An interview with Gili Dolev on Promise Land

Richard Raskin

Do you recall how the idea for making this film first came to you? And did the idea evolve considerably from your initial conception of the film to the final product?

I spent three months in Israel in the summer of 2000, at the height of the Israeli Palestinian peace process (August 2000). An ending for this ongoing conflict seemed near as the leaders of Palestine, Israel and the US met for a final session of peace talks at Camp David. But the results were far from positive when the two sides couldn't reach an agreement and less than a month later (September 2000), violence erupted. The scale and intensity of those demonstrations (which would soon be called the 2nd Intifada) were of a kind we had never seen before. For the first time Israeli Arabs (citizens of Israel unlike the Palestinians) began demonstrating in the heart of the country, blocking roads, throwing stones and petrol bombs, and even shooting firearms on several occasions. In clashes with the police, twelve Israeli Arabs died. Those events were a catalyst that pushed me into making Promise Land. The peace bubble burst with many people's hopes. And so had mine.

I felt an urge to comment on the new situation, and urge that was stronger than I had ever felt before and so I wrote a spontaneous draft of the screenplay in Hebrew. It described two young men, an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew, of the same age, both celebrating their birthday on that day. They were both under siege at two opposing sides of the barricade, each delivering a monologue to the viewers. Throughout the story their opinion evolved from patriotism to helplessness to the final realization of death. They will both lose their lives at the barricade. I was soon to discover that this draft was written in a way that wouldn't make enough sense to an international audience, not familiar with all the small nuances of this conflict, and so I moved on to a screen play in English that deals with the issue through the eyes of six twenty-year-olds, all celebrating their birthday at that day, each representing a different sector in the ethnically and politically complex Israeli and Palestinian societies. At that stage I also decided to make the film a musical to lighten up the mood of the film and to deliver the harsh message with a spoon of sugar.

The usual term is "promised land" but in your title, that formula is changed to "promise Land." Was there a particular reason for that change?

The reason for that is to do a subtle twist on the usual formula, saying that it's not a land promised to someone (in the Old Testament, Moses leads the Hebrews to the Promised Land, promised to them by God), but rather it is a LAND OF PROMISES. Promises in the plural since we've experienced so many promises and so many disappointments.

In the first and main section of the film, you present - in addition to the NCC journalist - six individual characters: three Palestinians (Omar the waiter, Achmed the suicide bomber and Ali the rioter) and three Israelis (Eitan, Aaron the settler and Gaddy the soldier). In the final section, you also have one Arab (Man A) and one Israeli (Man B). I imagine you took pains to maintain as perfect a symmetry or balance as you possibly could, in your portrayal of Palestinians and Israelis. Could you comment on this?

You are absolutely right! It was a pain in the neck to make sure the film is as balanced and objective as possible. Since I'm an Israeli and have a stake and a side in this conflict, maintaining balance wasn't a simple thing to achieve but nevertheless crucial if the film was to be taken seriously. If I were to sympathize with one side more than the other, I would be making propaganda, as I see it, and consequently putting off many viewers (including myself, funnily enough).

Is it my imagination or does the Israeli who insults Omar and calls him a "stinking Arab" look and even sound like Ariel Sharon?

This is a funny one, and you're not the first person to say that. Well, the truth is that I never intended to make this guy in the film Ariel Sharon, but I agree that he resembles the Israeli leader in looks and attitude. At the time I designed this section of the film, Barak was still the Prime Minister, but Sharon was thought to be the person responsible of starting the 2nd Intifada with his controversial visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000. Since we create with our subconscious as well as with our conscious mind, something must have slipped through. I'm not a big fan of Sharon, as you can probably imagine.

Your portrayal of the journalist, Barbara Parker, is fairly moderate - all things considered - in that she doesn't really favor one side over the other. Is that the way you see for example CNN's coverage of the Middle East in general?

She doesn't favor either side but she's a controversy freak and will do anything to get a good story. This model of the self-absorbed, over-ambitious reporter seems to me to be true to the kind of journalism we see on CNN and other international networks. It's not about favoring one side or another, which often changes anyway due to the network agenda and changing circumstances, but has more to do with the nature of this business where even news channels have to entertain their viewers, in this age of multi-channel options and mass-media.

The two chess players at the end of the film differ from the six Israelis and Arabs presented earlier. I would be interested in hearing in your own words the way in which you see the two old guys as distinct from the other characters.

© 2002 SellOut Pictures/Dolev)

The old men at the end of the film represent the silent majority: those people on both sides of the conflict who have moderate views and would rather get on with their lives than be involved in any sort of extreme political activity. I believe that the majority of Palestinians and Israelis want to live quietly, but their normality has been hijacked by extremists on both sides.

The elders are more experienced. They have lived through wars and bloodshed and know that this isn't a viable solution to the conflict. At the same time they understand that idyllic peace with open borders won't happen either. The solution that the film delivers through the old men is a cease-fire, where the opposing sides don't like each other but are forced to live side by side without killing one another. The two end up arguing right until the end of the film as an analogy to the conflict which will be debated forever. People in the audience have to find their own truth in this argument or dialogue.

Can you tell me anything about the ways in which "Promise Land" has been received by Israeli and Palestinian audiences?

The Jerusalem Film Festival was the only festival to screen Promise Land in the Middle East and we have not as yet been approached by broadcasters from the region either. To be fair, I should add that no other festivals have rejected us; there simply aren't that many film or animation festivals over there. There was a short article in one of the major Israeli papers which appeared on their website as well. It provoked very strong reactions from people who hadn't seen the film. Nevertheless, to them I was a traitor, not deserving to be called a Jew or an Israeli, and who should be hunted down by the Mossad, and have my citizenship revoked. I found this ridiculous. Sad. A few weeks later the same paper published a much bigger article about the film in the weekend supplement. It was better researched and well balanced, but received no response.

Since Promise Land was launched in August 2002, a number of Israelis and Palestinians who have seen the film contacted me to express their support.

Do you see filmmakers as having a special role to play today with respect to the conflict in the Middle East?

Films don't change the world, but if my film influenced even a few people to revise their view of the conflict, I feel that I've contributed to making the situation a bit better. It is important to have films that deal with this issue simply because they encourage dialogue and debate, in a very "locked" political situation.

Would you say that storytelling in an animated short is essentially the same as in a live action short? Or does animation change the basic ground-rules for storytelling (if such ground-rules exist)?

I see myself as a filmmaker rather than an animator. The only ground-rule that I believe exists in filmmaking is communication. A film has to engage the audience. It can be an intellectual, emotional or even an entertaining type of engagement, but it has to be there. If the viewers leave the cinema unaffected, if they didn't feel a thing, to my mind, the film has failed. In that respect animation is no different than any other form of filmmaking. It is merely another tool.

Since animation is further removed from life than is live-action, it gives the filmmaker greater freedom. Ideas that would be too offensive to an audience in a live-action film are more easily accepted in animation. In the case of Promise Land one could hardly see how a rapping suicide bomber, an Arab waiter masturbating into a plate of humus, or a Jewish nine-year-old firing a machinegun, would work as live-action. In other words in animation, you can get away with murder…

Is there anything else you would like to add about Promise Land?

Promise Land was made primarily for audiences less informed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The purpose was to try and offer an alternative view to the one often presented by the general media, and to demonstrate the complexity of the situation to those who see the conflict in terms of black and white. Through portraying strong, sometimes vulgar stereotypes, I have tried to send a simple message, saying: none of the sides is entirely right or wrong, only circumstances separate people and shape their opinions and beliefs.

January 3, 2004

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