Adrift in No Man’s Land


The Israeli-Palestinian crisis is usually regarded as a sociopolitical tar baby, glumly pondered at arm’s length. On a clear day, however, what you see is a fairly straightforward case of territorial neo-colonialism (encouraged and funded by the U.K. and the U.S.), bedeviled by an ensuing half-century of betrayal, predictable bloodlust, and religious inanity. The new, Oscar-nominated video doc Promises pulls few punches—assembled by a South African-born American, an American Israeli, and a renowned Mexican film editor, it nods toward apolitical balance but always refocuses on Palestinian subjugation. The filmmakers can’t help it, because their ruling trope is interviews with children: The Palestinian kids say, This was our land; the Israeli kids say, We took it because God said it’s ours. All of these pre-teens are at least nominally middle-class (the refugee camp apartments look no worse than the low-income housing spaces in American inner cities), and of course, they’re all precocious, sparkly-eyed darlings.

The film’s strategy comes with a caveat: Children may say the darndest things, but most of what they opine is half bald naïveté, half regurgitated bile they learned from their parents. Declarations of racist vengeance go hand in hand with why-can’t-we-just-get-along hopefulness. Obviously, the filmmakers stump for the latter, to the extent that co-director/protagonist Goldberg arranges for a pair of secular Jewish twins to spend a playful day with a family of Deheishe refugee camp kids, creating for us a temporary microcosm of idealized peace and mutual respect. A lovely earlier scene musters this notion effortlessly: During an interview with an Orthodox boy on a playground, a Palestinian boy sidles up into the camera’s view and, not understanding English, simply begins a burp conversation/contest with the first boy, which continues for a solid minute.

While hardly neglecting the costs of the war and the cultural devastation incurred, Promises strives to reach beyond politics past and present, which too often nudges it into PBS fairy-tale territory. An earnest, roughshod document, it serves as a workable primer for the region’s recent history, and would make a terrific 10th-grade learning tool, particularly once the filmmakers smuggle the Deheishe family’s son and grandmother into Israel proper to find their clan’s obliterated home and property, now nothing but rubble and weeds. Indeed, the view here of Israel as a patchwork of forbidden zones and wired segregation is one we rarely see on Nightline.

Like Promises, Yellow Asphalt was shot before the 2000 intifada, but even so, Israeli director Danny Vereté is interested only in the misaligned symbiosis between Israelis and Judean bedouins, who are never allied by name with Palestinians per se. Told in three rather Chekhovian tales of culture collision (manslaughter, spouse ownership, infidelity run amok), Yellow Asphalt is dryly cynical; the scenarios pit plump, amoral, industrialized Jews against draconian, wife-beating, tribal Arabs. Vereté has a whip-smart sense of narrative bluffs: A bedouin wife’s escape turns out to be the daydreamy rehearsal for the real thing; an interculture murder becomes the life-decimating burden for the very character who tried to straddle both worlds. However detailed, Yellow Asphalt unfolds in a tense but war-free desert universe, and the upshot is less elemental than incidental.

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