Sunday, February 13, 2011

peter kosminsky's palestinian-israeli channel 4 drama 'the promise'

above: Eliza (L) and Erin

New TV drama probes human side of Israel-Palestine conflict
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 13 February 2011

At the beginning of British TV station Channel 4’s groundbreaking new drama series “The Promise”, 18-year-old Erin accompanies her mother to a hospital ward where Erin’s elderly grandfather Len lies gravely ill. The sulky teenager, played by Claire Foy, has little sympathy for the comatose grandfather she barely knows, and is repulsed by the signs of his physical decline.

After the hospital visit, Erin and her mother go to Len’s house to sort out his things. Erin comes across a diary that her grandfather kept while serving as a soldier in Palestine after the Second World War. Erin knows nothing of her grandfather’s life as a young man. The large diary, its pages covered with his neat handwriting and crammed with photographs, sparks her curiosity.

When shortly afterwards Erin goes to Israel for the first time at the invitation of her best friend Eliza (Perdita Weeks), a dual UK-Israeli national, she takes Len’s diary with her. She retraces her grandfather’s footsteps and comes see him in a radically new and loving light.

The drama is written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, and the screening of its four weekly 110-minute episodes began last week. The series has a dual time frame, switching between Len’s story as a soldier in 1940s Palestine, and Erin’s present-day experiences in Israel and the West Bank. Both Len and Erin learn about love and betrayal during their time in the Middle East. Len becomes involved with Clara, [pictured] a Jewish refugee from Germany; her father has connections with the underground Jewish movement the Irgun and he opposes the relationship.

Kosminsky brings to the making of “The Promise” an outstanding reputation for hard-hitting TV dramas based on real-life conflicts. His subjects have included ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the Northern Ireland problem, and Muslim radicalization. He has won a string of British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and other awards.

“The Promise” is ambitious in scope, running for a total of some seven and a half hours . It tackles through its two main storylines the complexities of a situation that is more highly-charged, divisive, and resistant to a solution, than almost any other foreign policy issue.

Kosminsky faced the challenge of trying to present the stories as fairly and credibly as possible, while making his characters believable rather than mere ciphers mouthing different positions. Those interviewed during seven years of research included more than 70 former servicemen who had served in Palestine. It is to the credit of Kosminsky and his production team and actors that the series works so well and is utterly gripping.

The characters are three-dimensional and convincing. Kosminsky stresses: “there are no caricatures – all the characters are based on people we met, read about or interviewed.” He adds: “It would do an immense disservice to a complex situation to attempt to over-simplify it.”

Kosminsky insisted on making “The Promise” on location in Israel, despite the difficulties in doing so. By making the film in Israel, “you have the real physical elements –the terrifying wall for example, the white stone, the Bauhaus architecture – and you have the invisible elements, the relationships between Israeli Jews and Arabs in the cast.”

The two leads are established stars of British TV. Claire Foy (26) was the heroine of the series “Little Dorritt” and was in the recent remake of “Upstairs, Downstairs”. She also stars alongside Nicolas Cage in the Hollywood medieval blockbuster “Season of the Witch”.
Foy portrays Erin as a moody vulnerable young woman who is a naïve observer of the Palestine-Israel conflict. She is pale and in fragile health, suffering from epilepsy.

Len is played by Christian Cooke, a 23-year-old actor with a decade of TV roles behind him. Originally from a mining community in the North of England, Len is a thoughtful, decent young man full of humanity.

The reason Eliza goes to Israel is to begin two years of national service. Her well-off parents live there in a villa with a pool near the sea. Her father Max (Ben Miles) is a well-known liberal and ex-general.

Eliza’s brother Paul is played by the well-known Israeli film and stage actor Itay Tiran, who starred in “Lebanon” (2009). Paul derides his father’s “cozy, liberal opposition”, asserting that it actually perpetuates the occupation. Max claims that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East: Paul says it is a military dictatorship.

Eliza explains to Erin that Paul had at one time been pro-military, but after serving as a soldier in the West Bank town of Hebron he has become a “super hardline anti-Zionist” who volunteers for “weird ex-military pressure groups”.

One such group is Combatants for Peace, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian former fighters. Paul takes Erin to a meeting of the group in Nablus addressed by Omar Habash, a former member of the Al Aqsa Brigades who has renounced violence. Omar lives on the Israeli side of the wall, and Paul and Erin give him a lift in Paul’s car. But Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint treat Omar in a most humiliating way and he tells Paul and Erin to drive on without him.

On the way home Paul takes Erin to a café. After they leave he realizes he left his wallet on the table and goes back to retrieve it. The first episode ends with the café exploding in a ball of flame, presumably caused by a suicide bomber.

Omar [pictured] is portrayed by American actor of Lebanese origin, Haaz Sleiman, star of the 2008 film “The Visitor”. Nazareth-born Ali Suliman, star of “Paradise Now” {2005) plays Mohammed Abu-Hassan, with whom Len becomes friendly. Another Palestinian character is Jawda, who is played in old age by Hiam Abbass and as a young woman by Maria Zreik.

Most reviewers in the British media have greeted the series with enthusiasm and high praise. There are predictions that it will win BAFTAs. But comments posted in online editions of newspapers, and in the social media, show that some supporters of Israel are trying to portray the makers of “The Promise” as having an anti-Israel agenda.

And yet Kosminsky has made every effort to put events in 1940s Palestine in the context of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Before being posted as a sergeant to Palestine, Len had taken part in the liberation of Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Erin is reduced to tears when she reads in his diary of the horrors he saw. The series also includes archive footage from the camp.

When Len first arrives in Palestine he is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Jews who are fleeing to Palestine by ship, arriving in a desperate state. He writes in his diary that had he suffered like them he too would want a homeland. But as a result of what he experiences over time, including attacks by Irgun, and his encounters with Palestinian Arabs, he develops a more nuanced attitude.

Kosminsky is highly critical of Britain’s historical role in Palestine. “We were the colonial power. It was for us to leave Palestine in good order.” But Britain “found a quick fix and left. Those who live there are still, daily, dealing with the consequences.”

The director notes certain parallels between the historical and current day situations. For example the British forces blew up certain Jewish houses; today the Israeli Army demolishes Palestinian homes.
below: Omar at Israeli checkpoint

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