Making Promises

An excerpt from Stories Make the World by Stephen Most

Since the beginning of human history, stories have helped people make sense of their lives and their world. Today, an understanding of storytelling is invaluable as we seek to orient ourselves within a flood of raw information and an unprecedented variety of supposedly true accounts. In Stories Make the World, award-winning screenwriter Stephen Most offers a captivating, refreshingly heartfelt exploration of how documentary filmmakers and other storytellers come to understand their subjects and cast light on the world through their art. Drawing on the author’s decades of experience behind the scenes of television and film documentaries, this is an indispensable account of the principles and paradoxes that attend the quest to represent reality truthfully.


                                                     MAKING PROMISES

The first film I worked on about Israel and Palestine aimed at showing the humanity of representative groups in that conflict through the portrayal of children who live within half an hour’s drive from each other. Its major characters are secular Israeli twin boys in a north Jerusalem neighborhood; an ultra-Orthodox boy in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; a religious Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem; a girl and boy living in Deheisha, a refugee camp near Bethlehem; and a religious boy from the Beit El settlement near Ramallah in the West Bank. This film, which was produced before the second intifada broke out in September, 2000, takes its viewers from one location to another and from one child to another with B.Z. Goldberg, an Israeli, as the driver and on-camera guide.

The Lonely Planet guide to Israel and Palestine refers to Promises as an Israeli production, but it was made by B.Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro, and Carlos Bolado in Berkeley, California. I was their researcher and consulting writer. The production of Promises required numerous trips from the Bay Area to the Middle East. Shoot after shoot, editing proceeded without solving a structural dilemma: there was no third act. The stories of the seven children moved alternatively along parallel tracks without an overarching story to be resolved. That seemed in keeping with documentary integrity given the film’s implicit subject: the chasm that divides Jews from Palestinians in that region. Some funders wanted the children to get together to project an image of peace: an adventure, for example, in which they help each other climb out of a gully, pulling cooperatively on ropes, situational solidarity overcoming instilled hostility. B.Z. rejected those ideas, insisting, “The whole point is that they do not meet. It is a very romantic Jewish-American wish that they meet. There are millions of dollars poured into projects every year to get the kids to meet. But the truth is they cannot, they do not, they don’t want to. That’s the truth! And that’s what we want to show in the film.”

It was also true, nonetheless, that some of the children had shown genuine curiosity about their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. “What might happen that could lead some of these kids to meet?” I asked. As a thought experiment, we discussed the possibilities. Faraj, who was growing up in a refugee camp, said he wanted to be a journalist. What if he could interview one or more of the Jewish children? That was not a real possibility, B.Z. pointed out: there was no local paper Faraj could write for. But chance favors the prepared mind. During the next shoot, while being interviewed, Faraj inquired about the Israeli twins, Yarko and Daniel, and he asked B.Z., “Do you have their telephone number?”


Faraj JS.jpg

Faraj                                                                                                                                    Photo by Justine Shapiro

The call was arranged as soon as cameras could record the conversation on both ends. The result was an invitation for the twins to visit Faraj and his friend Sanabel in Deheisha. Their encounter in the refugee camp was poignant in part because of the hospitality Sanabel’s family extended to the Israeli boys and the pleasure the children took in playing together. Their awareness of the barriers that keep them apart, along with the likelihood that they would never see each other again, give this moment in the film an undertow of sadness.

Sanabel JS.jpg

Sanabel                                                                                                                                                                 Photo by Justine Shapiro

When B.Z. Goldberg and Justine Shapiro began their work on Promises , fifty years had passed since Israel became a state. They were among many who hoped that a new generation of Israelis, born in the Middle East, would find a path toward reconciliation with their Arab neighbors. As soon as Promises was nominated for an Academy Award, Justine arranged for Yarko, Daniel, Faraj and Sanabel to travel to Hollywood for the occasion. If Promises s did win the Oscar, they would join her and B.Z. onstage, dramatizing the possibility that Israelis and Palestinians need not be enemies.

But by then, the second intifada had erupted, and one of Sanabel’s closest friends had been killed by Israeli soldiers. A television interview Sanabel gave Bob Simon of CBS News on 60 Minutes created the impression that reconciliation was impossible. Asked whether she had taken part in any of the hostilities, Sanabel said she had not. Then Simon asked if anyone close to her had been killed or injured. Sanabel began to cry. How does she feel, Simon asked, when she sees on TV that suicide bombers have killed Israeli children? Sometimes she wishes she were a suicide bomber, Sanabel replied, because then she would be part of her country’s liberation.

kids_r1_c01.gifThis emotional exchange was effective television. Simon interviewed Sanabel skillfully, making her relive emotions about her friend’s death, then drawing from her an incendiary statement. Viewers might well conclude that if this girl, with her beautiful, innocent face, can see herself as a suicide bomber, any Palestinian could be a terrorist. That is exactly the perception that stokes the conflict, fueling hatred and fear on both sides. But when Sanabel, in Los Angeles with the filmmakers, the twins and their mother, saw the interview, she was upset. “Anyone who wants to understand how I really feel wouldn’t from this,” she said.

“Is that what you think, what you said?” Yarko asked her.

“The situation is going from bad to worse in Palestine,” Sanabel replied, “and this pushes us to become martyrs. The constant shelling, demolition of homes, and stealing of land—should I just be silent?”

“It’s clear the Palestinians are frustrated,” said Yarko, “but is this the solution?”

“There are two things that I can imagine Sanabel would feel,” B.Z. ventured. “On the one hand is to have a person who says ‘I am ready, I am going to kill Jewish people for my country. Just give me the explosives and I’m going now.’ On the other hand, I imagine someone who says, ‘Sometimes I am so angry that I want to go and kill people.’ But then I think about it and I realize, ‘I don’t want to die. I want to live. I love life. And I don’t want to kill innocent people. But I feel so frustrated, I don’t know what to do.'”

“It’s that one, the second thing he said,” Sanabel exclaimed. “When I did that interview, I was feeling very isolated. I didn’t feel any support, especially from Jews. But when I met Yarko, Daniel and Hana again, I realized there are people who want peace.”


Co-Directors B.Z. Goldberg, Justine Shapiro and Carlos Bolado

Hours before the ceremony was to begin, B.Z., Justine, Sanabel and the twins practiced the words they would have spoken had Promises won the best documentary award: “The killings on both sides must end.” “An occupying nation cannot be free.” Their presence together on the stage before an audience of more than a billion people, had it occurred, would have conveyed more than words. Like the visit of the twins to Deheisha in Promises , they would have embodied the possibility that human connection, especially between young people, can transcend the conflict between their leaders and their nationalities. The scene in Deheisha that brought them together for the first time had not occurred spontaneously. It was anticipated and arranged. But what happened was real, enabling the documentary to provide an antidote to polarizing images that build ratings for mainstream media and to give the public a basis for hope instead of despair.

(Reprinted courtesy of Stephen Most and Berghahn Books, copyright 2017.)

MostStories.jpgStories Make the World is an insightful look into the craft of documentary filmmaking that should be required reading for media students. Story and honesty are needed now more than ever in an era of ‘fake news,’ half-truths, and technical virtuosity.” · John de Graaf, Director of Affluenza and fifteen other national PBS documentaries


“Stephen Most’s take on nonfiction storytelling is unique, compelling, and wonderfully expressed.” · Alexa Dilworth, Publishing Director and Senior Editor, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University


Read the book’s Introduction here.

Author Events are set for Thursday, August 3 at Readers Books in Sonoma and Friday, August 4 at the Mendocino Book Company in Ukiah. A signing and film screening of Most’s film Nature’s Orchestra at Point Reyes Books is to be announced for a date in September.

Read filmmaker David L. Brown’s review of Stories Make the World here.

Stephen Most wrote a blog about his experience at the book’s launch.

The book is currently available in both print from your local bookstore and as an E-Book. Online sources for both formats.

Many of the films discussed in the book are available at public libraries or for rental/purchase on DVD or streaming at Video Project.

220px-Stephen_Most.jpgStephen Most, author of Stories Make the World, Reflections on Storytelling and the Art of the Documentary, published by Berghahn Books in 2017. He writes plays, books, and documentary screenplays. He is the writer or contributing writer of four Academy Award-nominated film. He adapted and produced a film based on his previous book, River of Renewal, Myth and History in the Klamath Basin (2006) which won a “best documentary” award at the American Indian Film Festival. Most also wrote and produced Nature’s Orchestra about musician and soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause

And shown in the PBS series “Natural Heroes” in 2016. He has also written Oil On Ice, an hour-long documentary about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; The Greatest Good, a history of the U. S. Forest Service; A Land Between Rivers, a documentary history of central California; Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time and The Bridge So Far: A Suspense Story, both of which won “best documentary” Emmys; Wonders of Nature for the “Great Wonders of the World” series, also won an Emmy for best special non-fiction program; co-writer on the Academy Award nominated Berkeley in the Sixties; and Consulting Writer and Researcher for Promises, winner of Emmys for best documentary and outstanding background analysis and research
Additionally he wrote the “Theater of History” for the permanent exhibit of the Washington State History Museum: more than ninety audio voices spoken by characters from various aspects of the State’s history represented by American Indian masks, monochromatic mannequins, and photographs on stage sets and in dioramas, and video scripts for a climate change exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

His play A Free Country, which was produced by the Seattle Group Theatre in 1997, is based on the characters in the Hooverville shack diorama. Most’s other plays include Poe, Medicine Show, Raven’s Seed, Watershed, A Free Country, and Forces of Nature. In addition, he has written plays for and with the Organic Theatre, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the Dell’Arte Players Company.

Visit his website.

The movie Promises played theatrically in 2001 before being broadcast nationally on PBS as part of the POV series. It was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Emmy for Best Documentary Feature among its many awards and film festival showings.

A DVD including a 2004 follow-up program called Promises: Four Years On and other special features is available in many public libraries and for purchase at the movie’s Official Website. It is also available on iTunes

“Extraordinary! Intensely personal and insightful —a humanist’s dream.”
____ —Julie Salamon, The New York Times

“Stunning and powerful! Should not be missed. Their acts of camaraderie transcend politics and ethnicity.”
____ —Howard Rosenberg, Los Angeles Times

“Promises is a work of genius. It is the most compelling presentation of the conflict I have ever seen. At times painfully honest and at times downright hilarious…this film is of utmost relevance today and will be relevant for the next 20 years to come.”
____ —Itzik Yosha, former entertainment editor, Yediot Ahronot (Israel’s largest daily paper) and senior producer, Israeli Television

“A beautiful, intelligent and achingly personal film, which offers a fresh look at the Middle East crisis through the eyes of its biggest victims—the children of both sides. Chilling insights into both sides, and a humanistic perspective that transcends politics.”
____ —Deirdre English, teacher at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism, author, former editor of Mother Jones Magazine

Read a selection of additional reviews here.

The POV website for Promises offers an interview with the filmmakers, history of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, a lesson plan (“Understanding History, Religion, and Politics in Jerusalem and Beyond”) for use in schools, and a guide to hosting an event with a screening. Check it out here.  

Virtual classroom visits can often be arranged.

A 2002 60 Minutes follow-up.

Image result for promises film project faraj

A 2012 interview with Faraj after having moved to New Jersey.


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