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A child’s glimpse of the Middle East in new documentary

By Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Friday June 14, 2002

Berkeley filmmaker looks  

at everyday lives of Israeli and Palestinian children 


When Berkeley-based filmmaker Justine Shapiro asked her young Israeli cousins if they knew any Palestinian kids, in her cousin’s eyes, she became the crazy American. 

That was almost ten years ago, when Israelis and Palestinians were engaged in a hopeful peace process via the Oslo Accords, but peace was still far off. Shapiro didn’t realize how far. "I realized how naïve I was because I believed that because the New York Times said there was a peace process going on," said Shapiro. "What Israeli kids knew about the Palestinian kids was what they saw on TV … and what Palestinian kids knew about Israelis was the soldiers that they saw." 

Shapiro had been the host of a public television program called "Lonely Planet," now called "Globetrekker," and was keeping her eyes peeled for a rich documentary subject. The children of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offered a unique window into the feverish border tension, whose chroniclers are often heavily biased or ineffectively neutral. 

"It wasn’t that they were victims of war," Shapiro explained about her child subjects. "They were spirited and funny and articulate. They would change their minds and they were mercurial. They were full-dimensional characters. There wasn’t anything out there that showed that." 

Shapiro found a hesitant partner for her production in B.Z. Goldberg, who was burned out on his previous job as a consultant for corporate conflict resolution. The Jerusalem-born Jew was reluctant to come on board. "Being so close to the subject would be too difficult, too painful. The conflict was too intransigent. I’d rather make a film about somebody else’s problems," said Goldberg, who had been considering documenting African conflicts. "Justine showed me that this topic was the topic that we had to make, right now." 

As luck would have it, "right now" was the only time to shoot "Promises," which would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award and the ultimate prize for any documentary – theatrical distribution, opening at the Shattuck Theater in Berkeley today. Shapiro and Goldberg shot a bulk of the film in 1997, 1998, and 2000, a period of relative calm between the signing of the Oslo Accords and the most recent and dishearteningly violent intifada. Now it is impossible for filmmakers to gain enough access to cross border checkpoints and freely enter Palestinian refugee camps.  

"When we were there, people were somewhat detached from the strong, passionate, vengeful emotion people are so overcome by at this time," Shapiro recalled. "It’s really hard to have a reasonable conversation with people living in the Middle East at the moment." 

Emotions may have been comparatively detached, but opinions regarding the people on the other side of the checkpoint – in some cases just down the street – were still sharp. Children who had brothers and friends "martyred" in the conflict, or have jailed parents speak very plainly of their discontent with other kids regarded as mortal enemies.  

Although the film takes great pains to walk a tightrope between the two warring factions, it is in love with the friendly and familiar relationships it creates with the children. It takes a few minutes to show a young Jewish girl explaining what she does on a holy day while struggling to separate two nested, plastic patio chairs stuck together. A cell-phone conversation takes place between an Israeli boy and a Palestinian boy over the merits of pizza versus humus. A chance playground meeting between an orthodox Jewish boy studying to be a rabbi and a Palestinian boy becomes a spontaneous belching contest. 

Through editing, deftly done by Shapiro’s husband Carlos Bolado (who worked on "Like Water For Chocolate" and "Amores Perros," and whose 1999 film "Baja California: The Limits of Time" garnered deserved praise at international film festivals), the film creates a sense of symmetry between the kids’ lives across borders: They like sports, they brush their teeth, they bicker with their parents, etc. 

But the images reveal a disparity of power. Middle-class twin boys take the bus to school from their house in Jerusalem while a Palestinian boy named Faraj 20 minutes away runs on the dirt streets of a refugee camp. "They’re growing up in a situation where there is a country with an enormous amount of power – Israel – and these people who are living in incredibly difficult conditions and really living a life of oppression," said Goldberg. 

It’s difficult to point a camera anywhere in the Middle East without capturing some sign of political tension. At a volleyball tournament in which the twins are playing, a man sits in the bleachers holding a semiautomatic rifle, and a track meet where Faraj sprints is overlooked by Israeli military helicopters. The three filmmakers massaged the material to give the children’s lives center spotlight – their hobbies and games and families – but reminders of the conflict are omnipresent. 

"The twins come in second in the volleyball championship, and Faraj comes in second in the race," said Goldberg. "For me this is such an incredible metaphor…" 

"…’Promises’ came in second at the Academy Awards," Shapiro interrupted. 

"Right. This is such an incredible metaphor for what’s going on in the Middle East. There was a feeling during the so-called peace process: we almost made it; we’re so close and we came in second; we didn’t get there, maybe next time."  

Goldberg became a part of the action in the film, albeit reluctantly. He interacted with the kids on camera to draw out their ideas and feelings, even challenging a young boy in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem how he can consider Goldberg a friend while hating the Jews of Jerusalem.  

"I went kicking and screaming," said Goldberg about going in front of the camera. "I felt like I was interfering; I didn’t want to get in the way of the kids." It was the wisdom of his co-director that pushed him into the spotlight. 

"Again, it was Justine’s vision and genius that the audience is going to need a way in. This is a very complex subject, and it’s been portrayed in such black and white terms in the mainstream media, what we wanted to do was go a lot deeper. … And the only way the audience could relate to what was going on was if they had someone who could take them in." 

The filmmakers were not practicing fly-on-the-wall documentary practices. They directly engaged with their subjects, and even changed the course of the children’s lives. The children would have never met if not for the filmmakers. 

In the film Goldberg tells Palestinian children about the Israeli kids, and vice versa, showing them Polaroids. While speaking with Faraj about the twins, suddenly Faraj wanted to speak with them via cell phone. After some technical wrangling to secure sound recording, two boys who should have never met began talking sports. 

"We wanted to make an accurate depiction of thee kids lives, and they don’t meet. They live 20 minutes apart and they never meet. So we decided the kids will not meet despite the fact that our funders said, ‘you’re going to make the kids meet, right? We’re going to have some hope at the end of this film. This is going to be an American film, like Hollywood. You know: hope? Happy ending?’ And we said no, these kids are not going to meet because they don’t meet." 

But the kids were determined to meet each other, and the filmmakers planned a day to bring the twins from Jerusalem into Faraj’s refugee camp to meet with other kids, play soccer, wrestle, eat, shoot slingshots, and talk. And as they talk about how they feel about each other Faraj starts to cry. It’s because Goldberg will soon leave, he explains, and then what will happen? 

As Shapiro and Goldberg insist, they let the kids lead the action and they followed to contain it, Goldberg finds another political message. "It’s in a way a metaphor for what’s happening in the Middle East. There hasn’t been a single development in the last 100 years that hasn’t been shepherded by a major power, and not a single development in the last 50 years that wasn’t shepherded by the United States." 

Shapiro said they didn’t want to make a social-issue film, nor a film that would conform to the filmmakers’ clashing political agendas. "The film answers the questions of three different people," said Shapiro. "As a Jewish American I had my approach to the conflict, which was unique to B.Z.’s who had grown up there, which was unique to Carlos’ who had come from a Mexican, third-world background and was more sensitive to the Palestinian political aspirations than B.Z. and I were." 

The editing alone took two years because of the constant discussion, negotiating, and arguing about the nuances of the film’s narrative and political angle in each scene. Goldberg said any one person could not have made "Promises." "We wanted to make a film that would be dynamic and stand up to "Spider Man." We used to say people had to leave the film saying, ‘I laughed, I cried, it was much better than Cats.’ 

"Also, it’s such a complex issue, and so much of what we see in the mainstream media is polarized. We managed, by the grace of God, to walk a very very fine line and keep going to different sides in the conflict. We relished the tension between us – especially in hindsight. At the time it was difficult."