When the children speak for themselves, 'Promises' is very powerful.
PromisesDirector: B.Z. Goldberg
Display Artist: Justine Shapiro, Carlos Bolado, B.Z. Goldberg
MPAA rating: unrated
Studio: Cowboy Pictures
Cast: B.Z. Goldberg, Yarko, Daniel, Moishe, Mahmoud
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-03-15 (Limited release)
"This film is about seven Palestinian and Israeli children," declares B.Z. Goldberg, narrator and one of the directors of Promises. The seven children are truly wonderful: their wisdom is amazingly mature, occasionally very funny, and, at times, terrifyingly dogmatic; their views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are knowing, sometimes smart and sometimes blind, and almost always heart-rending. But what B.Z. doesn't tell us is that Promises is also a movie about him, to a small but utterly pervasive extent. When he lets the children speak for themselves, Promises is very powerful; when he pushes his own teary way into the film, it feels manufactured.
Promises was shot between 1997 and the summer of 2000 which, as a title card explains, was a time of relative peace in the region (just before the 2000 intifada). Still, even in the eye of the storm, checkpoints, soldiers, and terrorists infiltrate every moment of every day. When waiting for the bus, Yarko, who lives with his twin brother Daniel and their secular Israeli family in Western Jerusalem, explains, "When I get on [the bus], I'm anxious, so I look for suspicious people. I keep waiting for the explosion." Yarko's experiences run parallel to those of Mahmoud, a Palestinian child in Eastern Jerusalem; Shlomo, an Orthodox Jew in the Old City; Sanabel and Faraj, who live in the Palestinian refugee camp, Deheishe; and Moishe, a Jew in the Beit-El settlement. All locations are within 20 minutes drive of each other. All, of course, are separated by far greater barriers than physical distance.
As a primary way of introducing the actual distance between these children, Promises shows billboards for McDonald's and Marlboro, and a kosher Burger King in Western Jerusalem, then ads in Arabic and a man riding a camel in the eastern section. But for all the differences between these locations, they're also all the same, in some general human way. To emphasize the comparison, Promises cuts between Orthodox Jews bowing their heads in prayer and devout Muslim children doing the same. Effective, but simplistic.
Promises is at its most interesting when it complicates these relationships. Children from both sides, for example, can explicate difficult history at the drop of a hat: Mahmoud gives his genealogy by describing the origins of his name, Moishe finds sections in the Torah to prove Israeli ownership of the disputed land, and Sanabel participates in a group that tells Palestinian refugee history through narrative dance. Three different children, three different historical perspectives on current events -- these different methods of interpretation relate not only to the conflict at hand, but also to a much larger point about truth and history in general. What's recorded and its emotional impact depend on who does the recording.
It's a shame, then, that B.Z. and his fellow filmmakers are doing this recording. Shots of Faraj's friend crying because his brother was killed by Israeli soldiers or Sanabel in tears over her father's imprisonment in an Israeli prison are devastating. But when Goldberg also appears in frame, shedding tears, it feels cheap and set up -- certainly not the desired effect. As Daniel explains about people trying to understand the Holocaust, "You can be sad. But you can't really know the pain they experienced." Goldberg doesn't know the pain these children experienced, either, no matter how many stories he has heard; his mourning has no place here except as an unnecessary guide for our own sadness. Although he was born in Jerusalem, he moved to the United States when young and, being so far removed from the conflict for so long, is almost as much of an outsider as an audience member might be. He feels, on screen, as lost as we are, and his tears feel like an easy out for audiences who want to cry, too.
Still, despite such contrivance, it's hard not to be moved by the eventual meeting of Daniel and Yarko with the Palestinian children in Deheishe. Set up by Promises' film crew, the day they spend together combines levity and gravity, just like the kids' daily lives; they play soccer and eat together, then participate in an emotional political discussion. Their smart and insightful commentary often makes much more sense than statements issued by Arafat and Sharon. And when Faraj breaks down in tears at the end of the conversation, it is because he understands that once B.Z. leaves, the new friendships will disappear in a mass of checkpoints and car bombs -- this one day of peace is an ineffable and otherwise unachievable dream.
It is virtually impossible to resist weeping at this moment, but the camera, sadly, turns to catch Goldberg crying with the children. He has brought them together and the implication is that, as a benevolent patriarch and gentle guide, he feels their pain. After all, he and the film crew have enabled their talking to one another. As if to underline this point, Promises' coda tells us that the children never met again after this day together.
While the filmmakers do an amazing job of remaining neutral regarding the sides in the conflict, Promises' slightly forced sentimentality makes some of the film ring hollow. It's worth seeing just on the basis of the wisdom, and at times, the startling optimism, of the children; their strength and bravery are staggering. In the end, however, Goldberg and his fellow directors would do well to remember their own thesis: hope resides within the children. Hope rarely, if ever, comes in the guise of documentary filmmakers who disappear once their footage is secured.