Reviewers – Nicholas Houghton and Lynda Woodroffe
You can’t fault The Promise for its ambition. Television can provide a film maker with time to present a great narrative sweep which could never be attempted for the normal, feature-length movie and the writer/director, Peter Kosminsky, has taken every advantage. This four-part, six-hour-long TV film weaves together two storylines, one about the present day Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the other about the campaign for independence by the Jewish settlers in British administered Palestine in the three years after the second World War. The narratives are recounted through fictional characters, with these momentous historical events taking place in the background and, more often the foreground, of their lives.
Erin, a sulky teenager from Manchester has discovered her grandfather’s diary written in 1945-7 when he had been sent, as a young sergeant in the British Army, to Palestine. Erin has a best friend from college, Eliza, who is the daughter of wealthy Israelis. Eliza asks Erin to accompany her to Israel, which she does, bringing with her the diary. Whilst there Erin reads the diary and wants to explore the places and people that are described in it. Suffice it to say this leads her into all-too-predictable danger, especially during visits to Hebron and the Gaza Strip. Her earnest explorations cause her to witness a suicide bomb that injures Eliza’s brother, the destruction of Palestinian homes by Israeli settlers, imprisonment and an attack by Israeli soldiers. Amongst these soldiers is Eliza who has been enlisted on obligatory national service while at home with her parents; odd that she didn’t warn Erin of this before inviting her to stay.
Intercut into Erin’s escapades in Israel and the occupied territories, is the story of her grandfather Len’s experiences in Palestine. With each new adventure for Erin, we see Len plunged into the Zionist terror campaign for an independent Israel, where Jews bombed the King David Hotel and where he and his fellow soldiers were shot in a town square by Israeli terrorists. Like Erin, he put himself into hazardous situations; he befriended Mohammed and his Palestinian family, took a Jewish lover who was a member of a terrorist group and attempted to save the young son of the Palestinian family from Israeli snipers. For this, he was imprisoned for some years for going against orders.
‘The Promise’ refers to Zionist justification for returning to the Promised Land, but also to a promise Len made to the Palestinian family to look after their only son. Sadly, the son is shot and dies, holding the key to the family home that his father had given him for safekeeping. Len took the key and put it in his diary. Erin finds this key and, through bomb blasts and gunfire, she bravely risks her life to return it to Mohammed’s daughter who is now old and ailing. When she travels back home, she visits the grandfather in hospital and tells him she found Mohammed’s daughter and has returned the key to the family. The story ends with the old man silently weeping.
Although the plot is laden with coincidences there is a narrative drive that makes for compelling viewing. All the same, after a while, doubts begin to emerge. The dialogue sounds stilted and lines are clearly written to spell out as loudly as possible the message that the viewer will have been getting all along. Kosminsky claims that this film isn’t taking sides, but leaving the viewers to make up their own minds. On the contrary, it has all the subtlety of a Soviet era propaganda film. The messages are seen and then spoken by the characters and just in case the message still hasn’t got through, spoken again. The Israelis have gone from victims of the Holocaust to oppressors and from being terrorists to being victims of (Palestinian) terrorism. There is, it screams, a dreadful symmetry with the founders of Israel having been terrorists now being subjected to similar tactics by the Palestinians. The trouble is there isn’t quite that symmetry because the Zionist terrorists were carrying on their campaign against an imperial power: the British. Drama doesn’t have to be balanced in the way that current affairs on television need to be but good drama always presents more than one side of an argument.
It was also disquieting to see so many clichés about Jews being presented. Every single Israeli in this film was rich. We are not Jewish, but we are well aware that after two thousand years of anti-Semitism, these kinds of slights can cause offence. Moreover, this blunderbuss approach lets the Israelis off the hook. There is, to say the least, a debate to be had about the continual expansion of Israeli settlers into occupied territories that is undermined by this resort to a parody of Jewishness.
The film’s themes of love, hate, betrayal, passion, paranoia, guilt and projection on to another of the parts of oneself one can’t face up to, make rich pickings for anyone interested in psychotherapy. An irony is that Jung’s caution about fanaticism seems so apt in the case of modern Israel: that people become the very thing they vehemently oppose. It’s ironic to use Jung in this context, not only considering his record in the 1930s, but also since he is one of the very few pioneers of psychotherapy who wasn’t Jewish. Yet it does seem to fit.
The State of Israel and its relation to its neighbours and the West is immensely complicated. Deleuze pointed out that justice comes into being out of injustice, because the rule of law is of necessity based on the seizure of power. Yet there is another way. Power can be relinquished. Life is about letting go as well as asserting oneself. The quiet person can be the most assertive. No film could capture all the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but a less ambitious and more nuanced film might in fact have revealed much more.
The Promise can still be viewed on: www.channel4.com
Lynda Woodroffe trained and worked as a secondary science teacher from 1974, a researcher at London University from 1991 and is now an Integrative counsellor in North West London.
Dr Nicholas Houghton is an artist, art educator, writer and also has expertise in social science research methods. He is an associate editor of the International Journal of Education through Art. He lives and works in London.