- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

"Promises" recalls the efforts of an Israeli-American TV journalist and filmmaker, B.Z. Goldberg, to foster friendships among a small group of Israeli and Palestinian children he interviewed in and near Jerusalem between 1997 and 2000.
Most of the material in this videotaped documentary feature, playing at Visions Cinema in the Dupont Circle area, seems to belong to the earlier date. An epilogue finds the subjects a few years older and preoccupied with growing up in ways that haven't sustained the overtures encouraged by Mr. Goldberg.
The fadeaways don't necessarily portend undying hostility. The youngsters would need to make special efforts to stay in touch.
The sample is far too small to justify sweeping generalizations of a hopeful or discouraging nature. Mr. Goldberg intercuts conversations with an approximate quartet of young people on each side of the cultural, religious and political fault lines. Israeli twins named Yarko and Daniel, lanky seventh-graders from a secular family, agree to meet the Palestinians residing in a refugee camp outside Jerusalem. The group seems to get along, as one would expect when something is being documented in a friendly fashion.
All but one of the principal participants, a Palestinian girl named Sanabel, are boys. Mr. Goldberg and his collaborator, Justine Shapiro, are astute about establishing certain things that the children have in common, such as home environments, school classes, recollections of friends lost to the violence in the area and athletic activities.
For example, both the twins and a Palestinian boy named Faraj, whose family appears to be the host for the visit, experience setbacks on the playing field. The twins lose a close volleyball final, and Faraj comes in second in a 100-meter sprint. (From the look of things, he might have been awarded first place because the winner weaves across lanes repeatedly; one gathers that this is not a disqualification in West Bank schoolboy meets.)
Sanabel probably comes closest to being receptive to sustained contact, but there aren't any Israeli schoolgirls in the group. I assume it wasn't for want of trying because we appear to be in the presence of a sincere do-gooder in Mr. Goldberg. The filmmaker gently draws the youngsters out and must be doing some nimble negotiating out of camera range to facilitate meetings across the checkpoints.
I suspect he tried to arrange a meeting in Jerusalem with a Muslim boy named Mahmoud, who resides in the city, where his father owns a coffee shop. It's possible that some of the youngsters who were eligible for such episodes rejected the idea for one reason or another. Mahmoud seems to move with relative freedom in the city, giving him potential advantages as a camera subject over the refugee-camp children. He's also a Hamas enthusiast, however, and embittered and bloody-minded when discussing the Jews.
I would guess that Mr. Goldberg was hoping for a brief encounter between Mahmoud and an Orthodox boy named Shlomo, who celebrates his bar mitzvah in the course of the chronicle. The filmmakers do luck out in another way, when Shlomo and a Muslim youngster meet by chance on a Jerusalem street and the latter, possibly a comedian in the making, commences a belching contest.
It's impossible to tell whether "Promises" is ill-timed or well-timed to play a modest inspirational role as Americans contemplate the current state of crisis in the Middle East.
To their credit, the filmmakers don't pretend to have long-term answers, and the steps they try to take are well-meaning and sympathetic. As far as straightforward human interest is concerned, "Promises" shames all the commercial features entering the marketplace this weekend.

TITLE: "Promises"
RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter; frequent allusions to enmity between Israelis and Palestinians; recollections of violent deaths suffered by friends)
CREDITS: Written, produced and directed by Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg. Co-director and editor: Carlos Bolado. Camera: Yoram Millo and Ilan Buchbinder. Consulting writer and researcher: Stephen Most. Some dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

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