How did you select the title for this film?
(B.Z.) It stunk. It was the name, we called the film "Enemies in the Promised Land" was a working title. It was too slanted towards the Jewish notion of a promised land, which doesn't exist in Islam. So we shortened it, shortened it, and shortened it, until it became "Promises, the working title", and we just didn't find anything better. All the names people came up with were actually cheesy.
(J.S.) B.Z. came up with a great idea for the title: "I hate you. You hate me. We're a Middle Eastern family". But that was too long.
How did you go about selecting the children for this film and obtaining parent approval?
(J.S.) We started in 1995. At that time we were meeting kids all over Israel, we hadn't focused on Jerusalem and the West Bank. We came back and started looking at our material and started focusing on one particular area. We went back in '97. And I think we've probably met close to a hundred kids, interviewing close to a hundred kids. We film about 15 kids and then seven of them made it into the film. And we hired researchers at some point, and kind of gave them a shopping list of what we were looking for. But we ended up working with kids who we had a strong relationship with because we knew that we were in it for of long haul. And we wanted to work with kids who wanted to work with us. There was a sense of partnership really, and the partnership with the family. And we needed to find kids who to some degree or another represented different sides of the conflict: a Jewish kid from the settlement, and we needed a Palestinian kid from the refugee camp, and we wanted to get an ultra orthodox Jewish kid. But the film does not represent all aspects of the conflict; we would have to have 30 kids. So at some point, we sort of realized that it was not going to be thoroughly representative and made peace with that.
As far as getting permission from parents, there's absolutely no difficulty around finding ourselves in the company of anybody who didn't want to. It's a very informal country, very hospitable. And word got out that these two Americans were working to make a film with young kids, ages 9 and 11. So people started calling us.
So what else was on your shopping list?
(J.S.) well, I think we wanted to find kids who were articulate, verbally. And there are a lot of kids who were articulate in lots of ways, but not verbally. And because it was a documentary film, that was important to us. And again, it wasn't really that hard to find kids who were articulate about the politics of the region because to them it's not the politics of the region, it's just normal life. We wanted kids- at one point we wanted to find an Israeli kid whose mother, father, sister, or brother was killed in a terrorist attack, some kind of political violence. But we didn't. We met that one girl whose brother was recently killed by Palestinian militants- Oh he was killed in Lebanon; he was killed at the border. She was so emotionally wrought that she really couldn't talk about it.
( B.Z.) We wanted kids who had really good stories to tell. We wanted kids who could-
(J.S.)-who could really be themselves on camera. But could be funny because we wanted the film to be funny because the kids are funny.
(B.Z.) We wanted kids who were multi dimensional, kids who had a sense of their own inner light and wanted to talk of it.
(J.S.) I think the most important thing was to find kids whose mothers were really good cooks. Because we ended up spending a lot of time in their homes.
(B.Z.) It was interesting to see where we gravitated to at different times of day. We made a schedule- at noon we should try be at Mahmoud's house because his mother is such an amazing Coke. It is funny what sort of motivates documentary filmmakers.
How much time did you spend in the various stages: production, pr- production, and post?
(J.S.) We started filming in '95, a research shoot and some of the material is in the film. The main shoots were in '97 and '98. And then there was a very short coda that we shot in the end of 2000. And we spent about a year, year-and-a-half editing. And it took a hell of a lot of time to raise the money for the film. It was one of the reasons why it took such a long time to make this. The three of us, the three directors on this film: Carlos Bolado, B.Z., and I, we spent a lot of time in negotiations about how to structure the film and what to put in. The three of us just thought it was very important what to show. And then there was the funding- it was incredibly difficult.
(B.Z.) But we never negotiated with funders about what would be in the film. We knew that people needed to trust us. And trust our artistic integrity. And if they didn't, if people came with an agenda, then we would rather not accept money.
(J.S.) In fact, a lot of funders sort of said to us 'you are going to bring the kids together aren't you? ' We said ' no', you know. 'We're not.' And then when the kids do come together. When they initiate that meeting. We were thrilled because we knew that this film was going to become more dramatic and more cinematic and more narrative and more like a feature film. But that's wasn't something that we had intended.
So how much time did you spend preparing?
(J.S.) Well, we started shooting in '95 and then it took us a year, almost two years to raise the money to go back and shoot in '97.
(B.Z.) And we were also- partially because of our inexperience and partially because of who we are, cannot define the characteristic distinctions between three periods of pre-production, production and post-production. While we were doing pre-production we were doing production. We would do research, we would knock on the door of people we didn't know and make sure that we had a camera with us, so we could meet people and shoot. We were filming while we were already editing. So it was this big project.
How challenging was the fundraising experience for you?
(J.S.) Well, you know, B.Z. and I didn't have a track record since neither of us had ever made a feature before . And that was one reason why we wanted Carlos Bolado to work with us, was because we knew that he as an incredible sense of rhythm, and cinematic sense. And we knew that he could help create a film that could stand as a feature and that would have a certain energy that would appeal to a mainstream audience. We really did not want to make a social issue documentary. We wanted to make a film that would simply become a tool for use in certain kinds of environments. We didn't want to preach to the choir. You really wanted to make a film that would unfold for mainstream audiences in a way that our own experiences unfolded. All of us went to this film thinking we knew more than we knew and we're constantly saying 'oh I didn't know; I don't know. ' And we were constantly learning and we wanted to reflect that. We didn't want to assume that the audience knew much more than what we did. We sort of lay out simple history. We don't take for granted the geography. Because I know that there are a lot of people who use the word West Bank and have no idea where it actually sits. So we incorporate a lot of fundamental aspects of the conflict into the fabric of the film to really orient viewers who may know nothing about the Middle East conflict. We show what a checkpoint looks like, we often read about a check point but we didn't want to take for granted that a viewer would know what that is simply because they had heard the word so many times.
So how much time did you have to put into fundraising?
(J.S.) I'm still looking for funding. I'm looking for funding now so that we can do outreach to middle and high schools. We were looking for funding a few months ago, when we were trying to bring the kids out to the Academy Awards. Prior to that we were looking for funding for distribution advertising for the film on PBS. Prior to that we were doing funding for recouping all the debt we were in.
Did you each put in your own money as well?
(J.S.) The first year, 1995 and '96, we basically funded the '95 shoot ourselves. And then we didn't pay ourselves for five years.
(B.Z.) When we needed money- there was a period in post-production, post-production was so expensive that there was a period when we had to go to festivals and we were like 'okay, here's a credit card and let's just hope that the money is going to come in.'
(J.S.) The thing is that we didn't have any production deal or broadcast deal or anything. Really it wasn't until the end of 2000 that we knew that ITVS was going to give us post-production money. And they are an amazing organization. They're the only organization of its kind. And that PBS was going to show the film on POV. Up until that point, there was absolutely no indication that anybody anywhere was going to show the film. We really thought we were making the film, of some level, for our donors and our community and our families. I think if we knew then what we know now, we probably wouldn't have made the film. Everybody said no to us for the first three years. People thought because we had no track record to give us Research and pre-production money would be crazy. Which is true because so few documentary films actually get finished, because it's so time-consuming, difficult and expensive, and because so many people were thinking 'oh is a pro Palestinian? Oh is it pro Israeli? ' People assume that there is some kind of political agenda. Nobody believed us when we said 'no, it's really a character study '. And if they did believe they thought 'oh God, that sounds boring '. A lot of people said 'why are you working with such a young kid? Nine to 11? Nine to 12? That's just so sentimental! What a sentimental choice. You really should be working with older kids and adults.' That was the one thing, I think that- in the coda towards the end, in 2000, they're between 13 and 14. We question ourselves a lot a long way, but I think that the one thing that we felt right about was making the decision to work with really young kids. Because they were really so compelling and people who hadn't met yet wouldn't know that.
Do you think that you had any biases that may have influenced the film?
(B.Z.) Totally! Thank God! I mean, there's this idea of objective independent documentary filmmaking, which is a joke. Because people have biases. And we tried to check them at the door. Or at least
We tried to be aware- 'okay, here's our bias in the situation. How can we stay biased and curious at the same time? But that's one of reasons why we started talking- and Justine sort of showed me how important it would be for me to be in the film. That is one of reasons why we're open to doing some of the unconventional choices, to let the audience know that there's a crew here, there is a filmmaker, there's someone making choices. So we did have biases and we tried to make them not in a way, but they're there all the time, but there are for any journalist or documentary filmmaker.
(J.S.) I think it's one reason why the film works. Because we had three very different people coming to it, and we were in constant exploration and negotiation and argument with each other around it. And I think that's why the film works for so many different people.
What was your own knowledge going into the production of this film and what did you learn?
(B.Z.)Well we knew some. And I knew from growing up there (Israel). I think that what I learned the most was the radically different narratives that exist. Because you can hear the history of this happened, this happened, that happened. But there are completely different narratives on each side, and within each side. And I think that's one thing that we learned; both specifically and in general. But think that war is a Rashomon kind of experience. And that people have totally different stories about what happened. In fact, in the Middle East, it's so complicated that people have different names; a lot of the vocabulary isn't shared. So for example, the Israelis talk about Terrorists, whereas Palestinians talk about Freedom Fighters. And when Palestinians talk about terrorists, they talk about- even the word that Palestinians use to talk about terrorist is not the same word. The media has invented a new kind of word for these particular kind of terrorist. The West Bank is referred to by Israelis as the Territories, which is an abbreviated form of Occupied Territories. While the settlers refer to as The Biblical Land Of Judah. The Palestinians refer to it as Palestine. The Oslo agreement referred to as the Palestinian Territories. So you can't even agree on a single term let alone on the narrative. ... So I have to say one thing that we learned was about some of the qualities, some of the subtleties, the richness of how these different people see a situation that actually is the same situation. So we learned a lot. A feel that I have the privilege of learning something that most Israelis don't know. People who live 15 minutes away from where the things are happening don't know because they're living their life and kind of believing the version of history that they grew up with in school. And the Palestinians are doing the same thing. So I think that is something that we've learned a lot about.
(J.S.) I think that I was reminded once again, that nothing is simple. Nothing is black and white. And nothing actually approximates what you read in the newspaper in the United States. And I don't mean that as a criticism. The news anywhere is never really close to what the reality is. And I think I went over there kind of hoping that things would be really black-and-white... And most everybody we met was really nice; very much want saying what I think we all kind of want for our families. And I have a feeling that just about everybody we met on both sides, if we were to say to them 'look, would you be willing to make a compromise in order to secure a future for your children?' I think that both sides would have said 'yes'. Really I think that they're not as political as we think and as the media makes it out to be.
What advice would you give to other independent and documentary filmmakers?
(J.S.) I think that if you're going to make a film about a subject that's sort of lends itself to a social issue documentary filmmaking that you don't go with an agenda of justice. But you go in and with a curiosity because I think that the subjects pick up very quickly about what your motivation is. As a filmmaker you want to make a film that appeals to people who need to know something about that issue, not people who are already engaged in that issue.
"Promises" gives kids a voice and insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Told from the contrasting perspectives of seven children, ages 9 to 11, "Promises" will educate and touch children and adults. The filmmakers followed the lives of these children for a three-year period and as the children grow, so does the audience. This documentary provides children a rare opportunity to learn from other children about everyday life in the Middle East. The young subjects offer a level of honesty and optimism that an adult never could. This documentary film is about kids and for kids and adults alike. [Plus]
For more information about the Middle Eastern Conflict, check out the following websites:
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