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Arts & Culture Israeli and Palestinian Children Open Up in a New Documentary

March 18, 2002
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“Promises” is a beautiful documentary and, in light of the daily body count of Israeli and Palestinian victims, a heartbreaking film.

Nominated for an Academy Award, “Promises” was filmed in and around Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000, while the Oslo hopes for peace were still flickering.

Its “stars” are seven kids, four Israelis and three Palestinians between the ages of 9 and 13, whose normal childhood pursuits and problems are overlaid by the suspicions and hatred of the “other,” transmitted by parents, teachers and religious guides.

The children live in western and eastern Jerusalem, in a religious Jewish area and a Palestinian refugee camp. And although they live within a few miles of each other, none has ever met a youngster from the other side.

As the 106-minute film introduces us to the homes, schools and playgrounds of each of the children, many viewers will realize how little they know not only of the lifestyle of an Arab family, but even of the daily ritual in a an Orthodox home.

Co-director B.Z. Goldberg, a young American raised in Jerusalem who also narrates the film, has a rare knack of bonding with the youngsters, and they reciprocate by unaffectedly telling their stories, often with brutal honesty.

We meet Sanabel, a lovely Arab girl, whose journalist father has been held for two years as a security risk in an Israeli prison; Mahmoud, a blond, blue-eyed Hamas supporter; and Faraj, who lives in the Daheishe refugee camp.

Their Israeli counterparts are Yarko and Daniel, bright and handsome twins living in a secular home; Shlomo, a fervently Orthodox yeshiva student; and Moishe, growing up in a Jewish settlement surrounded by Arabs.

Though separated by generations of hostility, some of the kids express a natural curiosity to meet the “enemies” on the other side.

With Goldberg as the facilitator, Yako and Daniel visit Faraj, and, speaking in halting English, the boys soon find a more common language in their shared enthusiasm for soccer and volleyball.

This scene was shot in 1997 and during a revisit two years later, the small spark of tentative friendship had all but atrophied, more by neglect than animosity.

Now the precarious moment when the teen-agers saw each other as human beings rather than enemies has passed.

It may well take another generation to rekindle the spark, but “Promises” is a needed reminder that there can be an alternative in the Middle East to hatred and bloodshed.

“Promises” opened in New York and Boston last Friday, and will be screened in other North American cities. See for more details.

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