Interview with Promises filmmakers, Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg
What generally inspires you as a documentary filmmaker?
Justine Shapiro: I wish I had said it first but Gloria really sums it up for me when she says: "Empathy is the most revolutionary emotion the ultimate." (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within.) I am interested in taking a story that has been written from the outside and going inside and finding the people, the characters, and the heart of the matter. Too often people in news stories become mere sound-bites. I'm really interested in what goes on in people's lives and filming the details that will bring them to life for others. I want to share people's commonalties and differences with audiences. If we feel empathy for someone, then our hearts open, our minds open and perhaps we might even be inspired to respond differently to that person when we meet her or read about her.
When and how did you decide to undertake this project?
Justine Shapiro: Isaac Bashevis Singer says that if you're looking for inspiration, especially for a first project, turn to your roots. I was in Israel and the Occupied Territories, on another project and I met some young Palestinians in Hebron in the West Bank. This was the first time that I had met Palestinians personally and they weren't the "terrorists" that I had thought them to be. I felt empathy for the Palestinians I met and I recognized how small my own mind was and assumed that if I held such a rigid stereotype about Palestinians than there must be many others doing the same. Frankly, I was fairly blown away by my own ignorance. I also spent time with my own young Israeli cousins and was astonished to find my Israeli cousins saying how much they hate the Palestinians and the Palestinians were saying how much they hate the Israelis. This conversation took place in 1995 around the time that the world was talking about peace and Oslo and the famous handshake between Rabin, Arafat and Clinton on the White House lawn. But the anger and virulence expressed by these young people did not in any way reflect the tenor of the mainstream press. I thought that there's something here to explore.
BZ Goldberg: For me the story started when I was covering the Intifada. I was a journalist during the first Palestinian uprising in 1988, and I think the moment that the story starts was when I was standing in the midst of a Palestinian demonstration. There were Palestinians on one side of the street and they were throwing rocks at the Israeli soldiers on the other side of the street who were firing tear gas canisters back at the Palestinians; The best place for a TV crew was right in the middle. I was looking around to see that there were no rocks or fire bombs coming off of the roof at the cameraman. Then, I turned around and saw these Palestinian kids who were playing what they called the intifada game. Half of the Palestinian kids were playing the "Israeli soldiers" and half of them were playing "Palestinian Rock Throwers" and the Palestinians would throw rocks at the Israelis and the Israelis would catch the Palestinians and beat them up and put them against the wall and yell at them in Hebrew. This was the "Intifadah Game". I was so stunned, and at the same time it didn't occur to me to turn the camera around at the kids, because that wasn't the story. The story was the demonstration that was going on. When that happened, some kind of seed was planted in my mind and I tried to convince every filmmaker I knew that they should make a film about Israeli and Palestinian kids.
What were your goals in making Promises? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film and what would you like to see happen with the film?
Justine Shapiro: People who are about to watch Promises might think that they're going to see a film that's about doom and gloom where they will see "children of war" in Middle East. They might expect something depressing and along the lines of what we're seeing all the time in the news and the newspapers these days. What we wanted to do with Promises was to show the human side of this conflict and so in that way I think that audiences will be surprised. Promises offers two things one does not expect to see in a film about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: humor and balance. Good movies, whether they be feature films or documentaries often have to do with great characters and a compelling story. It's all about "casting" and we lucked out and found tremendously expressive, endearing, quirky and wonderful kids. This film has strong, interesting characters, and there is a strong storyline and narrative with a beginning, middle, and an end. You want to turn the page. You want to see what's going to happen next. It took us about seven years to make Promises and as we spent more time with the kids, stories unfolded in ways that we could not have anticipated. After seeing Promises, I hope that people will have a greater empathy for "the other" and with this new information they will be able to challenge the stereotype of the Israeli as "soldier" and the Palestinian as "terrorist". After seeing the film I hope audiences will read the newspapers with a sense that they now know seven Palestinians and Israelis.
What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?
Promises - Sanabel. Photo: Justine Shapiro
Justine Shapiro: For a long time I was caught up in the idea that making Promises was an action of justice. After getting into one too many pointless arguments I realized that my job was to observe, without judgment, and to listen. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is polarized and emotional especially if you are Jewish or Arab. I had to step outside of the liberal Jewish Berkeley upbringing that in many ways has brainwashed me into believing that there is a right and wrong. Yes, I saw things that made my blood boil and I cried almost every day. But I also laughed with Palestinians and with Israelis. Somehow these people have learned how to include the sweeter things of life. Especially Palestinians, who truly wake up with the conflict every day of their lives, I saw they were often able to bring poetry, irony, and humor to the day to day. In the West we have this idea that in war everyone walks around with their chin to the ground in a grey depression. That's not the case in the Middle East. Where there is pain and suffering and anger there is also warmth, hospitality, funny stories and a lot of cigarette smoking.
Did your initial theories or feelings towards the subject change during filming? If so, how or in what ways? How do you incorporate (or ignore) those changes into the filmmaking experience?
BZ Goldberg: Justine and I had been talking about making a film and the one film that I didn't want to have anything to do with was a film about the Middle East. I grew up there and I thought it was way too close to home. I felt like there's no way I can do this without it affecting me on a very visceral level. I thought, "I'm going to have to change if I make this film. It's going to be painful, and I'm going to have to see things that I don't want to see." So I didn't want to make it, but at the same time, those things pushed me to a place where I think I couldn't but make the film. I had no choice. And I think that all of those predictions have come true.
One thing that happened was when we were researching the film, we'd spent a lot of time traveling around Jerusalem and around different parts of Israeli and the Palestinian territories, and I thought that I had a really good handle on what was going on and what people's lives were like. I'd grown up in Israeli. I'd been a journalist and I'd spent a lot of time in the Palestinian territories. But I realized when we started to kind of get under the surface of what was going on that every day a shocker. Every day totally new things appeared to me and the whole Middle East conflict through the eyes of these children was like an onion that was unpeeling. With every new day I felt like I got it and that was the day I had it figured out and I really understood this conflict. And then the next day some new layer would unfold again. So one of the things that's happened to me is that I have both a deeper understanding of the complexity of the conflict.
I now have a deeper understanding of how difficult it is to understand it and that it is not a black and white situation. That doesn't bode well with western audiences because we like to see things in very black and white clear terms. And we like them in quick sound bites. I also learned something about the people who I perceived as my enemies. I grew up in a very liberal family which was very progressive, very pro peace, yet at the same time I perceived Arabs in some way as enemies, and like many Israelis I developed a kind of blurred vision. So in making this film I wasn't able to continue that kind of blurred vision. My eyes and my mind and my heart opened up to Palestinians and what Palestinians life was like. At the same time I didn't expect to open up to settlers. I'm a "liberal Israeli" right? These people, the settlers, as far as I had been concerned were nuts. They were crazy. Then, suddenly I found myself liking these people. They were so nice. And I found I loved the kids we worked with. I didn't expect that. And so that's changed me. I don't know how to reconcile all of that. I think another thing that's changed in me is that I'm willing to be in a place of not reconciling everything.
What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
Justine Shapiro: I'm still working on the distribution and outreach of Promises. We are developing a short study guide that will be ready in June of 2004.
I'm also co-producing and directing a film about an American mother who decides to take her 4 year old son on a journey to meet Muslim mothers and their children. I'm also shooting a new documentary this summer that looks at kids and lunch.
BZ Goldberg: I am working on a feature film script that takes place in Jerusalem and also on a documentary about people who live in extreme climate conditions along the longitude of 8 degrees and 34 minutes.
Carlos Bolado who co-directed and edited Promises was unable to answer these questions as he is in pre-production for a feature film called Only God Knows which shoots in Mexico, Brazil and the USA.