"Promises" takes a simple idea and just about breaks your heart with it. This look at the Israeli-Palestinian crisis through the eyes of children turns out to be a tragedy in short pants, not just because of the apparent hopelessness of that situation, but because it demonstrates that the possibilities for something better are both present and squandered.
The film to beat in the best documentary Oscar race and the winner of numerous film festival awards (including five audience awards), "Promises" is written, produced and directed by Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg. They linked up after discovering that they'd both independently considered interviewing Israeli and Palestinian children for their take on that chaotic political situation.
It's B.Z., as the kids all call him, who is the film's on-camera liaison to the children. Half-Israeli, half-American, fluent in Hebrew and able to get along in Arabic, someone who grew up in Jerusalem but went to film school in the U.S., B.Z.'s range of experience and empathetic presence draw the children out.
The seven children were ages 9 to 13 when the project, which was filmed over three years, began. Young as they are, many have tangible connections to the fighting: Two of the boys had close friends killed and the father of one of the girls, Sanabel, has been imprisoned by the Israelis without a trial for the past two years. All the children have had the conflict and its attendant rage writ large on their consciousnesses.
One of the ironies of "Promises" is that though all these children have homes in Jerusalem or within 15 minutes of it, they might as well live on different planets for how much connection they have to each other. This is even true within the Israeli community, where twins, secular volleyball players Yarko and Daniel, have almost as much fear and mistrust of the Orthodox community as of the Palestinians.
Aside from the twins, the other two Israelis come from religious backgrounds. Moishe lives behind well-guarded fences in a Jewish settlement in the occupied territories on the West Bank, while Shlomo, the son of a rabbi, lives in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, dresses like a miniature adult and spends the largest part of his day studying the Torah.
Mahmoud, the livest wire of all the children, also lives in the Old City but in the Muslim Quarter, where his father owns a coffee and spice shop. Sanabel lives in the Deheishe refugee camp with her mother and sister; Faraj, a young firebrand, lives there as well. In one of the film's most moving segments, B.Z. sneaks Faraj and his grandmother into Israel so they can visit the old woman's village and wander around the ruins of the house the family abandoned in 1945 but preserves the key to as a kind of holy relic of better days.
One of the things "Promises" provides is an inside look at what something as amorphous as "the Middle East situation" does to people on the ground. It's painful to see these children trapped in the same cycle of corrosive enmity that ensnared earlier generations, painful to hear young people on both sides unconsciously mirror each other when they pull out holy books and say, "This land is ours, they stole it."
These situations are particularly hard to watch because by the time the conversations get political, we've seen enough to know these are all basically good kids, which makes the unvarnished hostility they express even more dispiriting. Mahmoud, perhaps the most engaging of the seven, says, "The more Jews we kill, the fewer there will be," while Moishe jokes approvingly about the possibility of accidentally killing Arabs during target practice in the settlement.
These kinds of comments are especially disturbing because most of "Promises" was filmed from 1997 to 2000, a time of relative calm in the area when the peace process was thought to be progressing. It's chilling to think what sentiments a similar project might come up with today.
Yet, and this is one of "Promises'" great virtues, with the mercurial changeability of young people, these kids are open to anything. Very serious Shlomo, for instance, despite his professed lack of interest in Palestinians, ends up in an amusing belching contest with a young Palestinian boy.
Most remarkable, some kids on each side of the divide, all on their own, express an interest in getting to know their opposite numbers. The meeting that results is both exhilarating in its sense of genuine possibilities and painful in showing how the real world conspires to effectively suffocate those chances.
This quite moving film never spells out the reasons it calls itself "Promises," but perhaps it has to do with the notion that we implicitly promise children a better world when we bring them into it. In that sense, with their potentially poisoned futures, these children have had that promise betrayed. The Israeli journalist Amos Elon once wrote that the Israeli-Palestinian situation's demands for justice exceed the human capacity to administer it. This strong, uncompromising film makes us fear he might be right.
No MPAA rating. Times guidelines: adult subject matter.
Released by Cowboy Pictures. Directors Justine Shapiro & B.Z. Goldberg. Co-director Carlos Bolado. Producers Justine Shapiro & B.Z. Goldberg. Executive producer Janet Cole. Screenplay Justine Shapiro & B.Z. Goldman. Cinematographers Yoram Millo, Ilan Buchbinder. Editor Carlos Bolado. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
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