For a journalist and a Jew who grew up in West Jerusalem, documentary filmmaker B.Z. Goldberg opens Promises on a surprisingly confident note. The narrative voice for this look at the lives and concerns of seven Israeli or Palestinian children, Goldberg sets up the project with a montage of olive-skinned kids playing, praying, and having their photos snapped. ”I knew that the children here had something to say,“ he explains, ”and no one was asking them what they thought.“ Of course, for the purposes of most politicians, children are best neither seen nor heard, but simply invoked. In a place like the Middle East, extremists of any stripe are apt to cry ”God“ and ”children,“ thereby laying claim to the past and the future, even as the present goes up in flames.
When documentary filmmakers turn their cameras on children, the best we can expect is an unearned tug at the heartstrings. The Academy Award–nominated Promises, however, proves too sincere to exploit its subjects and too honest to manipulate its audience. What at first may have seemed like naivete on the part of the filmmakers reveals itself as hope, at a time when hope was not only possible, but warranted. Shot during 1997 and 1998, with 2000 as its epilogue year, the film basks, however cautiously, in the region‘s long, now-shattered post-Oslo breather. To interview its dispersed cluster of 9-to-13-year-old boys and girls, Goldberg and his co-director-producer, Justine Shapiro, crisscross Jerusalem and the West Bank, navigating the narrow, mazelike streets of refugee camps and at least once defying Israeli military authorities with ease — or at least, as Goldberg makes clear, with the ease afforded those whose cars have Israeli license plates. Indeed, the predominance of border-checkpoint scenes in the film becomes a constant reminder of the military and economic realities that circumscribe these children’s lives. From her home in an impoverished West Bank refugee camp, Sanabel introduces her family with the telling boast ”We each have our own bed.“
As much as they can, though, Goldberg and Shapiro show the kids as kids. When we first meet Israeli twins Yarko and Daniel, they‘re wearing identical outfits and arguing at a bus stop over who got dressed first. When they lose a championship volleyball game, Daniel cries — as does Faraj, a sprinter, after he only places in the West Bank’s a first all-Palestinian track-and-field event. The film‘s most charming and impromptu moment comes when a Palestinian boy wanders into the frame as Goldberg interviews Shlomo, a serious-minded Yeshiva student, about life in divided Jerusalem. Seconds later, and although Shlomo conspicuously avoids eye contact with his Palestinian counterpart, the two boys lock into a furious burping contest. Such lighthearted scenes emerge from the easy rapport that Goldberg strikes with each of his subjects. At one point, Mahmoud, an elfin Palestinian, is surprised, and a little unnerved, to learn that his interviewer is a Jew.
More often than not, though, nothing can assuage the pain, anger and ugliness onscreen. Sanabel’s father, a political radical, has been held for many months in an Israeli prison, though he‘s never been charged with a crime. Children on both sides — Faraj in his ghetto and the spoiled West Bank settlement boy Moishe — have had friends killed in military or terrorist attacks. Still, it’s shocking to hear the stridency in Moishe‘s voice when he speaks of clearing all the Arabs out of Jerusalem, or in Mahmoud’s, who‘s terrified his mother will find out he drinks coffee, when he states, ”The more Jews we kill, the less there will be.“
Where there isn’t blind rage, there is confusion. Raised in a secular house, Yarko can only say, ”People on both sides die, both sides lose . . . I don‘t know what to do.“ Even when the filmmakers arrange for Yarko and Daniel to visit Faraj and Sanabel in the settlement, their playful, tearful rapprochement feels fragile. The bitter truth is that if these kids have ever existed in a state of innocence, it’s long since slipped away. In the film‘s grim epilogue, even the moderate Yarko talks of losing touch with Faraj, despite the latter’s repeated phone calls. Things, he says, are ”too complicated.“