Yesterday afternoon the Academy Award –nominated film, “Promises,” up for Best Documentary Feature, screened at the Pacific Film Archive as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. It was the first time the film by Berkeley-based filmmakers Carlos Bolado and Justine Shapiro, and San Francisco-based B.Z. Goldberg, had been screened in the Bay Area.
The film’s distributor, Cowboy Pictures, will give the film a limited theatrical release in March and April.
Following seven children, both Israeli and Palestinian in the West Bank, the film sought to give voice to the young people and actively attempt to bring them together as a way toward creating peace. The hope, it would seem, lies in trying to bring children together before their political biases become insurmountable.
The difficulty is that even young children are not clean slates – they are not innocent of war, or the contagious hatred of war. Listening to their elders, throwing stones in the street, and watching their friends and family become "martyrs" (i.e. killed), the 10 year-old kids come loaded with political baggage against their neighbors.
The next generation, the film suggests, is not more innocent than its predecessor. But it may be more hopeful. They certainly have a better sense of humor than their respective Ministers and Presidents. A playground scene of a Jewish vs. Palestinian belching contest could do more to the peace process than the hot air traded across official negotiation tables.
Carlos Bolado, editor and co-director of "Promises," spoke to the audience after the screening of the film yesterday afternoon. He said the editing was a year-long process hampered by many difficulties. For one, he had hundreds of hours of videotape of kids speaking Hebrew and Arabic, two languages Bolado doesn’t speak. Also the political nature of the film incited long, heated discussions between the three filmmakers, as Goldberg and Shapiro (Bolado’s wife) are Jewish, leaning toward the Israeli side, and Bolado calls himself a political leftist who tends to side with the Palestinians.
The film goes beyond documenting the children’s lives, becoming an active participant. After selecting a handful of subjects from as wide a swath of backgrounds as their were able – male and female, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and secular – the directors and co-producers Goldberg and Shapiro arranged for all their conflicting subjects to come together to meet and talk and play.
Some of the children agreed to the cross-political playdate, and some expressed their indifference and hostility to meeting children from the other side.
The filmmakers did the bulk of their shooting in the West Bank in 1997 and 1998. Because of the escalating tension and violence there in the past couple years, Bolado said this film could not be made today. Access is largely shut down for citizens and press alike, and parents would not allow their children to take part in a project of this nature in the current climate.
Criticism came from the audience during a question-and-answer period following yesterday’s screening: The film didn’t explain how more Palestinians have been killed during the land war, and some in the audience felt the oppression on the Palestinians in guarded camps was overlooked. Bolado apologetically admitted that much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not portrayed in the film in favor of a more balanced, humanist position.
Bolado said the long, heated discussions in the editing room were about these issues and the filmmaker’s own political interests, but he and the filmmakers decided to narrow the focus of the film on the lives of the children rather than make a political call to arms. He said they wanted the film to be more centrist in order to be seen by as many people as possible and create dialogue. Making the film pro- or anti- Israeli or Palestinian, Bolado said, would be like talking to the same 12 people who think exactly the same way.
The situation in the West Bank is a complicated one and if leftist sympathies are in favor of the Palestinian plight and against the U.S. government’s military aide to Israeli, Bolado said the conflict’s roots go back many years and not so long ago it was the Israeli’s that were the ones painted the victims. The war has been bred into the citizens on both sides of the conflict for generations.
The final images of the film are in a hospital maternity ward where families can view the newest additions to their families. After listening to 12 year-old children describe the difficulties they have in overcoming their differences with other kids on the other side of military checkpoints, this coda offers a question to ponder: How young must peace activists go to get children innocent of war?
When asked by an audience member if he thought the way to make peace in Israel-Palestine is through the children, he evaded a direct answer. He said it’s important to keep people talking to each other, "we have to keep making films… We have to keep doing things."