INTERVIEW: No More Empty "Promises"; An Unexpected Look at the Middle East through the Eyes of its Children
by Jacque Lynn Schiller
(indieWIRE/ 03.08.02) — As I sat down to talk with two of the filmmakers behind the arresting film “Promises,” I had to straightaway admit that when I received the press notes, it sounded intriguing but I thought, “Oh it’s another story on the
Middle East. I don’t know if I want to watch this right now.” But it turned
out to be a heartbreaking, surprising, and uplifting film — nothing at all
like what I had anticipated. Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg, and Carlos
Bolado followed the lives of seven Israeli and Palestinian children and the
strong, often violent emotions they had for one another, despite never
having met. And these kids are amazing. Articulate and politically aware yet
still playful, they offer a unique, neglected perspective on the conflict.
Their lives have been anything but fun and games, and they realize they will
soon be the adults in charge of securing ever-elusive peace. Hope too often
dies young. Cowboy Pictures will release the Oscar nominee on March 15.
indieWIRE: I know that you’ve probably answered this fifty billion times, but would you please talk a little about your backgrounds and how this project came about. Justine, I know you from the “Lonely Planet” series.
B.Z. Goldberg: (to Justine) Isn’t that nice when someone knows the program.
So many journalists have never heard of the show. They do know it in Europe.
iW: In fact, in the last episode I watched, I remember you were given a soup that you took one taste of then politely passed it on.
Justine Shapiro: Well, I had acted for a long time. And just at the point
where I decided I didn’t want to act anymore and I wanted to make
documentary films, “Lonely Planet” came into my life. It was a great
opportunity to travel the world and since it’s not a scripted show, it was
really one of those rare experiences that one could have in television where
you really get to be as much of yourself as you can be in front of a camera.
No one was handing me scripts and telling me what to say. The crews were
really small, just five of us and the shoots were four weeks long. Very
intense. My experience of making the show, among many things, [was that] we
would constantly come into contact with stories that I felt could be an
hour-long story on their own. I knew even if we spent eight hours shooting
it, ultimately the longest sequence is four minutes and most of them are
around two. I was frustrated when I would see the cut of the show. The thing I
loved most about “Lonely Planet” was having the opportunity to meet so many
people and hear their stories — to have this amazing job where I get to ask
whatever question I’d like to ask. That’s such a privileged position to be
in. Walk into people’s homes, or wherever they are, and ask whatever
question I wanted.
iW: It certainly looks like one of the best jobs.
Shapiro: All those people, and again, because the crew was so collaborative,
it wasn’t like one of those situations where the director was telling you
what to wear, where to move, what to say. I think I learned a lot about how
to construct a story. But being on camera is not my aspiration, what I
really wanted to do was make my own documentary. I was constantly on the
look out for something I thought could sustain what I knew would be a long
time. It’s so hard to get money to make films and I knew it had to be
something that would be meaningful to me.
So when I was in Israel and the Palestinian territories, in 1995, I went
early to meet with my relatives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I was sitting in
the kitchen with my little Israeli cousins and very innocently — very
naively — I asked, “Do you have any Palestinian friends?” And they looked
at me like I was their insane cousin from outerspace. Just the concept was
so absurd to them. “They’re disgusting. They’re all terrorists. You can’t
trust them.” So I said, “Do you know any Palestinians?” “No. We don’t need
to know them. We see what they do on TV.” And I thought, well I guess what
they know about the Palestinians is what Americans know too, from watching television.
That’s pretty limited.
Then I spent time with young Palestinians and sort of heard the same kind of
vehement opinions about the Israelis, and again without ever meeting. And I
thought, this is interesting. These young kids are so passionate and I’d
never, ever seen that before. One of the things that came up for me a lot
when I was making “Lonely Planet” was that I’d be getting ready to go to
some country and people would say to me you have to be very careful in that
country: there’s a lot of violence in that country; they’re very poor;
you’re going to get diarrhea because all the food is mixed with really bad
water — I realized that most people’s conception of the world is so far
from what those places are really about. Most Americans, all they know of
the world is what they read in the newspaper or see on TV. I think it’s like
only 11 percent of Americans have valid passports so not that many people
travel and see things for themselves.
So when I was in Israel and the Palestine territories I thought, I want to
bring my experience to a larger audience because I can’t assume that anybody
else knows these people. And so that was kind of my, “this is something I
think I can stick with.”
iW: And the two of you already knew each other?
B.Z.: We met around that time, ’95. And my background, I’m going to try to
answer it just for the hell of it, like I’ve never answered it before. I
grew up in Israel, just outside of Jerusalem and there were things I took
for granted growing up. As an adult, especially in the process of making
this film and in the wake of it, I look back and think, “That was not
exactly normal.” Although, really, what’s normal? My normal childhood
entailed living in a world in which people listened to the news on an hourly
basis. And as a kid, no one had told me this, but I knew that the reason we
listened to the news was to find out if anyone we knew had been killed or
wounded. Even though it’s strange when today there is violence every single
day, but when I was growing up we knew these incidents by name. There were
so few of them. But that was the world in which I grew up. People were
killed and wounded. I think that is part of the reason I personally was able
to have the kind of tenacity that I needed — this project took us five and
a half years from idea to inception.
iW: I was going to ask about that. Was it always planned to be a multi-year endeavor?
Goldberg: We had a really hard time raising money.
Shapiro: We only paid ourselves this year.
Goldberg: To go back, I had a deep curiosity about, what did it take for me
to grow up there? What kinds of coping mechanisms as a child would have to
be in place to become a regular, normally functioning adult? I had a friend
killed in an incident known as the “Coastal Road” attack. What in Israel
would be called a terrorist attack or in Palestine they would consider a
military operation — “freedom fighters.” I was 14 and on the day he was
killed, I was in school and I remember all the boys got together in a circle
and we had this conversation. “What should we do?” It was like the
government getting together, “how are we going to respond to this?” And we
all decided that we were going to kill an Arab. There was a janitor in the
school with a slightly retarded son, and we decided that he would be fair
game. We were only 14 and we were going to kill the janitor’s son. But we
never got around to it. Really, it was like that. We had to make wreaths and
go to the cemetery.
When we were starting, I never really thought, I would really like to do a
psychological exploration of what it takes for children in the Middle East
to grow up. But I think somewhere, for me personally, I must have been
wondering subconsciously what is the difference, what is it like to grow up
in the states, or Europe, or this charged environment.
I had many experiences when I was doing TV journalism that made me really
interested in kids. I would look and think, well I was once just like them.
And they were being portrayed in the media only as victims.
iW: Right. Children are never allowed to talk.
Goldberg: And we noticed, it was the time of the Oslo accords, and all the
speeches that were made talked about the children. “We are doing this for
the children.” Justine and I were hanging out and talking about this idea.
Actually Justine had the idea, I felt I would get too emotionally involved
in the subject, that all these people are talking about the children but no
one has gone and talked to them — to find out what they think. And at the
same time, everyone was saying it’s going to take years, maybe generations,
for there to be peace. It’s not going to happen right now. So who’s going to
be making peace? The people who are now children. Wouldn’t it be interesting
to find out where they’re at? Because where they are at today — at this
really formative age — is going to dictate the future. Frankly, we never say this,
but we were also pragmatic. We wanted to make a film that people would see.
We were dedicated to make a film that would feel like a feature. We wanted
to stay away from the standard, dry strictly educational TV documentary, the
kind of film you said you didn’t want to see. This had to be something that
would keep people riveted. At some point we said, well this is a great idea, but it must have been done before. So we went to look for films and found nothing.
iW: So at that point you knew you had the story.
Goldberg: But I must say, I was arrogant. I had lived there and thought,
Justine and I will work on this thing, and I’ll show her around the country.
But everyday something would happen that just blew me away. At the end of
the day, I would think, “I’ve got it. I understand the conflict.” And then
the next morning we would have a conversation and I would be stumped again.
It’s a lot more complex. For all of us, Carlos, Justine, and myself, we
experienced how beautiful, how confusing and rich these intricacies were. If
we could give an audience a fraction of that eye-opening feeling it would be
a worthwhile film. And do it in a way that is really cinematic — which is
why Carlos (Bolado) should really be here. He’s such an incredible director
and a really experienced, brilliant editor. He was able to bring life to
this documentary material and create something that breathes and lives. The
picture is a huge tribute to him and the two years we all worked, battled
and struggled together. I think (knocks on wood) we were able to get at
least somewhere near that goal.
iW: This is one of those films that I wish everyone would see, especially in the U.S., because there are no cut and dry solutions. What we have been experiencing in Afghanistan, there are belief systems in place that are
thousands of years old. We can’t simply say, “Change.”
Shapiro: I think Americans, we are kind of this culture that sort of points
our finger at the rest of the world: good and evil, good and evil — as if
we are separate from it. But I believe 9/11 was important for that kind of
iW: I feel like we again have a false sense of security, however. When the twins in the films spoke of their fears about getting on the bus, not knowing if it might be blown up, that is a true reality they must live with everyday.
Shapiro: There’s a kind of labeling, and I know that’s what people do to
justify war — there must an enemy. But you know, life is just not a Hollywood movie. I think one of the big motivations behind making this film was also researching and finding how the Middle East was being defined. It’s like a football game.
With “Promises” a lot of people asked, “What’s your agenda? You’re two Jews
from the liberal Bay area, is this a pro-Palestinian film?” Then the
Palestinians think, “Two Jews making a film, it must be pro-Israeli.”
Goldberg: If we had an agenda, it was curiosity and awareness.
Shapiro: I must have sounded unconvincing to so many people, funders, when
I would say this is really a character study. We to humanize the “enemy”. We
want you to have the same relationship with these kids as we did. And we
wanted to show their humor and the mercurial change from day to day of, “We
hate Palestinians or we hate Jews.” When Faraj decided to call the twins, we
were utterly amazed.
iW: Was it really that spontaneous, his decision to make contact?
Goldberg: We were not prepared. Down to the question of how we would mike a
phone call? We taped a wireless mike to the back of the phone and hoped it
would pick up.
Shapiro: When we showed the Polaroids we were thinking, well maybe some of
them will be interested in meeting. But Faraj was like, “I don’t want to
meet an Israeli. They killed my friend.” So when suggested to call the
twins, we couldn’t dick around. He could have changed his mind the next day.
Goldberg: We tried to be open and remain interested and try to understand
the people populating this land that has basically been a bad neighborhood
for the last four thousand years.
Shapiro: And B.Z., Carlos and I come from such unlike backgrounds that we
were all curious about different things — answers for three very different
people. I think that’s one of the strengths of the film. It is sort of like
a prism on every situation.
iW: And what has the feedback been?
Shapiro: The thing that has made me feel really good about the film has been
the feedback from both Israelis and Palestinians that the film has managed
to be unbiased.
Goldberg: And the most surprising thing was Israelis and Palestinians coming
up and saying they themselves, who live 15 minutes away from each other,
didn’t have a clear understanding of the checkpoints and the feelings of the
other side. There was a cognitive dissonance.
iW: Do you have a speech prepared for the Oscars?