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B.Z. Goldberg, and Justine Shapiro

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A deeply humane documentary about children in Israel and the occupied territories, Promises tries to strike an optimistic tone wherever possible; it even closes with a few shots of newborn babies, that universal cinematic symbol of hope. But a sense of foreboding, especially given the news pouring from the region this week, is impossible to shake. An Oscar nominee this year for Best Documentary Feature, the film follows four Israeli and three Palestinian kids, 11 to 13 years old, who are at once curious about adulthood and, given the future they can see unfolding for themselves, eager to keep it at bay. There’s Faraj, a likable young Palestinian who runs track and lives in the Dheisheh refugee camp (which last week produced an 18-year-old female suicide bomber, Ayat Mohammed al-Akhras). There’s Shlomo, the articulate son of a rabbi. There’s Sanabel, a Palestinian girl who visits her father once a month in an Israeli jail. And there are Yarko and Daniel, two charismatic secular Jews who worry about both their volleyball matches and explosions on the public bus they take to school. The film was directed by Justine Shapiro, born in South Africa and raised in Berkeley; Carlos Bolado, a Mexican; and B.Z. Goldberg, who grew up just outside Jerusalem. Though his partners are never seen, the engaging Goldberg stands right at the heart of the story, talking, laughing, and dancing with the children—and, via cell phone, helping broker their charmingly awkward attempts to meet one another. The movie captures its subjects at a pivotal age: Certainly old enough to understand the complexities of the political situation they’re trapped in—and to spout some hateful rhetoric—the kids are also young enough that a shell of intractability has yet to harden around them. (Their parents, on the other hand, look uniformly world-weary.) Promises was shot mostly in 1997 and 1998, a period of relative calm. But a postscript filmed in 2000 finds most of the children far less curious about their counterparts than they’d been even two years earlier; with the boys, particularly, open, laughing faces have turned harder and tougher. As in the broader conflict, the chance for a genuine breakthrough seems to have come and gone. —Christopher Hawthorne