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,
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
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
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
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
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company