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HOT DOCS 2021

Review: Blue Box

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- In her documentary, Michal Weits delves into the life of her great-grandfather Joseph, the man who orchestrated the acquisition and expropriation of Palestinian land

Review: Blue Box

Sam Spiegel Film and Television School alumna and producer Michal Weits' debut documentary, Blue Box, taking part in the World Showcase strand of this year's Hot Docs, is a (hi)story of excruciating suffering that involves at least three parties: the members of the Weits family, the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In Blue Box, Weits decides to delve into the controversial past of her great-grandfather Joseph, the man known for orchestrating the acquisition and expropriation of Palestinian land. Her investigation starts by looking at – and reading – Joseph's personal diaries, a huge account of his life spread over 5,000 pages, spanning about 80 years of history. Weits adopts a rather classical approach, alternating talking heads of her family members, a significant amount of archive footage, photographs, an atmospheric original score (courtesy of Benoit Charest) and an animated timeline helping viewers to easily keep track of the passing of time. Furthermore, the voice-over narration includes both Michal's own reflections as well as some excerpts of Joseph's journals, rendered through actor Dror Keren's dry reading.

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The documentary opens with several shots depicting a large forest. At one point, the filmmaker's voice-over states: “My dad used to take me on trips to the countryside. On the way, we'd stop in front of beautiful green landscapes and he'd tell me about our family history. He'd point at the three lines of mountains and say: ‘You see all this? Your grandfather is responsible for it’.” In fact, Weits was the head of the Jewish National Fund's Forestry Department and organised the well-known Blue Box campaign, which was internationally successful in raising support for the purchase and forestation of land in Palestine. Right from the documentary's early stages, we understand how burdensome, uncomfortable and unavoidable Joseph's legacy is on the family's destiny.

Michal accompanies the viewers on an intense journey revealing many details of the massive land takeover that finally led to the creation of the State of Israel as we know it today. Thus, it gradually becomes clear that the trees planted by the Jewish National Fund did not only represent the necessary roots to kick-start the birth of a nation; they also constructed the foundations of a decades-long, irreconcilable conflict between the two warring parties. Throughout the research process, Michal is both inquisitive and genuinely curious about exploring her great-grandfather’s ambiguous past. Her approach allows her to provide a fairly well-balanced narration, as she overcomes her “basic instinct” to ignore what has happened and questions the broader epic narrative of heroic pioneers who reached a neglected, empty land and built their home state from scratch. The living descendants' feelings of shame, concern, sorrow or even understanding towards Weits' actions is also visible, albeit on a more superficial level, most likely limited by the subjects' immense efforts to be in front of the camera and talk about very delicate state (and family) affairs.

Blue Box is sadly more timely than ever as the death toll mounts and Israel-Gaza violence escalates. If you are reading this review and wish to watch the film in search of some clarity, rest assured that you won't find it. Weits' documentary poses many questions – most of which are left unanswered – and the ending raises a heap of new, more uncomfortable ones. Her Socratic exploration of doubt, however, makes it sufficiently compelling and fascinatingly elusive.

Blue Box was produced by Israel's Norma Productions, Canada's Intuitive Pictures, Belgium's Off-World and Israel's yesDocu, and was co-produced by NHK, CBC/Radio Canada, Knowledge Network, Canvas, VPRO and RTS. Tel Aviv-based outfit Cinephil is in charge of its international sales.

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