The New York Times

FILM REVIEW | 'PROMISES'
In a Land Where Old Youths Meet as Distant Neighbors
By JULIE SALAMON

Palestinian boy named Faraj tells a documentary filmmaker about his desire to avenge a friend who threw stones at an Israeli soldier and was killed. But when the filmmaker arranges to have Faraj meet two Israeli twins — who are as sports obsessed as he is — he prepares for the rendezvous as if it's a date. On the telephone he asks them what kind of food they like. Before they arrive, he spritzes himself with cologne.

Their meeting is a humanist's dream. The Israeli twins speak of holding their breath in fear whenever they take a bus downtown, half expecting a terrorist bomb. Yet like Faraj they are willing to check out an enemy whose interests are so closely aligned with theirs (track, volleyball). They come to the Palestinian's neighborhood — a refugee camp that resembles a housing project. They agree to speak the neutral language of English, resulting in a conversation that is far more friendly than fluent. They wrestle, play ball, have a meal.

But mirroring so many moments of potential rapprochement in Middle East history, this one turns out to be far more heartbreaking than heartwarming. Their connection — captured so emotionally on camera — appears very real but doesn't last. It's doomed by the inherent fickleness of youth but, more pointedly, by the political reality of checkpoints and propaganda.
This moment of confounded possibilities lies at the heart of "Promises," an intensely personal and insightful documentary that looks at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the vantage point of seven children living in or near Jerusalem. Part of PBS's "P.O.V." series, which specializes in nonfiction films by independent producers and directors, "Promises" demonstrates the unusual power of thoughtful, subjective filmmaking. This extraordinary enterprise was distilled from 170 hours of filming between 1997 and the summer of 2000; post-Sept. 11 it has acquired an even greater sense of sorrow and frustration.

The film was made by Justine Shapiro, B. Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado, but it is Mr. Goldberg whose face becomes familiar in front of the camera. Born in Boston, he grew up just outside Jerusalem and then returned to the United States to study film at New York University. Though he maintains a resolute nonpartisanship, his quiet, thoughtful interviews with the children reveal his own deep — perhaps quixotic — yearning for peace. It's a tribute to his open spirit that all the children, the most dogmatic and the most reasonable, seem to have great affection for him.

He has captured these children as they must really be, much too old in their political thinking but buoyantly childish. On the streets of Jerusalem he interviews a 13-year-old rabbi-in-training named Shlomo, who talks not only about being cursed and punched by Arab boys but also about Jewish and Palestinian adults he knows who have civil relationships. As he speaks, a Palestinian boy about his age comes close and starts belching, not hostilely but teasing. Shlomo, in Orthodox black and white, tries to ignore him but starts giggling. Finally he belches back, and for a moment the universal language of boys prevails.

An angelic-looking Palestinian boy named Mahmoud fiercely denounces Israelis and says he doesn't even want to meet one. This same boy, who urges the filmmakers not to tell his mother that he has sneaked cups of coffee, also says: "I support Hamas and Hezbollah. They kill women and children, but they do it for their country." He seems shocked when Mr. Goldberg tells him that he, Mr. Goldberg, is half-Israeli.

Mahmoud is unmoved. "You're half-American," he said. "I'm talking about authentic Jews. Not Americans." An equally fierce, chubby 10-year-old named Moishe, son of a Jewish settler family, says, "If I could make my own future, all the Arabs would fly away."

The children repeat the rhetoric they're taught by adults, and they reflect the wide range of response to the region's history. Moishe makes the cameraman wait while he searches the Bible for the specific reference that marks Jewish claim on the land. Mahmoud explains that the Koran has marked the spot for Muslims. Others, including the secular Israeli twins and a Palestinian girl, are willing to compromise.

The film's personal focus may assume too much knowledge on the part of viewers, especially since this film would be a valuable teaching guide. The filmmakers supply some history, not going back to ancient Judea but more recently to what Israelis call the 1948 War of Independence and Palestinians call "the catastrophe." A bit more geopolitics would provide useful context.

Still the documentary illustrates through imagery and interviews the uneasy convergence in Jerusalem of history and modernity, Arab and Jew, fanaticism and reasonableness. The camera sweeps by Burger King signs and Hasidic Jews dressed as in the Middle Europe of centuries ago. Palestinian children wear T-shirts that say, "I have a dream," and cars and camels still share the road in places. It records the checkpoints leading into the Palestinian territories, seen by Israelis as necessary safety measures and by Palestinians as insults.

Wisdom does emerge from the mouths of these children, who are anything but innocent. "In war both sides suffer," one of the twins says. "Maybe there's a winner, but what is a winner?"

Produced, written and directed by Justine Shapiro and B. Z. Goldberg; Carlos Bolado, co-director and editor; Yoram Millo and Ilan Buchbinder, camera; Stephen Most, consulting writer and researcher; Janet Cole, executive producer; Lucy Kaplan, consulting producer; Cara Mertes, P.O.V. executive producer. Series produced by American Documentary Inc.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company