Premiering in Hot Docs’ World Showcase, Michal Weits’ debut, “Blue Box,” marks a personal exploration of the myth, reality and historical context of the filmmaker’s great-grandfather. By extension, it becomes a deep dive into Israel’s complex and controversial history – a debate to which there’s no resolution in sight.
Named after the blue boxes of the Jewish National Fund – small boxes that helped raise money for the acquisition of land – the documentary is produced by Norma Productions, Intuitive Productions, Off-World and yesDocu.
It examines the life of Joseph Weits, the man in charge from the 1920s of acquiring land for the Jewish people in what became Israel. A hero for his nation, the founder of Israel’s forest systems, Weits oversaw Israel’s Land and Afforestation department and contributed greatly to the idea of a nation that bloomed out of the desert. His critics, however, point out that he grew Israel’s forests thanks to hundreds of thousands of Arabs being driven off their lands or fleeing their vilages during wars.
With world sales handled by Cinephil, the doc centers on the emblematic figure of Weits, who embodies the passions and – for his critics – prejudices of his age.
Accompanying extracts from Weits’ diaries with a large amount of archive material and Michal’s interviews with her own family, “Blue Box” balances a portrait of Weits as a human being, the legend that he became, and the dark shadow that his image casts for his great-granddaughter. With it, the filmmaker confronts her family past and, in doing so, re-examines that of her country.
As time passes it gives new generations the distance and fresh eyes to re-examine the past. How do you feel your generation views the past?
That’s the big difference between the generation of my father and my grandfather and mine. I think we are less afraid to talk about the uncomfortable truth and we feel more secure in our country and in our life. We can ask difficult questions without being afraid that this will take the country from us. In my opinion, if we want to see a better future for the next generation, we have to touch the core of the conflict. And the core of the conflict is not the Six Day War in 1967, not even 1948, although it’s a big turning point. But it started earlier in the ‘20s and ‘30s when the Jewish people started to purchase land from the Arab population, the conflict started there. I can say only on my behalf that I don’t think that it will cause any damage for the state of Israel to acknowledge the Palestinians’ history, on the contrary, it will bring us more benefits than damage.
There’s so much archive material and you also have his diaries. What was the process when it came to structuring the documentary?
I spent two years narrowing down and focusing on a script. I began with 5,000 pages of diary and at the end of the day it was 15. So it took me two years. It was a very interesting process with myself because I sat in my apartment alone for two years reading and reading and reading and and researching everything. And it was very important for me to show that he wasn’t a bad guy, and he had feelings, and family, and he had good intentions, and he wanted to build a country for me. And his family suffered in the Holocaust. And he wanted to find a solution on the one hand. And on the other hand, I was very surprised during my reading, I found out a different character from what I knew from my family. And I was very conflicted about it because I felt that I really knew him, that I really loved him. And he’s a very special man [who suffered his own] emotional and moral war [about what he was doing]. I was angry with him. But it’s very difficult because you can’t really be judgmental, because I have a country, a house right now and he did it. This complexity accompanied me through all the years that I was working on the film. And it’s complex. I agree. I don’t have any solution.
From the title itself, the film handles a whole host of symbols that carry the emotional weight of the story. What did you find out when creating meaning out of the forest that your grandfather planted?
When I started working on the film, I started traveling in the country, and only after reading the diary, and starting to work on the research, I started to see things that for 38 years I hadn’t seen at all in the country, in the landscape, or as you just saw in the film. I saw pictures of me traveling as a kid and taking pictures with the ruins of a Palestinian village behind me, and I didn’t know what they were. And suddenly I started to see in the forest graves and mosques and the ruins of houses. It was like wearing a pair of glasses and I started to see it clearly. And I felt and I was very happy to hear that people who worked with me on the film started traveling the country with their families during the weekend. And they called me and told me. “We are seeing it.” Finally, we are wearing those pair of glasses. And we started to see history. And that for me, this is the main goal of my film: To give the audience this pair of glasses, to see history, to see the landscape, to see the story that nobody told us in school, in our families or anywhere else.