The 1929 massacre of Sepharadic Jews by their Arab neighbors is remembered in “What I Saw in Hebron” from Israeli husband-and-wife team Dan and Noit Geva. Potent subject makes this docu worthwhile for select broadcast and educational outlets, even if somewhat uneven execution suggests this historical chapter’s definitive screen investigation still lies ahead.
After the birth of her first child, Noit Geva’s father gave her a distinctive gift: Her late grandmother’s eyewitness account of the massacre of Jewish villagers in 1929 Hebron, written the day afterward by the then 16-year-old Zemira. In pic’s powerful first half, that testimony, read in voiceover, is abetted by those of surviving peers, contemporary footage of the pogrom’s grisly aftermath and creepy latterday prowls through the disaster’s little-changed sites.
For decades, even centuries, Jews and Arabs had co-existed peaceably in the region. But the arrival of Zionist immigrants stoked paranoia, which was then set aflame by planted rumors of anti-Muslim violence in Jerusalem. Women, infants, clergy, friends and neighbors weren’t spared in a two-hour melee that left 67 dead, many more raped or wounded. Several level-headed Arabs did help hide or protect Jews (including the grandmother herself). But others gave themselves over to a collective, feverish brutality — far from cold-blooded executions, the attacks were often grotesquely sadistic, their memory all the more disturbing for being witnessed and recalled by (now-elderly) children.
Impact is somewhat dissipated by second half, in which Noit’s invasive narration, plus the limited insights afforded by variably prejudiced/conciliatory interviewees on both sides, add up to a rote sigh at slim chance for peace in strictly-segregated modern Hebron. Rather banal approach is underlined by predictable scoring choices (mostly Pachelbel’s overexposed Canon in D) and a final chorus of conflicting voices accompanying UNICEF poster-like views of multiethnic children. Tech aspects are OK, some amateurish camerawork aside.