'Blue Box' - Hot Docs Review

In conversations with her family, Michal Weits questions the actions of her great grandfather Joseph Weitz, which result in a film that explores Israel‘s past, and makes her face up to uncomfortable truths
'Blue Box' - Hot Docs Review

Revelations of uncomfortable family details often make for the best documentaries, and filmmaker Michal Weits’ detailed and absorbing film Blue Box has all of the elements for debate, controversy and angst as she delves into the diaries of her long-revered great grandfather hailed as one of the heroic pioneers of Israel.

Yosef Weitz – or Grandpa Joseph as he is called by family members – is the pillar of her clan. Despite it being 50 years since he died, she admits that every family gathering still begins and ends with him. After moving to Palestine in 1908 he helped found pioneer Jewish colonies and went on to become head of the JNF (Jewish National Fund) Forestry Department, becoming a leading figure in the subsequent massive land takeover that led to the creation of the State of Israel.

As she states: “I belong to a generation of Israelis, raised on the myth – ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. We were raised on the myth of the Hebrew pioneers, draining the swamps and building the new towns and villages, which we now call home.” But in conversations with her family, she questions his actions, which result in a film that explores Israel‘s past, and makes her face up to uncomfortable truths.

The Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) beloved Blue Box campaign was internationally successful in raising support for the purchase and forestation of land in Palestine. The pine trees have since spread their roots, but evidence still remains of the Palestinian communities displaced by the once-fragile seedlings.

“We were raised on the myth of the Jewish National Fund’s blue boxes, where people put their spare change to help raise money for the noble mission of acquiring the historic land of Israel,” she says. “Those little boxes changed the face of the Middle East. The story behind how Israel obtained the land it sits on is one of the most sensitive topics that nobody really wants to talk about. Even today.”

The film features plentiful archival footage as it tells the story of Israel, blended with readings from Joseph Weitz’s extensive diaries. The footage is interweaved with Michal Weits talking to family members and shots of her in archive out driving amidst the forests her family is still linked with. She speaks to uncles and cousins from the Weitz clan, as well her father Rami Weits.

She admits a pride when she was younger in the knowledge that her grandfather was responsible for the trees and flora of the country. But later she discovered he had another moniker – The Architect of Transfer – which referred to the removal of Arabs from their homes. He was quoted in 1940 as saying: “After the Arabs are transferred the country will be wide open for us…not a single village, a single tribe must be left…there is no other solution.”

Taking his life story as its historical spine, the film runs in chronological fashion – using liberal extracts from his diaries – through the decades, from his arrival in Palestine, when in 1910 the country was populated by 80,000 Jews and 650,000 Arabs. He married, had three sons and in 1932 was appointed Director of the Department of Lands at JNF where he set about raising money through the Blue Boxes to buy land, often from absentee landlords. He followed the law, but also began the practice of forcedly expelling Arabs from land they had lived on for years.

The policy become more intense in 1948 after Israel declared its independence. The Arab-Israeli War saw 750,000 Arabs flee or expelled from their homes, with Israel confiscating lands. Michal Weits recounts that Joseph became a member of the Transfer Committee which had a brief to “resolve the Arab problem.”

The confiscation of lands continued over the years, with villages and towns becoming “renovated,” and when the UN stipulated that Palestinian refugees who wanted to return to their homes should be able to, the Israeli government sold 250,000 acres of absentee lands to the JNF, essentially transferring from government to an extra-national body that is not beholden to international law.

Passages in Weitz’s diary in April 1948 show his support for the transfer of Arabs during the 1948 war: “I have drawn up a list of Arab villages which in my opinion must be cleared out in order to complete Jewish regions. I have also drawn up a list of land disputes that must be settled by military means.” Later in his life, Weitz’s views appear to be more conciliatory towards neighbouring Arabs, saying that “the intoxication of victory has muddled our long-term thinking.”

Just over half way through her film and Michal Weits starts to ask tougher questions of her family members, observing how, “I’m allowed to ask questions…I think I can be critical too. Our generation has been prevented from delving into the past.” Her uncles are not keen to talk – she says how “they cling to pride in him” – while her father simply say he is uncomfortable with her having the conversation.

It is clearly a painful conversation and process, and not pressing her family harder allows the subject to drift away rather than be deeply addressed. She admits to feeling uncomfortable driving through the forests that he planted, many of which stand over the ruins of destroyed Arab homes.

She wrote: “When I was 12, I found the diaries and started to read. Since then, I cannot let it go. It is a great responsibility for me to tell the story they hold. It wasn’t an easy journey for me, but this confrontation with the past can help us understand our future.”

The title Blue Box is perhaps a little gentle and unprovocative given the tone and complexity of the story, but at least it is a subject being examined. One concern is that the perspective is very much from the viewpoint of director Michal Weits – there are no Arab voices or alternative commentary which means it lacks a sharper edge.

Israel-Canada-Belgium, 2021, 80mins

Dir Michal Weits

Production Norma Productions, Intuitive Pictures, Off-World, yesDocu

International sales Cinephil

Screenplay Michal Weits, Marie-Josee Cardinal

Producers Michal Weits, Assaf Amir, Ina Fichman, Eric Goossens, Frederik Nicolai, Uri Smoly

Cinematography Daniel Kedem, Avner Shahaf, Daniel Miller

Editor Doron Djerassi, Erez Laufer

Music Benoit Charest

(First published in Business Doc Europe)

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