The film Promises sets up an interesting dialog: children of Israeli and Palestinian descent, between the ages of nine and 12, candidly discuss the complex Middle Eastern conflict that surrounds their daily lives – a conflict that stumps even adults.
At first, California, U.S.-based filmmakers B.Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro and Carlos Bolado met with resistance when they decided to use kids to bring to light the issues surrounding the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Says Shapiro, ‘A lot of people said: you’re wasting your resources on such young kids. Yet, what we found to be astonishing was how articulate and clear these kids were. People said kids this age are just going to parrot their elders. On occasion the kids were parroting, but they were [also] saying things on-camera that their parents and teachers would never say. They were so candid and unfiltered.’
Shapiro and Goldberg began Promises in 1995. Shapiro has hosted the travel show Lonely Planet since 1994 and during location shoots in places such as Turkey, Vietnam and Africa, she stayed on the lookout for potential subjects for a documentary film. She soon discovered a gap between what was reported in the news and actual, lived experience. ‘I felt short-changed in terms of my education of these places. The Middle East felt like that when I went there to do a Lonely Planet shoot in early 1995. The news coming out around that time was all around the peace process and Oslo and the handshake,’ says Shapiro.
‘I was struck to find that peace was not something people were experiencing on the ground. Every Palestinian I met there said, ‘The peace process is the worst thing that has happened, because everybody in the world thinks there’s peace and they’ve turned their attention away from us’. As I travelled the world, I got to where I was going and it wasn’t much like what I read about in the newspapers.’
Promises was a labor of love for its filmmakers in several respects. Not only did the film take six years to make, but the fundraising process for the film, budgeted at about US$450,000, required a lot of legwork. Shapiro and Goldberg appealed to anybody and everybody, even actress Debra Winger, who contributed to the film after Shapiro wrote her a letter. ‘We were like beggars for the entire year of 1996,’ says Shapiro. Co-director and editor Bolado constructed a fundraising clip to promote the film, which was sent to various foundations.
As a result of the intense fundraising process, Shapiro and Goldberg created a non-profit organization called the Promises Film Project to raise awareness about the Middle East peace process. The Promises Film Project produced Promises, in association with the Independent Television Service in the U.S. Among the foundations that contributed funds were the Soros Documentary Fund ($50,000), the National Endowment for the Arts ($50,000), and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture ($35,000).
Promises is distributed internationally by Ro Co Films and in the U.S. by Cowboy Pictures. It opens theatrically in New York City March 15 and then rolls out to other cities across the U.S. The film is also being distributed in Australia, Israel and Japan, among other countries. Having aired on PBS in the U.S. in December 2001, Promises is now available to schools, as well as Jewish and Arab community organizations.
Promises recently received recognition in the form of an Academy Award nomination for best documentary, and audience response to the film has been positive. ‘It’s amazing getting feedback from people. Nine and 10-year-old kids have been writing and watching the film in their classrooms,’ says Shapiro. ‘Israelis as well as Palestinians have responded positively, even though a lot of Palestinians come to the film rather hesitantly, because it sounds like it’s made by a Jewish law firm – you know, Goldberg and Shapiro. But, they are really surprised by how unbiased the film is.’