The bloody roots of green trees

MODERN ruins. Michal Weits, in her documentary, Blue Box. Photograph courtesy

WHICHEVER WAY YOU look at it, the little sliver of land at the heart of the Middle East is a hot potato. Enough to get otherwise intelligent and rational people spouting vicious invectives at strangers who have different opinions about it. Or its right to exist. That’s Israel – or Palestine. In Blue Box, Michal Weits, great-granddaughter of Joseph Weitz, the champion of forestation who was also known as the architect of transfer, examines myths, legends and truths about the Jewish National Fund (JNF). This excellent work features on this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which runs from 16-27 February 2022 and which offers film viewings online.

Careful to balance the position of the Jews with that of the Arabs, the work’s trajectory begins in 1933, with the establishment of the JNF, an institution that was to become ubiquitous in Jewish households the world over. Indeed, it was probably the world’s first foray into the notion of crowdfunding, says Weits.

But peer over Weits’s shoulder as she digs a little deeper into the secrets swept under the green covering of moss and trees that pockets of the land were made into, and the story runs rich with Arab dispossession and blood. Indeed, much of modern-day Israel bears the ruins of Arab villages destroyed in the wake of the Zionist project from as late as the 1950s.

Weits works carefully with archives, with the diary of Grandpa Joseph, and with the opinions of his sons, her uncles and her father. And very significant issues arise in this messy tale of land possession, land purchase and colonialism. On the one hand, her father looks at her political grandstanding and her challenges which probe and push him and his siblings into uncomfortable corners, and he says, ‘if you were there in 1948, you would have thought differently.’ But this is not 1948 and she is a fourth generation Israeli in 2021 with an academic understanding of the back story of the situation. Has she a right to challenge it? Indeed, the astuteness of Weits the granddaughter keeping this comment from her father in the documentary, invokes the corollary, articulated by a Palestinian, with roots in the same sliver of land.

On the other, she portrays a vivid and real picture of the plight of Jews persecuted by the Holocaust and effectively homeless by the mid-1940s. These were people who were similarly dispossessed of their homes in Europe – that is, those of them who survived the mass destruction of the Holocaust. They had nothing. Nowhere to live. And many countries were refusing them entry. Should their right to a new life be blurred out of relevance? The story can never be one dimensional.

Beautifully edited to bring in crude propaganda extracts from English-language broadcasts that are all about sunshine and pioneers, the work is thoughtfully structured and will hold you transfixed.

On a broader level, Blue Box tells about the nature of war and the volatility of land ownership. If you have the perspective to be able to stand far enough outside of the magic ring of outrage and invective that Israel sparks, and look at the universal issues of ownership and possession, war and comeuppance, a different story starts to emerge. One that is beautiful – and cruel – in its sense of balance.

This is an exceptionally brilliant film, which will invoke impassioned responses from all sides. It leaves you uncomfortable around phrases like ‘The Arab Question’ which resonate with other cultures’ histories of hate and persecution; it explains political decisions taken, and in many respects, it vindicates the man who became known as the Architect of Transfer and paints him, not as a happy, thoughtless colonialist treading on other people’s dreams with a bulldozer, but a man who followed his owns visions until he couldn’t morally justify them any further.

Blue Box takes the behemoth of Zionism and gives it a thoughtful, balanced and messy face, but a face, nevertheless. This young filmmaker has skilfully blended an understanding of the danger of writing in the first person; yet she’s not afraid to face the brunt of criticism.

Blue Box is directed by Michal Weits. Written by Marie-Josée Cardinal and Michal Weits, in English, Hebrew and Arabic with English sub-titles, it is produced by Assaf Amir, Ina Fichman, Eric Goossens, Frederik Nicolaï and Uri Smoly. Featuring creative input by Benoît Charest (music), Daniel Kedem (cinematography), and Doron Djerassi and Erez Laufer (editing) and Greg Bakker (key animator), it features on the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival which runs, 100% online, from 16-27 February 2022.

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