An hour into the documentary film "Promises," a startling exchange occurs. It's not an exchange of glances or words, but a playful banter in burps. The conversationalists are two boys in their early teens: an Orthodox Jew living in the Old City of Jerusalem and a Palestinian, probably from the area's Muslim quarter. The Jewish boy is being interviewed for the film about his perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just as he states, matter-of-factly, that he has no Palestinian friends and doesn't know any Jewish kids who do, the other boy enters the frame, looks quizzically, mischievously, at him and coyly sends a belch in his direction.
The Jewish boy doesn't miss a beat. He burps right back. The Palestinian boy responds in kind, and back and forth croak the burps, punctuating the testimony with what sounds like a chorus of frogs.
Both boys smile broadly, and viewers of this brilliant film about children on both sides of the political, cultural and religious divide between Israelis and Palestinians won't be able to hold back their grins either. While this glottal duet is not exactly a road map to peace, it does reveal how fundamental and irrepressible is the human desire to connect. Boys will be boys. People will be people. Numerous shining moments of connection play themselves out in the film but, people being people, that other human instinct -- to tear asunder -- gets its due as well. The violence and separatism voiced by the children are as chilling as their interest in one another is heartwarming.
"Promises" -- which was written and directed by B.Z. Goldberg and Justine Shapiro and nominated for a 2001 Academy Award as best feature documentary -- takes viewers on a stirring journey of revelation. It's one of the highlights of the exhibition "One Ground: 4 Palestinian & 4 Israeli Filmmakers" at UC Riverside's California Museum of Photography.
Because of the charged nature of the exhibition's subject, bringing these films together required far more in the way of collaboration and diplomacy than the average group show. Copies of e-mail correspondence between the artists and the show's organizers -- museum director Jonathan Green and assistant curator Mitra Abbaspour -- line an entry wall, giving visitors some sense of the process involved. Concerned about the context inflecting the reception of their work, several artists withheld their participation until they determined who else would be included. None could abide by the original title of the show, "Shared Histories." In one missive, an artist proposed "Unshared Histories" as an alternative. Eventually, the title was massaged into the more neutral "One Ground."
A 10-foot-high satellite photograph shows the region of Israel and the Palestinian territories as a whole, defined by topographical features like coastlines, hills and deserts. More influential to the sensibilities of the filmmakers represented here are the markers not visible from this perspective -- the borders, fences and checkpoints that divide the area and its inhabitants. The films run from just 10 minutes to an hour and a half, and their common focus is the psychological landscape shaped by this splintered and fenced terrain.
Some of the films have made the rounds of festivals internationally. A few are making their U.S. premieres in the show. "Promises" is both the most accessible of the lot and, in its documentary-style mosaic of voices, the most conventional in form. The rest tend to be more diaristic, idiosyncratic. Their narratives, if they exist at all, are fragmented and incomplete. Abstraction and humor soften the overall tone, but friction prevails, particularly the friction between harsh concrete realities of the here and now and uncertainty about the future. Although the lack of resolution in the films can be wearying, even frustrating, for the viewer, it's intentional and, ultimately, effective as a mirror of the vulnerability of daily life under the threat of terrorism and the constrictions of occupation.
In the short film "Waiting" (2002), Rashid Masharawi stages a meditation on the condition of irresolution. The film consists of a sequence of screen tests for another film (whose subject is the act of waiting) that presumably exists outside this one.
The filmmaker, born in the Gaza Strip and living in Paris and the Palestinian territories, tells each of the actors who've come to audition simply to wait. How they do that is what he's interested in. They smoke, pace, rise to their feet and sit back down, tap fingers, sigh, take glasses off, put them back on. Their restlessness and coping mechanisms read as an amusing commentary on the demands of living in political limbo.