"Promises" is a beautiful documentary and, in light of the daily body count of Israeli and Palestinian victims, a heartbreaking film.
Considered a favorite for best documentary at this year's Academy Awards, "Promises" was filmed in and around Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000, while the Oslo treaty hopes for peace were still flickering.
Its "stars" are seven children, four Israelis and three Palestinians, between the ages of 9 and 13, whose normal childhood pursuits and problems are overlaid by the suspicions and hatred of the "other," transmitted by parents, teachers and religious guides. The children live in West and East Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish settlement and in a Palestinian refugee camp. And although their homes are within a few miles of each other, none has ever met a youngster from the other side.
As the 106-minute film introduces us to the homes, schools and playgrounds of each of the children, it dawns on the American Jewish viewer how little is known, not only of the lifestyle of an Arab family but even of the daily ritual in a strictly Orthodox home.
Co-director B.Z. Goldberg (with Justine Shapiro), a young American raised in Jerusalem, who also narrates the film, has a rare knack of bonding with the youngsters, and they reciprocate by unaffectedly telling their stories, often with brutal honesty. We meet Sanabel, a lovely Arab girl, whose journalist father has been held for two years in an Israeli prison as a security risk; Mahmoud, a blond, blue-eyed Hamas supporter, and Faraj, who lives in the Daheishe refugee camp.
Their Israeli counterparts are Yarko and Daniel, bright and handsome twins living in a secular home; Shlomo, a fervently Orthodox yeshiva student, and Moishe, who grows up in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arabs.
Though separated by generations of hostility, some of the kids express a natural curiosity to meet the fabled bogeymen on the other side. With Goldberg as the intermediary, Yarko and Daniel visit Faraj, and, speaking in halting English, the boys soon find a more common language in their shared enthusiasm for soccer and volleyball. This scene was shot in 1997, and during a revisit two years later, the small spark of tentative friendship had all but atrophied, more by neglect than animosity.
Looking at the situation in Israel today, the precarious moment when the children saw each other as human beings, rather than enemies, has passed again.
It may well take another generation to rekindle the spark, but "Promises" is a needed reminder that there can be an alternative in the Middle East to hatred and bloodshed.
"Promises" opens March 22 at Laemmle's Music Hall Theater, 9036 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills. Call (310) 274-6869 for times.
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