Judge Jesse Ataide promises not to make any Jewish jokes. Not when it's on a subject this serious.
"Arabs and Jews should meet! Not politicians! I want children to meet."—Sanabel
Faraj: A bitter Palestinian boy determined to rebuild his ancestral
home destroyed by the Jewish army.
Facts of the Case
Though they all live within a several mile radius of each other, the seven Jewish and Palestinian children profiled in Promises are separated not only by physical barriers (in the form of Israeli-enforced checkpoints), but by vastly different political and religious convictions that do not allow for any kind of social interaction between the two warring people groups.
That is, until a filmmaker begins to question everything they've ever known. Is an Israeli/Palestinian connection possible, even on the most minute of levels?
Of all the positions and perspectives offered regarding this situation over the years, Promises focuses on the individuals least responsible for this conflict: the children. Goldberg and his crew introduce us to seven children between the ages of eight and twelve, and with minimal goading they begin to candidly answer questions into the camera. Some are bashful; others are eager to express their passionate opinions. Gathered from all walks of Jewish and Palestinian life, these children express the various opinions and ideals of these two groups. Several children articulate thoughts that are uncomfortably extreme in their violent nature; others are more open to some kind of peaceful resolution to the problem, but all are united in their ultimate hope for the day to come when they won't have to worry about being blown up by a suicide bomb every time they board a bus. Or worry about their friends being shot by soldiers. Or having the opportunity to travel around their homeland as they please. None, however, are able to agree on what exactly an ideal future would look like, and most importantly, the actions necessarily to reach that point.
Considering the horrific situation they are forced to deal with on a daily basis, it's easy to forget that these are children who above all else try to maintain some kind of normal existence amidst the war playing out around them. Daniel and Yarko are primarily concerned with the upcoming volleyball championship they are playing in. Moishe spends hours in front of his computer every day. Faraj strives to make a name for himself as a sprinter. It's a subtle reminder that life manages to continue in the midst of blood and bombs and threats of death.
After a year when American theaters were relentlessly bombarded by propaganda masquerading as documentaries, it's refreshing to encounter a documentary that presents its subject in such an unbiased and even-handed manner. Goldberg, despite being of Jewish descent, is equally concerned with the plight and problems of both the Jewish and Palestinian children, and one does not walk away from Promises feeling that the case has been made that one side in this conflict is right, and the other wrong. Instead, the whole situation is presented as a tangled mess with no "right" side.
That's why the pivotal moment of the film, where Faraj talks to Daniel and Yarko via cell phone and invites them to come visit him, is so important. Though the situation appears to be painfully awkward at first, they all find a common bond in their love of sports, eating, and horseplay. A friendship begins to form, and when the children are gathered at the end of the day in front of the camera to answer questions, it's not only surprising, but heartening to watch Faraj (probably the most bitterly anti-Jewish Palestinian in the film) break down and admit that he's afraid what this encounter is doing to his view of the world. He has never before considered the possibility of a friendship with a Jew, and the realization scares him. For a moment, it seems there is hope for some kind of future reconciliation between these two very different people groups.
The children's stories continue in the terrific extras, and add even more interest to the film itself. The most important feature is "Updates of the Kids," where Goldberg and his crew caught up with five of the children just this last August. Several of the updates are as inspiring as they are surprising. Others are rather heartbreaking—a sad testament that the idealism of youth all too quickly fades away in the face of harsh realities.
"The Kids Journey to the Oscars" is another fun feature, showing footage of several of the children (now teenagers) making their way to LA for the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony. There is also excerpts from the television program Globetrekker, hosted by Promises producer Justine Shapiro. The original theatrical trailer, several deleted scenes, and filmmaker bios give an update on what the crew of Promises are up to today round out the extras offered in this release.
As for the film itself, New Yorker Video has given this film the presentation it deserves. Though the aspect ratio is listed as 1:66:1, is actually 1:33:1 (full screen), and the picture itself is bright and clear. The Dolby audio track is more than sufficient for a film of this nature. There is not an option to remove the English subtitles, however.
The deep conflict between the Jewish and Palestinian people has been an unceasing reality for over a half century now, and if you're anything like me, it's quite easy to begin to view the whole situation in abstract terms, forgetting the individual human beings intimately involved in the situation. It's not hard to feel disconnected to the faces in anguish when they are just briefly flashed on the television screen on World New Tonight, and even the best journalism is unable to fully convey human pain and terror. That is why a film like Promises is vitally important to watch occasionally—it breaks down the comfortable distance between the ongoing situation and the North American viewer watching from a La-Z-Boy back home.
Everybody suffers in war. Especially the children. Promises sets out to give them a means to tell their story and give a voice to their hope for a different, better future.
Not guilty, and the court requires every caring and compassionate individual to take a look at Promises.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• "Updates of the Kids" Featurette
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