TV Review: The Promise – A rare and compelling political drama

Below is my latest (unabridged) piece in Socialist Voice.

The Promise DVD

The Promise DVD

TV Review: A rare and compelling political drama – The Promise by Peter Kosminsky (Channel 4, 2010)
Socialist Voice, March 2011

The Promise (Channel 4) is the latest in a number of programs critical of Israel to have aired on British television over the past few months. However, unlike Jezza Neumann’s Children of Gaza (Ch4 Dispatches), Nurit Kedar’s Concrete (segments of which aired on Ch4 News) and Louis Theroux and the Ultra Zionists (BBC), The Promise is unique in that is a work of serious political fiction. Although one might accuse Jane Corbin’s Death in the Med (BBC Panorama) “investigation” into the flotilla massacre of peddling seriously ridiculous fiction masquerading as serious journalism.

The Promise is a four-part serial telling the story of an 18-year-old Londoner, Erin, who uses her gap year to visit Israel to emotionally support her dual-nationality school friend who has been conscripted into the Israeli military. Just prior to embarking she finds her dying grandfather Len’s diary which details his life as a soldier during World War Two. The diary begins with the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, then sees Len sent to British Mandate Palestine between 1945-48 as British Imperialism prepared the ground for fulfilling the promise of the Balfour Declaration – the creation of the “Jewish state” of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians already living there.

The diary is a narrative device that allows the series to exist in two historical timeframes: Erin’s journey of discovery in Israel/Palestine in 2005 and Len’s experiences in Mandate Palestine. This is an approach that pays off, allowing the director, Peter Kosminsky (himself Jewish), to juxtapose imagery and events from past and present. A striking example is the British policy of destroying the homes of Jewish Zionist militants and Israel’s policy of demolishing the family homes of Palestinian resistance fighters. Also interesting is the comparison drawn between suicide attackers (viewed with revulsion in Israel) and the King David Hotel bombers (widely viewed as heroes). Kosminsky also allows us an insight into how – whatever about British Imperialism – squaddies posted in Mandate Palestine in large part initially sympathised with the idea of a “Jewish homeland”, but by 1948 after seeing comrades die and Palestinians ethnically cleansed, had come to view Zionism with extreme distaste.

The Promise - Len and squadmates in Mandate Palestine

While it is brilliantly acted (by Israelis and Palestinians), scripted and directed, it’s true that The Promise is not without its flaws – both political (e.g. a relative softness on the role of British Imperialism in the Palestinian catastrophe) and dramatic (e.g. an over reliance on unlikely coincidences, though this was probably unavoidably necessary to advance the plot) – overall it is a fantastic piece of political drama, made all the more amazing by virtue of the fact that it aired not as part of a niche film festival, but over four weeks in a prime time slot on a British terrestrial channel.

It is also worth noting that it was shot entirely on location using an Israeli crew – and interestingly the scenes depicting Gaza were shot in Jisr az-Zarqa, one of the poorest villages in Israel, and not coincidentally populated by Palestinian citizens whom the state has effectively abandoned.

If it took many serving British squaddies some three years to change their attitudes towards the racist colonial project called Zionism, it has taken large segments of the world population significantly longer to begin to move in that same direction. However, in recent years there has been something of a sea-change in opinion in relation to Israel. Events like the building of the Wall, the siege of Gaza and the wholesale slaughter of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the murderous attack on the Freedom Flotilla and the increasing repression of progressive forces within Israel itself have increasingly exposed the true Apartheid nature of the Israeli state.

That The Promise could be aired in 2011 is a sign of this shift in opinion, and while it may never have the impact upon collective consciousness as – for example – Roots had when it first aired in the US, it is to be hoped that Kosminsky’s work will reach out, speak to and engage a new audience that were unaware of the great historical and contemporary injustices perpetrated against the people of Palestine.

The Promise is a must see – catch it online at Channel 4oD (www.bit.ly/fyl04i) while you still can, or buy the DVD or Blu-Ray box-set that also has some interesting looking extra features.

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