Brandon Assanti, 24, was a year older than most of the teenage victims of the “Ma’alot Massacre” when he first decided to make a documentary about this grueling attack. The attack was so grueling that, upon watching Assanti’s Their Eyes Were Dry, I wondered how the slaughter wasn’t as historically prominent as the hostage takeovers of Israelis at Entebbe and Munich, both tragic events which were given multiple cinematic treatments.
On May 15 1974, three Palestinian terrorists infiltrated a high school building in the town of Ma’alot Tarshiha near the Lebanon border where high school students had camped for the night as part of a school field trip. Equipped with guns and grenades, they took 105 teenagers hostage, hording them in one classroom. The survivors interviewed in the film recount images too gruesome for any cinematic dramatization: bullet-ridden teenaged bodies piled over each other, the dead protecting the living; terrorists shooting at Israeli forces by sliding the butts of their guns in between the legs of student “shields”; kids jumping off two-story windows to escape, breaking bones on top of injuries sustained by fire. To add insult to unfathomable injury, Palestinians in Lebanon held a joyous parade celebrating the attack and honoring the slain terrorists.
One reason for the massacre’s obscurity, Assanti said in an interview after its LA premiere on May 9, Israel’s Memorial Day, at the AMC Century City, was that, unlike the Entebbe operation, the massacre didn’t put Israel in a heroic light. Guards and teachers fled the scene as soon as the terrorists barged in, leaving the students to fend for themselves. When the IDF set up camp outside the school, the Chief of Staff and Minister of Defense at the time couldn’t agree on how and when to attempt a rescue.
“I think one of the things that happened afterwards was that there was so much backlash about the teachers running away and how the government handled it, that there was a sense of shame so people didn’t want to talk about it,” Assanti said, adding that a special task force to deal with similar situations was set up after the attack.
Assanti, a graduate of Brentwood High School, heard stories about the massacre growing-up. His father, Albert, was born in Morocco and lived in Ma’alot as a child. It was when his father’s cousin, mayor of Ma’alot Shlomo Bohbot, visited the Assantis in Los Angeles that the aspiring filmmaker decided to make his first film about the massacre.
“He revealed more details about the event that I was never aware of, and especially about the teachers running away in the beginning,” Assanti said. “When I heard that, that totally blew my mind because that meant the oldest child there was seventeen years-old.”
Assanti spent his years as a finance major at Loyola Marymount researching, filming and editing. Testimony from survivors, filmed in Israel, provide the crux of the narrative. His parents are co-producers, and they looked on proudly at the screening at the AMC, which was part of one-night nationwide premiere sponsored by the Israel Consulate, StandWithUs, Jewish Television Network, CAMERA, and the Zionist Organization of America. For now, the film is available only for special screenings.
The theater was packed with a local pro-Israel crowd, and by the end of the movie, there weren’t many dry eyes in the house when an actress read the letter that a 15 year-old victim named Ilana had left in her blood-stained pocket an hour before getting gunned down. In the letter, the religious high school student, knowing she’d meet an untimely end, sought to comfort her mother, who had tried to dissuade her from going on the field trip. She assured her mother that she was at peace with her fate, thanking her for the wonderful childhood she gave her. She tells her mother she didn’t cry: “My eyes are dry.”
“To me it reflected the power and strength that all these children had during such a difficult and frightening time. That’s where I derived the title from. The first time I heard those words, it never left my mind,” Assanti said.