Foreign Policy Blogs

An Interview with Peter Kosminsky, Creator of the Promise

 

British filmmaker Peter Kosminsky’s newest project is entitled The Promise. It tells the story of Erin, a young British girl straight out of high school who chooses to spend part of her gap year in Israel. Shortly before leaving, she finds the diary of her grandfather, Len, a man whom she barely knows. While traveling throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, we are taken on both her journey, and that of her grandfather, who had been stationed as a British soldier in British Mandate Palestine following World War II, remaining there until the British withdrawal. Both of their stories are long and complicated; each meet and befriend Jews and Arabs in the region and both are pushed to consider with whom their allegiances lie.

I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Kosminsky some questions about the four-part mini-series. The interview was conducted via email. His answers are as follows. I added a few notes in parenthesis, after the fact. These were intended merely for clarifications purposes.

First off, why this conflict? Have you long been drawn to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or were you chasing the story?

PK:  Some years ago, I made a film for the BBC – which was released in the United States under the title Peacekeepers — about British soldiers trying to keep the peace in Bosnia in 1992-3.  After that film was broadcast in the United Kingdom, I received a letter from an old British soldier.  Most of the letter detailed his responses to our programme but at the end there was a paragraph which referred to his own military experience as a British peacekeeping soldier in Palestine in the three years following the Second World War.  He described how that deployment, which was not a success, was never subsequently referred to.   He and his fellow veterans were not allowed to march as a unit on Remembrance Day.   They had no memorial.   They felt as if there was an attempt to erase their mission from history.   In his letter, that veteran effectively dared to me to tell that story.  It took me over 10 years, but in the end I managed to do it.  In making the film, we interviewed more than 80 of the surviving veterans of that three-year deployment in what was then British-controlled Palestine.   Our research team spent many months in the British National Archives and in the Imperial War Museum, researching the period 1945-1948 in Palestine.   Although the resulting film is fictional, we did our very best to faithfully reflect the impressions we picked up both from our own primary research and from the written materials we had spent so long assembling.  What came through terribly strongly, in all the research, was the intense goodwill felt by the British soldiers towards Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression in Eastern Europe at the end of the war.  Having either witnessed the concentration camps directly, or spoken to those that had, these British soldiers were absolutely committed when they arrived to the concept of a place of safety for the Jewish people.   But by the end of those three short years, that attitude had almost completely changed.   Part of the purpose of the film was to try to understand why.

I read that you spent ten years working on this project and that it was filmed on location — apparently 160 of them! How? Did Israel know what you were working on? Did the Palestinians? Was either side supportive? Suspicious? Did you change anything in the script to gain access? Were you asked to?

PK:  We certainly didn’t change anything in the script to gain access, nor were we asked to.  We were very open about the film we were seeking to make and of course it must be remembered that the film was made by an almost entirely Israeli crew and shot entirely in Israel, using both Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israeli actors.  Israel does not require filmmakers arriving from overseas to present their scripts for vetting.  Assuming we were able to negotiate the not insubstantial practical and financial hurdles, we were free to go ahead and make our film.  Having said that, certain obstacles were placed in our way.  Whenever we requested anything, such as a location or a piece of equipment, from the Israeli state or the Israeli Defense Forces, the answer was always no.  But, primarily because of the ingenuity of our local Israeli film crew, we were able to circumvent most of these difficulties.  One of the complexities of making this film entirely in Israel was that we were seeking to depict what is still a very live political issue with Jewish Israelis and Palestinians who are living their actual lives in that troubled region.  This led to a number of complexities.  Jewish Israeli actors playing soldiers in the occupied territories had often themselves fulfilled very similar rôles while in uniform during their own national service.  And Israeli Palestinians playing Palestinians in the occupied territories in our film had often been on the receiving end of what they might term harsh treatment from the Israeli Defense Forces.  So, the gap between our film and the reality of their experiences was often quite narrow and this did lead to tensions on the set.

Both of the main characters saw and participated in some amazing – and horrific – events. Len was the consummate soldier. Erin however started out as just a young girl on holiday, happy to go shopping and sit by the pool. But as the story begins to peak, she continues to put herself into more and more precarious situations, almost always with a stark naiveté to her actions. I guess I am wondering, in a word, do you see Erin as brave or stupid?

PK: I tried to depict Erin realistically as an 18-year-old British schoolgirl in her gap year. My daughters were about that age when I was writing The Promise and I tried to base her character, and the character of Eliza her friend, on their circle of friends.  I don’t think Erin was either particularly brave or stupid.  Certainly she was naive, and probably quite arrogant.  She has a short attention span and tends not to take very much on trust.   She doesn’t like to be told things and is intolerant of older people patronising her – as she would see it.  I did try to imagine her as a person with a strongly developed sense of right and wrong.  If she thinks something is wrong, she’s not afraid to say so.  If she thinks that wrong needs righting, she doesn’t expect somebody else to right it for her.  Above all, in the contradictory way that is quite common amongst young people of that age, she also – despite her apparent arrogance – has very low self-esteem.  Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, life has taught her that she usually fails at the things she attempts.  For that reason, she has become reluctant to attempt them.  She sets out on her quest, mostly because of her growing fascination with her grandfather and his story, with absolutely no clear goal or hope of success.  She cries in the final scene with the old woman, (JAWDA), in Gaza because, against all hope and expectation, she has succeeded in completing Len’s unfinished task, fulfilling his broken promise.  She had never expected to succeed and the fact that she has done so overwhelms her momentarily.  From this comes a steely determination to see the matter through.  If any of this is bravery then yes, Erin is brave.  Paul certainly thinks she is, as we hear in one of the final scenes of the film. (Paul is an Israeli whom Erin meets. He served in the IDF and is now a member of Combatants for Peace.)

The story is seen and lived through the eyes of Erin and Len, both British and without real ties to the region. Why did you choose to tell this story through the eyes of foreigners?

PK:  The main reason for telling the story in the way I did is the one I gave earlier: the fact that the project was prompted by a letter from a British soldier.  But, for me as a British writer, I felt more comfortable negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict as an outsider, as a foreigner.  I have always been interested in the particular difficulties facing peacekeeping soldiers who are forced to spectate on other people’s wars.  I also looked at the Bosnian conflict in this way.  Len came out of this approach, with Erin as his latter-day counterpart.

When Erin confronted the settler women in Hebron who were verbally attacking the Palestinian woman, Paul dragged her off saying that she was only making things worse for the Palestinian. This same sentiment came up when Erin was reluctant to leave Omar detained at the checkpoint. (Omar was a Christian Palestinian citizen of Israel whom Erin meets. He was a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and is now a member of Combatants for Peace.) Do you think that someone like Erin can bring good to a conflict zone or can they only cause trouble?

PK:  I’m reluctant to offer opinions about these matters.  I don’t really feel qualified to do so.  I wrote within the narrow confines of the research we carried out over many years and would prefer to let the film speak for me in this respect.  I will say this however. In the scene you describe, where Erin witnesses a vicious argument between a Jewish Israeli settler and a Palestinian living in Hebron, the two parts were played by experienced Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israeli actors. The scene was extremely difficult but I thought they achieved it brilliantly, generating a visceral aggression.  Afterwards, the two actors in question wished to be photographed together, arm in arm.  “The image you’ll never see in The Promise,” they said.  Later, both actors came to me separately to tell me that this was the first time in their relatively long careers that they had played a scene with an actor from the opposing community.  They had never done it.  It had taken a foreign film crew and in particular a foreign director, blundering in where angels fear to tread as it were, to ask them to do this thing.  To me, it seemed normal, logical.  For them, it was unheard of.  So, depending upon your point of view, maybe an outsider can bring something new and fresh to a complex and intractable situation.

In general, what do you think the role of foreigners is, or should be, in this or any other conflict?

PK:  I’m not sure. Probably just to try to help and encourage the warring parties to find a solution for themselves, rather than seeking to impose one by force or diktat from outside.

In some ways, the scene with Eliza’s grandfather seemed to have been added by committee. It felt somehow out of place. That being said, it was a strong and interesting way to add some nuance to a very complicated event. But the grandfather, and thus the story, left out the fact that the Irgun (in which he served) phoned in warnings to the staff of the King David Hotel on the morning of the bombing. While this is no justification, it seemed strange to me that he did not mention this in his explanation to Erin. Why was that?

PK:   The scene with Immanuel Katz was there in the story from its earliest conceptions.  When I carried out one of my research trips to the region, I met a veteran of the Irgun at the Irgun museum in Tel Aviv.  I recorded the conversation.  Many of Katz’s remarks and attitudes came from that interview.  My mother’s family was decimated during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Many of her close family members did not survive.  I wrote Katz’s speech from the heart, with my own family’s experience very much in my mind.  As far as the warning issued by the Irgun is concerned, I’m sure you know that sources differ on that point.  Len, of course, would not have been aware of any telephoned warning, given his experiences on that day.  And, as you will have seen, the explosion at the KDH is shown solely from his point of view.  In fact, all events in the film are seen either through Len or Erin’s eyes.  Katz was seeking to make a different point in his conversation with Eliza and Erin.  He wasn’t seeking to justify the KDH bombing directly, rather attempting to make a broader point about the determination of the Jewish people never again to expose themselves to the possibility of genocide.

Paul’s  father, Max, seems to have been one of the architects of the Peace Now movement, without which it could be argued there would today be no Combatants for Peace, of which Paul is now a member. Max is liberal, Paul much more so. Max argues that the fight should be happening in the courts and in elections, not on the street. Paul gives a scathing, and seemingly unanswered, rebuttal to this argument. (Paul essentially argues that by using the courts to fight injustices one at a time, it justifies all the remaining injustices.) When it comes to making a difference, in a conflict zone or at home, are you a Max or a Paul? Please explain.

PK:   I wouldn’t class myself as either.  I am a Brit and this was a conversation between two Israelis.  I read fairly widely on this point and we interviewed many Israelis while preparing the Paul/Max scenes.  The debate between left and right in Israel is a familiar one.  I was more interested in mounting a debate between two shades of opinion from one of those perspectives.  Having witnessed this within my own immediate family, I was interested to see how actually quite narrow political differences of opinion could be used to fashion the battle ground between a father and son who are actually arguing about other, more personal matters – matters to do with power and authority within the family unit, to do with Paul’s lack of self-esteem following his imprisonment, to do with growing up and breaking free from parental intellectual dominance.

While there are some nice elements to the story’s ending, it certainly does not end on a hopeful note. Are you hopeful?

PK:   Not really very hopeful, no.  Having spent some time in the region, it is hard to see how a Palestinian state can now be fashioned from the patchwork of no-go territories settlers have created in what the wider international community views as Palestinian lands.  And while the United States continues to take such a wildly partisan rôle in the region, it is hard to see how any real progress is possible.   It is for this reason that I am so delighted that HULU has made The Promise available to an American audience.

What do you hope people will take away from The Promise?

PK:   At the end of the Second World War, following the attempted extermination of the Jewish race, the nascent Israeli state appears to have enjoyed the support and pretty much undiluted goodwill of the entire developed world.  In sixty short years, this goodwill seems to have been lost, some might say squandered.  Israel is feared and loathed in equal measure by many of its immediate neighbours, viewed as operating beyond the bounds of international law by many other states that once wished it well.  I hope The Promise might go some small way to help a 21st century audience understand how such a strange, sad state of affairs might have come about.

The Promise is available now at http://www.hulu.com/the-promise

Follow me on twitter @jlemonsk

 

Author

Josh Klemons
Josh Klemons

Josh Klemons has an MA in International Peace and Conflict Resolution with a concentration in the Middle East from American University. He has lived, worked and studied in Israel and done extensive traveling throughout the region. He once played music with Hadag Nachash.

He now works as a digital storyteller/strategist with brands on finding, honing and telling their stories online. Follow him on twitter @jlemonsk and check him out at www.joshklemons.com.

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