Out of the mouths of babes

Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of children

Though children are presumed to have a more innocent view of the world, the 9- to 13-year-olds interviewed in Promises express opinions as frighteningly calcified as Rush Limbaugh's.

Many of the politically precocious kids featured in this Oscar-nominated documentary show a shocking world- weariness and close-mindedness when talking about life from their sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part of this documentary's point is to show how, even at this young age, children have already been shaped by adult opinion and lured by both propaganda and real-world experience into a premature prejudice.

Living with the reality of hatred and war every day of their lives, the children interviewed in Promises have strong opinions about a debate that in other parts of the world is merely an intellectual exercise. Both Palestinian and Israeli children talk about losing playmates to an Israeli soldier's bullet or a Muslim terrorist bombing. That early experience of death can result in an opinion hardened into rock-solid belief that is shocking coming from kids so young.

Out of the mouths of babes comes a surprising mix of compassion and forgiveness, but also rage and violence. Filmmakers B.Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro and Carlos Bolado jump in an often-chaotic manner from the settler encampments on the West Bank to the heart of Jerusalem to the refugee camps where generations of Palestinians have lived since the '60s.

Some of the most reasonable opinions in Promises are expressed by the twin brothers Yarko and Daniel, secular residents of Jerusalem who look around at the bitter hatreds around them — many of them fueled by extremist religion — and respond with an understandable fear and disgust. The twins are the most apolitical of the seven children interviewed, and their skepticism regarding their country's bullying politics tends to be echoed by the film, which presents an honest and disturbing portrait of Israeli aggression.

Anxious to represent at least some of the variety in Jewish opinion, Promises also focuses on Moishe, whose family lives in a West Bank settlement. Moishe has the self-righteous, cocky air of someone twice his age, whether relaxing like a mini-potentate as his sister sets the table for the Sabbath dinner or talking about "the Arabs" like some form of vermin always threatening invasion.

And for every extremist Jew, notes Promises, there is an extremist Muslim like Mahmoud. With his angel face and delicate blue eyes, Mahmoud is an unlikely militant, but ask him about Jewish claims to land and his temper ignites with a scary instantaneousness.

Promises is an often scattershot film that might have been more effective if the number of subjects had been whittled down. Its determination to make sure a fair number of sides of the conflict are represented can bog the film down.

By the film's second half, the directors are trying to figure out a way to unite these children on two different sides of the issue. The diplomatic summit of twins Yarko and Daniel in Palestinian refugee Faraj's living room is naive for suggesting that one day of play and talk can change this conflict. It is also psychologically necessary considering all the previous gloom and doom.

And while there are many extreme opinions expressed in Promises, on more than several occasions these children can soften and mellow when presented with a real-life example of the "Other." Several of the Arab kids take a shine to co-director B.Z. Goldberg and take a vacation from their extremist views to make a special exception for their new Jewish friend. Promises suggests that knowing one's enemy can make all the difference in the world in terms of greater understanding, but that an unfortunate effect of the checkpoints and segregated neighborhoods in modern Israel make ever knowing one's neighbor an increasingly difficult proposition.