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Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Asking the hard questions


Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg, Carlos Bolado
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Arabic, Hebrew, English
Now showing

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been cursed with polarized, fanatical views, but even more insidious are the largely successful attempts to silence the voices of reason, of which Yigal Amir, assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, is the most obvious example. It requires a good deal of courage these days just to take a balanced, truly neutral look at things. Documentary filmmakers Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado take the plunge, and their collaborative film "Promises" is a frank, illuminating look at the conflict through the voices of children, both Israeli and Palestinian.

News photo
News photo
Yarko and Faraj (top) in "Promises," and the filmmakers: (from left) Carlos Bolado, Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg

The film was shot between 1997 and 2000, a period of relative calm, but as Goldberg, the film's narrator, points out, "Normal in the Middle East is always entwined with war." The filmmakers moved through Jerusalem and its suburbs, talking to a wide range of children over the course of several years and, eventually, gently nudging some of them to meet each other and bridge their divides.

It's a moving piece of reality filmmaking, but as co-director Goldberg pointed out after a recent Tokyo screening: "This is a film that could not be made today. In that way, for us, it's even more precious, because it talks about a time when there was a lot of optimism. It shows there are many people who are interested and would like to contact the other side, but now it's almost impossible."

The stories they uncovered are perhaps typical (and maybe too much so for people familiar with the issues), but they are very effective in putting a human face on a divide often discussed in cold, political terms. Shapiro, an American documentary filmmaker for the Discovery channel, recalls being shocked by the violently anti-Arab views of her Israeli cousins, and then equally surprised when some Arab teenagers she was talking with shunned her as soon as she mentioned she was Jewish.

Goldberg, a journalist who covered the first intifada, recalls the complex feelings he experienced seeing Palestinian kids playing their own version of "cops and robbers": Half the kids were stone-throwing "militants," while the other half were wooden-gun wielding "Israelis."

"I thought, it would be good to make a film about Israeli and Palestinian children, not as victims, but to really explore their lives," Goldberg says. "We were really interested in understanding how the conflict and the deep, deep yearning for peace -- from both sides -- gets into the lives of the children, how it changes them. In interesting little ways that are so complex, so subtle and so rich, unlike what we see on CNN, which is very black and white."

After interviewing more than 100 kids, the filmmakers settled on seven who reflected a wide range of experience. Israeli twins Yarko and Daniel are fairly typical teenagers, interested in sports and raised in a secular lifestyle, but worried about suicide bombings when they ride the buses. Contrasted with them are Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox boy who studies the Torah 12 hours a day, and Moishe, who lives in a far-right settler community in the occupied lands.

Their counterparts on the Palestinian side are Mahmoud, whose family lives in Jerusalem near the Al-Aqsa mosque and who studies the Koran. Sanabel is a young girl from a secular family, studying dance, whose father, a journalist, has been held in an Israeli prison for two years without trial. Faraj lives in a refugee camp -- just a short drive away from his grandmother's ruined village inside Israel -- and has already seen a friend shot dead by Israeli troops.

It's surprising, and not a little depressing, to see how fanaticism affects children at such an early age. Mahmoud, a bright-eyed blond boy who jokes of sipping coffee at his father's shop when no one's looking, quotes from the Koran with utter conviction that Jerusalem is Arab land. Moishe, meanwhile, pulls out his Torah to find passages that "prove" the West Bank is Israeli land, granted by God to Abraham. He also speaks menacingly about how, when he becomes prime minister, he'll throw all the Arabs out of Jerusalem. Mahmoud, for his part, supports Hamas.

Shlomo, the son of a rabbi, seems a bit more philosophical about his situation, but the sequences of him at Torah study -- rote memorization while incessantly rocking back and forth -- resemble nothing so much as the Taliban madrassas (religious schools) depicted in "Kandahar." By the time the film was released, said Goldberg, Shlomo's parents disassociated their family from the project; he remains the one child the directors aren't in touch with.

"The ultra-Orthodox don't think it's OK for Jewish people to make critical films about Jews," explains Goldberg. "They say, 'We hate the situation, but don't show the dirty laundry to the neighbors.' "

"Promises" was edited from over 100 hours of footage, and while the film isn't always tight, it does include some truly poignant moments, like when the twins ask their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, if he believes in God; the old guy can only scowl, not able to speak what he really feels. Or when Sanabel and her family go to meet her father in prison, a trip that involves eight hours of travel and waiting before a brief 30-minute encounter. The look on the little 9-year-old's face as she's pushed around by soldiers at a checkpoint is devastating.

The film is ultimately sending a message that signals hope as much as despair. Faraj, despite his rage and loss, eventually takes a leap of faith and agrees to meet the twins, and he's surprised at what he finds, that not all Israelis want his blood spilled, that Israeli kids -- just like him -- like pizza and soccer. Moishe, however, who also lost a friend to a bullet, can never get past his fears and prejudices: He doesn't even want to talk to an Arab teen, thinking that any of them could be "terrorists."

Co-director Bolado summed up the film with these words: "We believe in cinema that makes people question themselves and their ideas instead of us giving them answers." It's hard to imagine a better manifesto, and "Promises" fully lives up to it.

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