Looking through the eyes of seven Israeli and Palestinian children living in and around Jerusalem, “Promises” provides deeply humanistic insight into the complexities of the Middle East conflict that political analysis or front-line news coverage often lacks. A surprise winner of the Rotterdam fest’s audience award, this nonprofit peace project’s exhaustive backgrounding and nonpartisan position, coupled with its personal, affecting focus and its wrenching sense of stolen innocence make it a prime item for public television and other docu forums.
Well-crafted film was shot during a period of relative calm from 1997 to summer 2000, just prior to the outbreak of an intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the fall of that year. An American raised in Jerusalem who speaks both Hebrew and Arabic, B.Z. Goldberg (who co-directed with Justine Shapiro and Carlos Bolado) acts as an onscreen interlocutor and later mediator with the subjects, most of whom live within a 20-minute radius in a fiercely divided city and have little direct knowledge of each other’s lives.
Aged between 11 and 13 during initial interviews, the principal subjects include Yarko and Daniel, two secular Israeli twins; Moishe, a right-wing Jew; angel-faced hard-line Hamas supporter Mahmoud; Shlomo, the ultra-orthodox son of an American rabbi; and Sanabel and Faraj, two Palestinians living in the Deheishe refugee camp.
While some of the kids are more flexible and open to dialogue than others, what registers most strongly at first is the way resentment, hatred, incomprehension, death, loss and the revenge instinct have been absorbed into their fiber. The children tell their stories of growing up amid the conflict with tender matter-of-factness and with frequent glimpses of a more hardened, adult nature than their years would indicate.
The twins — perhaps the most open-minded of the interviewees — talk of boarding buses in the wake of constant terrorist bombings, warily looking for suspicious characters. A third-generation Palestinian refugee weeps when speaking of letters from her father, a journalist and political activist held in prison for two years without being formally charged or put on trial. Another Palestinian boy recounts seeing his friend shot and killed by soldiers for tossing a stone through a window.
Backed by an illuminating recap of the events that established the divide, this main body of the film could be more concise. But it remains absorbing as each child reveals his understanding of and at times adherence to extremist positions and the children’s varying degrees of openness to considering opposing viewpoints.
The docu becomes most interesting when Goldberg convinces the twins to travel with him to Deheishe to meet Faraj, Sanabel and other Palestinian kids, representing the first encounter for any of them with people from the other side. As their day together unfolds, the children quickly forget their differences over a soccer game and a meal, with their eagerness to know each other better revealed in the discussion that follows. In the film’s most touching moment, Faraj, who previously was the most skeptical about the encounter, breaks down with pragmatic sadness about the impracticality of maintaining friendships from opposite sides of a military checkpoint.
That sadness is echoed in a more poignant way when the kids are interviewed again two years later in 2000. Some profess to want increased interaction with a view to peace and mutual respect, others have detached themselves from concerns of peace, still others have reinforced their intransigent position. What the epilogue conveys most strongly, however, is that as they leave behind childhood innocence and adopt the more rigid thinking of adults, the distance between them has widened.