starring a bunch of Israeli and Palestinian kids

5 stars

by Stephen Notley

A documentary asks Palestinian and Israeli kids what they think of the occupation. On paper, it's a simple premise. On screen, it's shattering.

It's impossible to come into a movie like this without some kind of take or preconceived position, looking for justification on one side and condemnation on the other. But Promises isn't that easy. There's no blame game, no chapter and verse on the hurts done one side to the other, no atrocity number games. Promises just burns all that bullshit away by simply picking out some smart, good kids, following them around and letting them talk.

And, as it always is when you confront reality, it's surprising at every turn. Yarko and Daniel, two secular Israeli twins, watch the Orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall and shudder at their creepiness. Sanabel, a Palestinian in a refugee camp, chats about her dancing as a pink Trollkin winks on a shelf behind her. Faraj, a Palestinan refugee, sneaks across the border with the filmmakers and his grandma to see her old village, only to find a wooded area with random rocks and rubble, an un-town.

The images alone, the simple facts they show, are reason enough to see the movie. We see the standard touchstones --the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock-- but we also see the streets, Jerusalem as a town, a city where Jews and Arabs both live. We see that Mahmoud, a Jerusalem Arab, has a nicer bathroom than settler Moishe in the territories. And we see the checkpoints, the barriers, the unstoppable fact of life, with smirking Israeli soldiers, vans full of palestinians stopped, an old woman ordered off the van and back down the road, the van goes on.

But the images are only pictures, and once we start getting into some of these kids' lives, Promises digs into truths that hurt to think about. Parts of this film feel like a punch in the stomach, and other parts feel like hope. These know their histories, these kids, know the crimes the others have done. But they haven't yet quite learned the hate, and without the hate the rest of it just seems so stupid.

And then, the tendril. Yarko and Daniel see a photo of Faraj. They're smart, thoughtful kids, and they muse about meeting him. During another interview, Faraj borrows the filmmaker's phone and calls the twins. The Palestinian kids debate the possibility of having them visit, throwing out truths like a roomful of Jesi. "His father may have killed your father!" "But children are innocent." "If we refuse to meet them, how can things ever change?"

And yes, the twins do visit. And is it a Disney-perfect situation, where the kids learn they're really not so different, play games and soccer together, laugh and have fun because they're kids? Of course it is. And then later, do they talk through an interpreter about how their feelings have changed while knowing that they have to get back to real life, where Israeli and Palenstinian kids never, ever play soccer together? Yes. And is it blindingly real and utterly wrenching seeing how simple and obvious and useless and impossible it all is? More than I can say. See Promises.