Promises (2001)


(director: Carlos Bolado & B.Z. Goldberg & Justine Shapiro; cinematographers: Ilan Buchbinder/Yoram Millo; editor: Carlos Bolado; Cast: B.Z. Goldberg, Faraj, Mahmouid, Moishe, Daniel, Yarko, Shlomo, Sanabel; Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Justine Shapiro/B.Z. Goldberg; Cowboy Pictures; 2001)
“If nothing else, this balanced and moving film is both informative and entertaining.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Promises” was filmed from 1997 to 2000, a period of relative calm in the region when compared to the volatile situation of today. It offers a thin veil of hope for the peace process as the filmmaker interviews seven children whose ages range from about nine to thirteen and are living in or around Jerusalem and are on both sides of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. The filmmaker tries to listen carefully to hear what the children are saying about all this. What it offers is only a glimmer of hope that things could improve if Jew and Arab could meet and discuss their situation rather than letting the extremists grab hold of the conflict and bring on renewed violence. The children amidst all the suffering sadly express what each side has been through and all the distrust each side has for the other; but, at least, by talking about it on camera and by meeting each other briefly, it gives peace some chance–in the Middle East even something as small as that little hope is indeed welcome news. But in 2003 the situation has gotten out of control and it seems terrible that the opportunity for peace was wasted and it was allowed to reach such catastrophic proportions where hopeless poverty and further occupation greets the Palestinians and terrorist bombings greets the Jews in their everyday life. The hatred seems to have only grown worst and this very solvable problem over the land can’t be settled with reasonable solutions even if presented by the smartest diplomats in the world, as that only means that both sides have been taken over by extremists who won’t let peace happen without them wanting to win it all and those who are most flexible are trapped by all the violence that makes compromise seem like a dirty word. For the terrorist groups in Palestine, the PLO and Hamas, it means having suicide bombers strike everywhere in Israel and killing as many Jews as possible in order to drive them out of the country. The Jews were granted their country by a UN charter in 1948, but the Arabs fought a war immediately and when routed fled to the outskirts of Israel–in land held by Jordan. The Arabs that remained were granted Israeli citizenship and still live there. The others fled to what’s now called the Palestinian territories. In 1967 after the Arabs waged another war and were again defeated, they were forced to live in refugee camps under military occupation which means there are rigorous checkpoints they have to pass when they travel and they are not allowed into Israel and to travel to other parts of Palestine. Out of these refugee camps the Intifada developed.

The Palestinians claim the land was divined to them by the sayings of Mohammed in the Koran and that it was always their land because they are the ancestors of the Semite people known in the Bible as the Canaanites. They lived there before the time of Abraham and it was their land that was conquered by the Israelites. The religious Jews believe the Bible, which says God gave Abraham the Palestinian land to his son Jacob whom God now said should be referred to as Israel. The divine nature of this problem, steeped in ancient history, makes this land dispute no ordinary one and one that so far hasn’t been solved by war or rational means, or will it be solved by documentaries or opinions of impressionable children who are overwhelmed by the realities of politics, dogmas, and propaganda from the adults. But the documentary is helpful in a some small way for those who want to understand the situation from the mouths of those who are living the tragedy every day of their lives and can’t escape it. This fair-minded documentary shot by a half-American and half-Israeli secular Jew who studied filmmaking at N.Y.U., B.Z. Goldberg, with the help of Justine Shapiro, and co-directored by Carlos Bolado. The filmmakers don’t sensationalize things or attempt to take sides, but with the non-judgmental B.Z. on camera it shows him having a great rapport with both Jew and Arab and interviewing the children who are must affected by the crisis in a gentle and nurturing manner–accepting them at their word no matter their view. Their story is sad enough to break your heart.

The seven children are representatives of the different factions in their own group as they for the most part reflect the views of their elders but, at least, they have opened up a small door for some light to get through. They reflect on how the saddest thing about the conflict besides all the killings is how close to each other both sides live but in reality how they still never meet as friends and do not know much about the other.

The secular seventh graders, the Jewish twins Yarko and Daniel, who have almost as much mistrust of the Orthodox community as of the Palestinians, give us the best hope that a peaceful solution can be reached. Their grandfather came to Israel from Poland and the Holocaust and no longer believes in a God who let so much suffering happen without stopping it. The twins express a fear of terrorists as they ride the bus to school and tell of how they try to avoid downtown Jerusalem because so many bombings took place there, but when they later on meet the Arab children in a refugee camp in the West Bank they are not happy with the violent messages of Hamas but say they can understand why the Arab children living under occupation identify with those groups. The documentary shows how sports (the twins are volleyball nuts) can connect these estranged youngsters, as that interest seems to bridge all their other cultural differences. The filmmaker goes out of his way showing how the twins cry after losing a big volleyball game, while he also shows how the Arab student Faraj is crying after losing in a track meet. The wisest statement about the conflict is made by one of the twins: “In war both sides suffer. Maybe there’s a winner, but what is a winner?”

Faraj is bitter that his friend got killed by Israeli soldiers when throwing rocks. He’s also a rock thrower during the Intifada and justifies throwing stones at the soldiers as his own way of fighting back at his oppressors who stole his land. In one touching scene he and his grandmother sneak past the checkpoint guards in B.Z.’s Israeli licensed van to re-visit the ancestral home they lost after the ’67 war. Faraj’s grandmother leaves him the house key so he’ll never forget what he’s fighting for, she does this even though the whole area has been razed including their former house.

A choirboy-looking Palestinian named Mahmoud living in East Jerusalem’s Muslim quarters of the Old City, whose father owns a coffee and spice shop, freely rails against the Israelis and says he doesn’t even want to meet one. He goes on to say: “I support Hamas and Hezbollah. They kill women and children, but they do it for their country.” He further says “The more Jews we kill, the fewer there will be.” He seems surprised when B. Z. tells him that he is a Jew. His only response is that “I’m talking about authentic Jews. Not Americans.”

The 13-year-old orthodox rabbi-in-training Shlomo who lives in the Jewish quarters of West Jerusalem’s Old City, seems agreeable to peace talks to resolve the conflict. He admits to not having Arab friends and admits he has no interest in making any, and of being cursed at and punched by his nearby Arab neighbors. He spends twelve hours of his day studying the Torah. While on camera an unknown Palestinian boy approaches him and begins belching in jest. Shlomo first attempts to ignore the intruder, but soon nervously giggles and makes a few belches in response to this unpleasant but childishly amusing interruption.

A young Palestinian girl Sanabel cries when reading her PLO father’s letter—he is imprisoned without a trial for the last two years by the Israelis as a dangerous political dissident. She is shown throughout participating in Palestinian cultural dances and attending political rallies dealing with the Intifada.

Moishe is a 10-year-old settler’s son and a Jewish fundamentalist, as his family lives in the well-guarded Beit El settlement in the West Bank and are surrounded by Arabs. There are approximately 115, 000 settlers living in the West Bank. What Moishe would like is for all the Arabs to disappear. But he agrees that peace will only come if both sides can get together and talk, but it’s not up to children to talk about peace but for the politicians and diplomats to bring it about.

The film’s most emotional moment is when the children grow interested in meeting their enemy and the trusted B. Z. manages to get the twins to hook up via telephone with Faraj, as the Arab asks about what foods they like. The peaceful powwow takes place in the refugee camp called Deheishe, where both Faraj and Sanabel reside. The twins chatter in English with their hosts (the neutral language of diplomacy), play children’s games, wrestle, play sports, and become emotionally involved for the time being with the other side. Every one there has experienced some tragedy as a result of the conflict, and this is the first chance they ever got to speak to their enemy. But as a tearful Faraj indicates, the filmmakers will soon be leaving and the friendships will be hard to keep alive. This is so because of the checkpoints and the political realities of the day, as in reality there’s little chance for their new friendships to be nourished.

If nothing else, this balanced and moving film is both informative and entertaining. It’s a testament to the human spirit to prevail and to how near impossible it is to bring such a long lasting religious blood-feud to a peaceful solution. Though the emotions of possible friendship expressed during the brief visit to the refugee camp was real, it is overshadowed by the divine nature of the conflict that makes one accept the side they are on and hope for the best–maybe some inspired peacemaker could find a way of resolving the conflict without bloodshed. But for now, this film seems like only a pipe dream of hope for a region that has broken too many hearts already for anyone to be too optimistic about its future.