FILM REVIEW: The Village under the Forest | review by Martin Jansen

by Aug 12, 2013Magazine

The film tells the story of South African Heidi Grunebaum’s journey of discovery about the true nature of Israel, Zionism and the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The journey is activated by Heidi’s study of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) during the country’s political transition from Apartheid to majority rule and democracy. It prompts her to review her own life experience and views of black people, the liberation struggle and the indoctrination of her upbringing during Apartheid and, simultaneously, the other side of her dual identity as an active young Jewish supporter of the apartheid state of Israel. It leads to Heidi’s inquiry and questioning of the historical narratives of her upbringing in relation to both apartheid states. The former Palestinian village of Lubya, with its rich political and cultural historical legacy, is the centre of the documentary and metaphorically provides the basis for Heidi’s uncovering of the truth about what happened during and after 1948 – the year of both the birth of Israel and of South Africa’s legislated Apartheid state.

The film is beautifully shot and scripted for Heidi’s story as she takes us to the South African forest that was developed on top of the ruins of Lubya after the attack on the village by Jewish militiamen (later to form the Israeli army) and the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs who had been living there for centuries. The village of Lubya suffered the same fate as over 200 other Palestinian towns and villages, resulting in the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their native lands for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. This historical event is referred to as ‘the Nakba’ or catastrophe, and along with a permanent state of war against the Palestinians and decades of illegal occupation of their land by Israeli settlers and their state it has resulted in the majority of Palestinians (over five million) living as refugees in foreign lands, mainly in neighbouring countries of the Middle East but also all over the world.

The film contains well edited interviews with a variety of relevant commentators, ranging from credible Israeli and Palestinian historians and academics to role-players from both sides who were involved in the battle around Lubya’s invasion. Through Heidi’s poignant narration these expose various myths – most notably, the notion that the state of Israel should be supported and defended at any cost; the myth of the JNF’s role as an international, benevolent charitable organisation funding a noble and just Zionist cause for establishing Israel, as historically deemed by God; and the myth that the outnumbered Jewish militiamen at the forefront of the Nakba were the underdog, heroic salvation army of righteousness against the all- powerful and evil Arab armies trying in 1948 to prevent the birth of Israel.

The film emphasises what the Zionist founding fathers and mothers of the state of Israel, such as Ben Gurion and Golda Meir knew all too well: the importance and power of memory, and consequently the need to destroy any vestige and evidence of the Palestinian presence prior to the setting up of colonial Israel. For Heidi the importance of memory is to ensure the survival of the truth and to preserve the quest for truth and reconciliation, in order to end the historical conflict and lead towards a lasting peaceful co-existence between Palestinians and the colonial settlers of Israel.

This is perhaps the biggest weakness of the film, namely the suggestion that simply the preservation of memory, contributing towards South African-styled truth and reconciliation between Israelis and oppressed Palestinians, who were permanently robbed of the their land, livelihoods and dignity, will address the historical injustice of Israel’s existence. The film doesn’t demonstrate any lessons that Kaplan and Grunebaum might have learnt from the extreme limitations of South Africa’s TRC experience. Here, thousands of South Africans are still engaged in a direct struggle for compensation while the majority of black people still suffer from the legacy of Apartheid poverty, with minimal land restitution or prospect of improvement in their lives. At the same time the white section of the population enjoys unprecedented prosperity during the era of neo-liberal globalisation, free of the shackles of South Africa’s Apartheid-era pariah status. None of the remaining survivors of Lubya are asked or offered the opportunity in the film to tell us how they would want the historical injustice of the loss of their land, livelihoods and dignity to be addressed.

This intriguing absence of any notion of restorative justice for the Palestinians is reflective of the Kaplan’s and Grunebaum’s social grouping in South Africa, who morally condemn South Africa’s Apartheid past and the excesses of its current ruling elite, but express no concern about fundamental wrongs and the need for radical political and social transformation to ensure genuine equality.

Similarly, in the case of Palestine-Israel, for the Palestinians memory, truth and reconciliation will not adequately address the atrocious history of Zionist invasion and colonisation.

Nevertheless the film is beautifully made, containing several memorable scenes. For me the most captivating are those in which an old Palestinian farmer, an original inhabitant of Lubya, who remained and was classified by the Israeli state as a ‘present absentee’, regularly visits and meditates next to a remaining water well of Lubya in the South African-made forest developed on the village’s ruins.

The film is a good contribution in support of the Palestinian cause, with the timing of its release fortuitous in strengthening the growing global campaign for the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel. It could be the beginning of prising open the rock solid support of most Jewish people for the Israeli colonial state. It is a watershed opening gambit by enlightened and liberal Jews in challenging the blind loyalty of the majority of Jewish people in South Africa and internationally, who remain committed to Israel and the Zionist cause despite the well-exposed Israeli war, atrocities and super apartheid-style discrimination against Palestinians. The latter amounts to a concerted, planned attempt by Israel’s rulers at a systematic genocide of the Palestinians as a people– a historical irony with a similar historical mission by the Nazis against the Jewish people having failed.

The film exposes the real historical role of the JNF and at the very least should get its benefactors to reconsider the purpose of their contributions.

*Highly recommended viewing.

Jansen is the director of Workers’ World Media Productions and a leading member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in South Africa.

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