just a sliver of the story. Despite this lopsided focus, “Tantura” begins to find itself — slowly, and then all of a sudden — when it stops limiting its purview to recounting Katz’s past plight and quick scenes of former soldiers listening to audio snippets accompanied by archival photos. This pitstop, in 1998, is certainly vital to understanding the forces at play and how the Israeli state worked to cover up and discredit all mentions of the Tantura killings. But it proves too much of a detour once the film finally moves beyond it and begins drawing a direct line between the present day and the 1940s; not only Israel’s 1948 founding but the stark similarities between images of the Nazi Holocaust and the long-buried horrors wrought upon Arabs in the region shortly thereafter.
As much as the film is about facts erased from history, it’s also about memory — both individual and collective. It may not fully ruminate on the former, but composer Ophir Leibovitch imbues each recollection with a sense of painful gravitas, even if the words and images presented don’t quite live up to his sobering score.
However, when “Tantura” finally moves into its final act, the wider emotional ripple effects of its subject matter are difficult to avoid. Some concern newer revelations about the village and what remains of it today. Others take the form of conversations (through words and Schwarz’s deployment of contrasting contemporary and historical imagery) about memorialization, as the question shifts from what is remembered to who is allowed to remember (and be remembered) in the first place.
Reel Peak Films will release “Tantura” in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 2.