No shortcut through the graveyard forest

Every Friday Naiff Hujjo, a Palestinian resident of Deir Hanna village in ­Galilee, makes a pilgrimage by tractor, not to mosque, but to a well that has not yet been choked by the roots of a tree in the surrounding pine forest.

In this forbidden zone, he performs his pre-prayer cleansing rite above the obliterated village of Nubya, where he was born. Hujjo is not an ideologue. He possesses none of the intellectual polish of a polemicist. He is simply a farmer and a son of the soil from which he has been exiled in the land of his birth.

It is here, among a forest of symbols, that award-winning South African filmmaker Mark Kaplan and author Heidi Grunebaum embarked on a three-year-long odyssey, unearthing detritus that memory cannot erase. The fruit of their research is a documentary called The Village Under the Forest, which traces the greening of the Promised Land by the Jewish National Fund.

Through the endearing blue-and-white moneyboxes of the Keren Kayemet, Jews throughout the diaspora were entreated to fund the cultivation of forests and recreational parks — one of them called the South African Forest — which, as its namesake suggests, was sponsored by South African Jewry. But much of the Jewish National Fund’s quest to “make the wilderness bloom” was accomplished literally on the gravesites of Palestinian villages after the Israeli War of Independence in May 1948.

For the Israeli victors the war signified hard-won statehood, a miraculous triumph and the fulfilment of a divine birthright. Yet for the vanquished Palestinians, forced into states of displacement, the War of Independence represented a Nakba — a catastrophe — that 65 years later continues to resonate with fury in the intifada, or awakening.

Courageous and poignant narrative
In recent years, the Nakba has become popularised for filmmakers worldwide and a source of furious contention both within the Jewish state and beyond. The Village Under the Forest forms one of a growing litany of such films, alongside 5 Broken Cameras, Roadmap to Apartheid and The Gatekeepers.

But, apart from references to silence in the face of suffering and advocacy of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission-type process as a possible platform for reconciliation through accepting responsibility for past iniquities, this documentary does not resort to drawing crude equivalents between Zionist Israel and apartheid South Africa. It also avoids straddling oversimplified binaries of right and wrong, ownership and entitlement.  

Instead, it provides a courageous and poignant narrative told from three personal points of view: that of Grunebaum — a Jewish South African revisiting her allegiance to the Holy Land from the perspective of a romanticised diaspora; those of Palestinian villagers exiled for decades from the land to which they have remained rooted, or relegated to the status of internal refugees; and that of a refusenik — a battle-scarred Israeli who activates for acknowledgment of the Nakba in order for Jews and Palestinians to co-exist in peace.

This narrative approach presents its own dangers, because through first-person exegesis there is always the risk of appropriating another’s narrative or of inadvertently assuming a dominant place in a topography from which one is geographically separated, albeit emotionally attached. To Grunebaum’s credit, despite the moral trauma involved in her rite of demystification, she does not succumb to sentimentalism. The imagery she evokes through a sensitively textured, metaphoric script provokes a powerful sense of identification. Kaplan’s direction is similarly nuanced and unobtrusive. An evocative soundtrack and under­statedly poetic footage succeeds in augmenting the disquieting resonance of this film.

Deferring to the authority of Israeli scholars critical of Israel’s ­history, Kaplan’s personal conflict in exposing a discomfiting truth never obscures his efforts to weave three diverse narrative threads into a ­cohesive whole.

“We wanted to find a language that emerges out of the spaces of silence, that isn’t a language of polemics,” explains Kaplan, who recalls the fraughtness of witnessing the ­Palestinian camera crew with whom he worked being subjected to security checkpoints and bureaucratic restrictions that daily circumscribe “occupied” lives.

“Throughout, I felt torn. That’s what Israel does to you; it tears you apart. If you’re Jewish and you have a conscience, if you have any connection to an ethical sense of responsibility for your actions, you face a huge dilemma.”

Perpetrators of myth-­making
The Village Under the Forest makes for compelling and, possibly, devastating viewing for Jews, particularly those from the diaspora who either did not know about, or have avoided acknowledgment of, the Nakba. Indeed, in battle, both vanquished and victorious tend to become victims and perpetrators of myth-­making. As French philosopher and humanist Paul Ricoeur observed: “One people’s victorious celebration depends of the defeat and humiliation of those they have vanquished. Collective memory archives real and symbolic wounds and becomes linked to the ideological projects of a given society.”

But there exists the intractability of historical truths that persist in ­pushing through the rubble of desecration and erasure, like grass through pavement cracks. Lubya’s deliberate obliteration — and that of hundreds of Palestinian villages, as well as the fleeing or expulsion of their inhabitants — has been documented in official archives,  subsequently declassified and released on Israel’s 30th birthday.

And within Israel, the persistence of denial is juxtaposed against robust voices of dissent. The overriding message evoked through The Village Under the Forest is of an acknow-ledgement that both Israelis and Palestinians own the narrative of the Nakba, and that only through a sense of their shared humanity will both sides transcend the anger and anguish of victimisation that still ­disfigures this contested land.

The Village Under the Forest premieres in Africa at the Encounters International Documentary Festival, with screenings at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town on June 10 and the Bioscope in Jo’burg on June 15

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Hazel Friedman
Hazel Friedman is an investigative journalist and producer with Special Assignment, author, art critic and art history lecturer.

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