Three Promises: Home movies of a war zone

Three Promises, from Yousef Srouji, is the story of a family living through a very difficult situation—Palestine, during the Second Intifada. It is told through family videos taken by his mother, Suha, with voiceover commentary from Yousef’s interviews with her.

The family lived in the village of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. Some of the footage is typical family home movies, like celebrating Christmas with Santa passing out gifts. But when Israeli forces retaliated during the Second Intifada, she also would tape the distant (and sometimes getting closer) battles. It was only fifteen years later that Yousef found the footage, which led him to a new understanding of the time and what the family went through.

The footage Yousef chooses shows two different aspects of the family. In some of the footage (especially from before the Intifada began), we see him and his sister having typical childhoods. But when the battles begin, we see the children’s anxiety. Fear is very present in their faces, and we frequently hear them pleading to move to a safer place in the house. Later, during a time of living in an abandoned school in Bethlehem, they pour over pictures of their old neighborhood and the bullet holes in their house.

The promises referenced in the title, are three times when Suha bargained with God during these battles. Even though she says they weren’t religious (but we do see evidence that they were at least nominally Christian), she makes promises to God that, if they survive, she will take the children and leave Palestine. She makes the promise three times, but when things settle down, she renegotiates. In time the family will leave, becoming a part of the Palestinian diaspora.

The film is not about the policies or politics of either Israel or Palestine. There is neither praise nor condemnation for the fighting that is going on in their neighborhood. Rather this is a personal remembrance of roots—roots that had to be severed. It also gives Yousef insight into his mother’s struggle to leave her homeland. Those promises were hard for her to keep because it meant leaving the only life she has known.

Those kinds of decisions are being made in many places throughout the world—often because of war, but sometimes for economic or societal issues that make it impossible for people to continue where they are. Those who must leave, sometimes have nowhere to go. But even if a new life awaits, there is a loss of what may have also been a place of happiness and safety.

For Yousef’s family that time and place were stored away on film. Finding that film gave him, and us, a chance to see the struggle that families go through in such times.

Three Promises is in select theaters.

Photos courtesy of Tikkun Olam Productions.

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