POV: What inspired you to make this film?
B.Z. Goldberg (B.G.): As a journalist during the first Palestinian Intifada, I grew quite despairing. I realized perhaps there would be no peace in my lifetime, definitely not in my generation. Looking at the next generation of kids was a way of taking a snapshot of the future.
But the true spark of inspiration for me comes down to a moment when I was covering the first Intifada as a soundman. We were filming a confrontation between Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinian children in Gaza. The only place to cover this was right in the middle of the road. We were scared of the rocks and sometimes firebombs coming from neighboring rooftops that might miss the soldiers and hit a cameraman. So I was always looking around. At one point I turned and saw a group of kids playing the ‘Intifada game.’
I had never seen Palestinian children play-acting as Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators. The ‘Palestinians’ throw rocks at the ‘Israelis.’ The ‘Israelis’ have wooden guns; they shoot at them, then arrest them, tie their hands and put them against the wall. They scream at them — in Hebrew — “Put your hands in the air! Don’t move, you dirty Arab!”
After delivering a beating to their friends, the ‘Israelis’ then switch roles with the ‘Palestinians,’ because nobody wants to be Israelis. I stood watching, with my mouth agape, but it didn’t occur to me for a moment to turn the camera around. The scene stayed with me, and I thought, there is a film here. No one is telling the story of the kids of this conflict.
In 1995 Justine and I started talking about making a documentary film together. Justine articulated so clearly that there was a film to be made about Israeli and Palestinian kids, and that THIS was the right film to make NOW.
Justine Shapiro (J.S.).: I was in Israel and the Palestinian Territories shooting Lonely Planet (a travel series that I host). During that shoot we spent a day inside Hebron. Our contact was a 16-year-old Palestinian guy who was studying literature. He was articulate, intelligent, thoughtful, funny and so were his friends. These were the first Palestinians I had ever met. Up until meeting them I had carried the stereotype of the ‘Palestinian Terrorist’ in my head, unchallenged — and I was from Berkeley. I realized that if I was carrying such stereotypes around in my head that many others must be as well.
On another day I met some Palestinian girls on the beach near Tel Aviv. They were from Hebron. This was their first time inside Israel. They were dressed in traditional religious dress. I asked one of the girls how she felt being in Israel. She shot a horrified look at me, spit on the sand and said “This is not Israel, it is Palestine.” We spoke together for 30 minutes. We laughed, sharing information about our lives, our families. Later during our conversation she suggested that I convert to Islam! I told her I was Jewish. Tears filled her eyes (really) and she turned and walked away. I realized that I must have been the first Jew she had ever spoken with. I think she must have felt somewhat confused because I wasn’t a monster.
After the shoot I spent time with my family in Israel. I was sitting in the kitchen talking to my young cousins (ages 10 and 13) and asked if they had any friends who were Palestinian. They responded with “Oooooo, uggggh, noooooo.” I asked them if any of their friends had Palestinian friends or boyfriends. They looked at me as if I were insane.
These experiences combined made me want to make a film where I could meet more Israelis and Palestinians and through filming them, introduce them to audiences in the U.S.A. and elsewhere. I wanted to focus on meeting with children because this was an age group that no one was hearing from and it was clear to me from my experiences that these young people had much to say.
POV: How did you find the children that you followed in the film?
B.G.: We hired researchers, and then we asked everyone we knew, “Do you know any interesting kids?” We knew we needed to find children to represent the major forces in the conflict (a settler, a refugee, a religious Arab, a religious Jew, child of a prisoner, liberal Israelis, etc.). So we contacted teachers, principals, educators, falafel makers, dance instructors, everyone we ran into.
POV: How difficult was it to win the confidence and trust of the children and their families, in order to make this documentary?
B.G.: Very easy. The Middle East is a region in which hospitality is very important and present. We were welcomed into the homes of these families with open arms. But also it was important, crucial in fact, to treat the children like human beings; not to be condescending or patronizing, but to treat them as equals (thus for example the camera was always placed at eye level, instead of pointing down as is common in interviews with children). I think this attitude also helped gain the children’s trust.
On the Palestinian side, the kids as well as adults felt very, very unheard by the international community. So they were more than eager to tell their stories.
J.S: I would just add that this is a region where people are very familiar with cameras and comfortable around them.
POV: What are each of the children profiled in the film doing now?
B.G.: Shlomo is still engaged in religious studies. He is in school six days a week from about 7:30 till about 9:30 most days. Yarko and Daniel are in high school, they play volleyball very seriously. Mahmoud is a bit less religious than when we first filmed him. His father owns the first Internet cafe in East Jerusalem and Mahmoud spends a lot of time on the World Wide Web. Sanabel is still dancing with the dance troupe from the Deheishe refugee camp. She spent this past summer on a world tour. Strangely enough it is easier for her to go to Stockholm, Athens, or New York, than to go to Jerusalem. Moishe is very into computers. He told us he was not sure he will go into politics after all, but is also considering being a computer engineer or a rock star. He loves to listen to MP3s on his computer. Last time I was there he was listening to Brittney Spears, Christina Aguillera, and ABBA. In his spare time he translates the Harry Potter books into Hebrew. Faraj and his family are dreaming about moving away from the conflict to another country.
J.S.: Moishe is very disciplined in his religious studies and he is also very into computers.
POV: Has your film been shown in Israel yet? How have Israeli and Palestinian audiences of the diaspora responded to the film?
B.G.: The film showed at the Jerusalem Film Festival. In Jerusalem, as everywhere else in the world, we received resounding approval, but it is important to note that the audiences who saw the film were mostly progressive and left-leaning. Many Israelis feel the film is a bit pro-Palestinian. Many Palestinians feel the film is a bit pro-Israeli. So we feel we probably did a good job.
There have been two main critiques of the film, one from each side. The Israeli critique is that the film does not show the situation in its true historical perspective (what happened with the partition plan in 1947, the war in 1948 and 50 years as the smallest nation in the Middle East besieged by 20 Arab nations, etc.). The Palestinian critique is that the film presents the conflict as if there is some kind of parity between the suffering of both sides rather than showing that there is a clear power dynamic in which the Palestinians are the disenfranchised, and in which Israel holds all the power.
POV: You seem to avoid choosing sides in this film — am I correct? Why did you employ this type of strategy?
B.G.: The situation is both complicated and complex. The only solution for me is to take in all sides of this story with compassion — understand Moishe’s desires and fears and pain as well as Faraj’s, understand without having to say who is right or wrong, because that just won’t work. Both sides are wrong, both are right. We are doomed to live side by side. The solution (which most likely must be political) can only come if the two sides can respect each other’s history, and recognize the extent of the other’s disaster and pain. There is no turning back the past.
J.S.: We didn’t set out to make a “political” film. We didn’t want to make a film to “educate” or convince an audience to take a particular side. We wanted to make a film that was a bit more in-depth, more of a character study than what the mainstream media news outlets offer. We wanted to get beyond the stereotypes. The beauty of being a documentary filmmaker is that your job is to ask the questions, not to engage in polemic. So we listened, we didn’t challenge. Taking sides is easy. Listening with an open heart is more interesting, more challenging.
P.O.V.: What do you hope to achieve by making this film?
B.G.: When we started researching the film it felt like we were unpeeling an onion. Everyday we learned something new. Every day we thought that we understood the conflict and every day we were proven wrong. With every layer that unpeeled, we thought, ok, now we’ve got it, now we’ve got the bull by the horns. And the next day we would be proved wrong. And the essence of the conflict is not in the final layer of the onion, but in the very act of unpeeling. Ultimately we learned that this conflict was very complex, much more rich and complex than we want it to be. We are used to the three-minute news stories on CNN and we desperately want international conflict (as well as conflicts in our own cities and in our own homes) to be simple, reducible to who is wrong and who is right. But the conflict we found was full of subtlety and laden with pain and with laughter. I felt if I can make a film that would convey some of that to an audience, it would be a good thing.
J.S.: My hope is that after seeing Promises people won’t reduce the Middle East conflict to just what they read in the newspaper or watch on TV. I hope that people will realize that nothing is simple, black and white. I hope that people who see the film will feel connected to human beings that are growing up in places of conflict all over the world and just around the corner. I think many people would like to believe that conflicts are good guys vs. bad guys. We tend to simplify things because we are overwhelmed emotionally with just being alive in the information age. It’s easier to point fingers and turn away. It takes more patience to just sit back and listen.