At the Heart of the Conflict: Youth in the West Bank Take Sides

The music is powerful, unfamiliar and beautiful. The camera pans across children laughing and playing, and then armed men in camouflage. There are rows of houses set back in the hills, dry countryside and high rise apartment buildings. There is a kosher Burger King and a Marlboro store, buses like you'd find in any other big city, but there is also an undercurrent of fear. Here people are divided by religion, ethnicity, and class. This is Jerusalem, home to both Israelis and Palestinians, who for years have been fighting for the right to the land they both claim as home.

Audiences around the US will have an opportunity to see this footage of Jerusalem in "Promises," a POV documentary, that will be running on PBS during the week of December 12th (check your local PBS station for exact dates and times). "Promises" shows a slice of this life in Jerusalem and shows viewers the Palestinian and Israeli conflict through the eyes of seven children.

All of the children's views are pivotal to understanding the situation in Jerusalem. There are the twins, Yarko and Daniel, secular Jews who are frightened yet fairly ambivalent; Mahmoud who is fiercely anti-Israeli; Schlomo who has been exposed to American culture and appears to have a strong sense of equality; Sanabel an outspoken and political Palestinian girl, who's father is a journalist imprisoned in Jerusalem; Faraj who lives in a Refugee camp and took part in the Intifada; and Moishe who's family are fundamentalist Zionists.

Although they live in the same city, only minutes away from one another, the children's lives are all very different. Some of the Israeli children appear sheltered and have a limited knowledge of what is going on around them, while the Palestinian children live in refugee camps, are directly involved in the political struggle and all have a very strong sense of patriotism. In fact, some of the Palestinian children's views were so politically charged that director and producer Justine Shapiro says she and her fellow filmmakers felt they had to be very careful about what they allowed into the final cut of the film, not wanting to compromise the safety of any their subjects.
There is a kosher Burger King and a Marlboro store, buses like you'd find in any other big city, but there is also an undercurrent of fear. Here people are divided by religion, ethnicity, and class.

But "Promises" does not shy away from the anger, fear and frustration that is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At some moments the youth profiled are mirrors of the adults in their lives. Several of the Palestinian kids actually call for violent resolution, or eradication of the Jews. The Jewish children are equally stubborn at moments. They invoke God, point out scripture and advise the Arab's to give up their struggle.

Even the children who don't have black and white beliefs about the rightful ownership of Jerusalem live in constant turmoil. And this film is filled with the kind of strong images that place the viewer inside that turmoil. In one scene the twins are shown riding on a public bus, and talking about their fears of terrorism. "There were lots of terrorist attacks on the number 18 bus," says Yarko. "People avoid the number 18, which is dumb 'cause if I take the number 22 -- which is supposed to be the safe line -- I could still blow up. When I get on I'm anxious, so I look for suspicious people. If I see a really scary person, I watch him. I try to get off before he does. I keep waiting for the explosion."

The Palestinian children, on the other hand, have lived in the cramped refugee camps for three generations. They are kept from travelling freely around the West Bank by checkpoints set up between regions. When the Palestinian children do need to travel, like when Sanebel and her family visit her father in prison, they are met by guards who often don't speak the language, and demand government papers and cooperation.

In another scene, Faraj and his grandmother travel into the city illegally to visit the site of her family's home, now an empty, overgrown hillside. His grandmother, who still has the deed to the land and the key to what had been their house, passes these things on to Faraj, encourages him to stay true to a vision of returning.

According to Shapiro, "Promises" took almost 6 years to make. The idea for the documentary arose while she (a Jewish-American) was in Israel visiting family in 1995. While there, she says she noticed that very few people were actually talking about the Middle East peace process she had heard so much about in the States. Shapiro also noticed that the children of the area were not being depicted well in the media and decided to give them a place to explore their opinions and perspectives on film. With the help of fellow film makers BZ Goldberg and Carlos Bolado the idea came to life.

Did the three have a clear political agenda when they started out? Shapiro says no. "We did not make the film to change people's minds," she says. "We are artists. We make films we want to see."

However, it is clear that "Promises" has the potential to play a key role in the larger dialogue about a conflict that can at times seem unlikely to be resolved. Focusing on children's perspectives allowed Shapiro, Goldberg, and Bolado to tell a rich, multi-layered story, while maintaining some neutrality.

"The children were so interesting, articulate and compelling and had so much to say," says Shapiro. As she points out, the most candid and "unsophisticated" response to struggle is often the most genuine. Shapiro says they specifically chose younger children because of their candor. "Everything was very true to them," she says.

Finding children to take part in the making of the film was not an easy task. Shapiro estimates that they talked to over 50 children, and interviewed at least 10 or 12 in great detail. When they did decide on whom to involve, BZ Goldberg, who spoke both Hebrew and Arabic, played a key role in building the children's trust. In fact, he narrates the film and is the only person, aside from the children and their families who appears in film. He does the interviewing and many of the children begin to see him as a friend. He also helps them do things that would not have been possible before his arrival. Goldberg takes the twins to the prayer wall in the Old City, which disturbs them, but intrigues them because of their discomfort as secular Israelis. Goldberg is also responsible for taking Faraj and his grandmother to the site of their former house.

The most exciting moment of the film comes near the end, when four of the children get to meet one another. Yarko and Daniel show interest in meeting Faraj, because they have heard of his love for sports. The three, along with Sanabel, agree to meet in the refugee camp because, while it is not entirely safe for Yarko and Daniel to go to the camps, it would be nearly impossible for Faraj and Sanabel to cross the borders to where the twin's live.

The four, plus friends of Faraj and Sanabel, spend the day playing together and talking openly about their experiences. With Goldberg and a translator's help they ask each other about things that have been mysterious to them until then. It is an emotional scene, and the children leave the experience seemingly different.

But, as "Promises" illustrates, the truth is not always as simple as one meeting and a few conversations. Thus the saddest moments in this film come at the end, as we are re-introduced to the children two years later. The four talk a bit about how their lives have changes and about how they have lost touch since their meeting.

None of them appears to be any more political than before, in fact some seemed less interested. Some are disinterested and ambivalent. Others are even more adamant in their stance towards the opposite group. But all of the children seem somehow distanced from their original conversations with BZ.
"This film makes people see what profound thinkers kids can be," says Shapiro, "and wakes people up to how conflict affects kids anywhere."

"Promises" is successful on many levels. Its audience is given a rare view into the lives of a group of people rarely seen on film. This documentary captures a wide range of opinion and perspective, and allows the audience to see the nuances Palestinian/Israeli conflict. "This film makes people see what profound thinkers kids can be," says Shapiro, "and wakes people up to how conflict affects kids anywhere."

She also stresses the fact that, although "Promises" follows the lives of a group of children in a very specific part of the world, many of the lessons they have to teach are universal. As Shapiro says, the film is about "people living so close and still being worlds apart." In that, she points out "a film like this can be made anywhere."

Elizabeth Zipper is the WireTap editorial intern and a student at San Francisco State University.

If you liked this story, check out this related WireTap story:
Seeds of Peace, by Julie Joy, WireTap

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