The Promise: Interview with Peter Kosminsky

JNews takes a closer look at the British Mandate in Palestine and the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which forms the backdrop to The Promise, and asks the creator some questions about the much-discussed drama.

Thursday, 24 March, 2011 - 10:22
London, UK

London-born director, producer and writer Peter Kosminsky is well-known for his TV documentaries and dramas dealing with British military involvement in other politically sensitive regions such as Northern Ireland (Shoot to Kill) and the Falklands/Malvinas (The Falklands War: The Untold Story). He won critical acclaim for a two-part drama on British peacekeeping forces in Bosnia in 1992-3 (Warriors), and more recently made another on the death of biological weapons inspector David Kelly and the controversy over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (the Government Inspector).

The Promise is Kosminsky’s latest creation, and it continues his trajectory of dealing with British military involvement overseas. This TV serial takes on the story of British soldiers posted in Palestine during the final, post-WWII phase of the British Mandate in 1945-1948. Numbering some 100,000, their story is little known outside their family circles. A process of eight years in collaboration with Channel 4 has given us this TV serial, which premiered on 11 February and includes four 100-minute episodes crammed full with gripping and very personal dramas. They tell the parallel stories of Len, a British soldier posted to Palestine between 1945 and 1948 after liberating the Bergen-Belsen death-camp in Germany; and of Erin, his granddaughter, just out of school and on a six-week visit to Israel and what is now the occupied Palestinian territory.

In telling this story through British eyes, Kosminsky takes on an ambitious project: to explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its roots to a British audience.

In the weeks since its screening, The Promise has been the subject of animated debate and discussions among Palestinian, Jewish and Israeli communities in the UK, and among activists and professionals addressing the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Miri Weingarten, a Jewish-Israeli, formerly a human rights and peace activist for Israeli groups Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and Ta’ayush, and now Director of London-based media initiative JNews, asked Peter Kosminsky some of the questions that came up during these debates.

For a more in-depth analysis by JNews of the context of the drama, read here.

Palestine under the British Mandate – 1945-1948

MW: Your enactment of the 1948 displacement of the Palestinians, known as the ‘Nakba’ (Arabic for ‘Catastrophe’) is very powerful. I can’t recall any other realistic enactment of this sort in a drama before. Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (2009) is a very different sort of enactment – more like fragments of a memory or a dream than an attempt to show events as they were. What were the sources you drew on when enacting the Nakba scenes from 1948? There were some very powerful visual images both in Haifa and in Deir Yassin – was this from witness testimonies? From written accounts? We know that the visual records and photographs of the Deir Yassin massacre are still withheld by Israel’s archives. What did you use instead? The scenes were evocative of images from the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Was that footage your inspiration?

PK: I started work on The Promise eight years ago. We had two researchers full-time for two years, then additional researchers working for a further two years. When I turned full time to the show, it took me 11 months just to read all the material. I had, (and have), a collection of some forty books, as well as the hundreds of interview transcripts, documentaries, photographs and documents from British, Haganah, Palmach, Irgun, Palestinian and other archives. Many of the British soldiers we interviewed had direct personal experience of the events in 1948 – right up to their withdrawal in May of that year. Most of these testimonies described events in Haifa, one of the reasons why I chose to focus Len’s story in that city. There are also detailed intelligence reports in the UK National Archives – produced by the Field Security Section – as well as notes produced by the office of Gen Sir Hugh Stockwell, British GOC at the time.

MW: How did you decide what types of Palestinians to depict in Mandate Palestine? Why did you decide to show your viewers a Palestinian servant from a village, rather than the urban, modernized Palestinians who made up a significant part of the population in Haifa at the time – or Palestinian political activists?

PK: We chose to characterise Mohammed as we did primarily because the drama is told from the point of view of the British soldiers who were stationed in Palestine in 1945-48. While these soldiers encountered European urban Jews quite frequently – at the city hospitality clubs, at cafés, etc – they rarely if ever describe social encounters with Arabs. The drama is based on the 80-odd interviews with the veterans we carried out, so we were always going to reflect the impression we gleaned from this archive. Where the Brits did encounter Arabs was as manual workers on the British military bases. One soldier described a “charwallah” being pushed around by squaddies on the parade-ground. This incident started me thinking about the character that eventually became Mohammed.

MW: How did you decide what types of Jews and Zionists to depict in Mandate Palestine? Why did you decide to show Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang) members, rather than members of the Hagana or the Kibbutz movement, or ‘non-political’ residents of Haifa?

PK: Again, I took my lead from the interviews we carried out. Bear in mind, most of the people we interviewed were NCOs and privates. They had little or no contact with the Haganah. However, they felt themselves to be under attack from the Etzel and Lehi and most of their commentary referred to the actions of these organisations – the Irgun, (as they called it), in particular. I chose to focus on the Irgun for this reason. I tried to show the range of opinions by characterising Leo as being more moderate, more sympathetic to the position of the British, than his daughter Clara. Of course, we do see kibbutz life when Len and his team search Mesheq Yagur – drawing our imagery from contemporaneous phot-records of British cordon & search operations of the period, as well as from British army operational reports.

MW: Your a-political depiction of British presence in Palestine is quite striking. Len is a sort of soldier-in-Iraq (or Vietnam) type. He is experienced by the viewers as an innocent victim. As a British-made film made for a British audience and from a British perspective, one might have expected some handling of the political context regarding the role of the British in the Middle East after WWI, and in Palestine in particular. Can you comment on this?

PK: Len is based upon the large number of interviews we carried out with British veterans. These guys barely knew which country they were being shipped to, (they were diverted to the Middle East from a proposed land-invasion of Japan!), let alone the political context. What they did feel very strongly – and this was clearly expressed to us in interview – was a growing sense of injustice about the way the British were, (as they saw it), washing their hands of the Arabs. I have Len express that frustration very strongly to Rowntree. While it is true that Len’s perspective does not provide much of a geo-political overview, I do think the films – seen through his eyes - take quite a strong line on British responsibility for the tragic situation in the region today.

MW: A related question is why the story starts in 1945 and not at the crucial point in 1917, when Palestine was occupied by Britain and the Balfour Declaration was issued. In this way the brutal suppression of the Arab uprisings by the British is omitted - especially the Arab revolt against British colonial rule and Jewish immigration in 1936-39, in which thousands of Palestinians were killed or executed, hundreds were tortured, and many Palestinian residential areas were reduced to rubble, while the British Mandate financed and armed the Jewish Settlement Police. Showing this period, during which both Jews and Arabs were killed, might also have provided some background to the British restrictions on Jewish immigration shown in the film.

PK: This really is the same point as I have made above. A young squaddie serving in Palestine in the period 1945-48 could not have experienced Allenby’s conquest of the region in the First World War. I based the films on the experiences of the soldiers we interviewed, (as well as many others – as referred to above). None of those soldiers were present at that time. Hamid does ask Len about the suppression of the Arab uprisings in the 1930s but it is clear, from the scene, that Len has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.

MW: From the film one might understand that British presence in Palestine was welcomed by Palestinians and opposed by Zionists. Do you believe this was the case?

PK: I would like to think this is a too simplistic analysis of a complex programme. I also think it underestimates the viewer. For example, I do not believe the vast majority of viewers would have thought Len’s relationship with Mohammed and his family was meant to be a reflection of the way all – or even a cross-section of - Palestinians interacted with the British or, more generally, regarded the presence of the British at the time.

Israel/Palestine - 2005

MW: I found your depiction of the power relations between Israelis and Palestinians extremely persuasive, sophisticated and well-researched, and your tracing of the story of repeated displacement and dispossession of the Palestinians, enacted with increasing violence three times in three different places - from ‘Ein Houd in 1948, to Hebron in the occupied West Bank, to Gaza today - very compelling, and perhaps the most important message of The Promise.

Can you tell us how you came across the story of ‘Ein Houd? The older man who acted the former resident of the village, now displaced to an ‘unrecognized’ village nearby seems very genuine. Is he Palestinian? Does he have a similar story to tell?

PK: I read about Ein Hod/Ein Hawd in a number of books and archives and several British veterans described visiting the village in 1946. I myself went to the artists’ village of Ein Hod and to the Palestinian village of Ein Hawd further up the mountain. I ate in the restaurant and spoke to the proprietor, just as Erin does. The actor who plays the old man is a well-respected Israeli Arab actor who was cast by the wonderful Yael Aviv in Tel Aviv. I’m really glad you liked his performance.

MW: Your depiction of Paul and Eliza’s family also rings very true, and is made up of types recognizable to Israelis. Is it based on personal acquaintance? How do you explain the evolution of this family, from members of a terrorist organization in the first generation, to rich, privileged liberals who see themselves as ‘leftists’ but are disturbed by the physical presence of Arabs in the second – to the agonized young generation that beats against the cage of military service and indoctrination, but ultimately ends up ‘loyal’ to the state?

PK: No, the Meyers are not based upon personal acquaintance. Very early on in the development of The Promise, I happened to be having lunch with an actress friend of mine who had gone to school in London. She described how two of her classmates, who had joint British-Israeli nationality, had been required to return to Israel to do their army service while she and all her friends were embarking on their gap year travel. One had been reluctant, the other less so. She described both as being very pro-IDF after their two years’ service.

I wouldn’t attempt to explain the evolution of the family. There’s no over-arching political statement I am trying to make with their depiction. I tried to create a family from individuals I had met or interviewed, (or our researchers had interviewed), and which would be interesting dramatically. I met a man very like Immanuel Katz and drew the scene with Eliza’s grandfather from that conversation. We interviewed men very like Paul. His evolution from pro-Army to anti-Zionist, (apparently in part to annoy his father), came straight from the research. Max as a co-signatory to a military letter criticising the occupation is also from the research but I was interested in how a liberal man like Max might react to having a son who becomes far more extreme than he is, (so their debate is not between left and right but between shades of liberalism). Leah’s character also flows from individuals I met or read about – but is also created dramatically as a response to the idea of being the child of a strong, celebrated but also traumatised father such as Katz. She is not as politically liberal as her husband. Earlier in their relationship, when they met in London and first moved to Israel, this difference between them wasn’t so important. But, with the writing of Max’s letter and with his constant clashes with Paul over politics, Leah is moving closer to her political roots – which are right wing.

MW: The Caesarea family represents an elite minority, which indeed wields influence in Israel, but they are definitely not representative of the Israeli majority. Why did you decide to show them, rather than ‘ordinary’, run-of-the mill Israelis, who live in apartments in big towns, listen to Mizrachi (Arab) music and voice unashamedly nationalist or right-wing positions?

PK: Because I wasn’t trying to conduct a survey or make a documentary. The programme is soundly based upon extensive research but is very firmly a fictional drama. I didn’t sit down and think – how can I create a family that perfectly represents the average Israeli family, with two and a half children and living at the exact geographical centre of Israel. I read the research and then set about creating a human drama that interested me emotionally. The story is told from Erin’s point of view. Erin is quite a poor kid who, because her mum teaches in a London public school, meets and is friends with a lot of kids much wealthier than herself. She is drawn to that world, perhaps even covets it. Eliza is the most popular girl in the school. She’s clever and sporty, popular with boys. She is also known to be very rich. Erin is hugely flattered that Eliza wants to be friends with her, (the reasons are complex). When she asks Erin if she’d like to fly First Class to Israel and chill out by the pool in the sun for a few weeks, Erin leaps at the chance.

MW: How did you do your research into the amazingly intimate depiction of the settlers of Hebron? Do you know any settlers or was this based on work by Israelis who are ‘in the know’?

PK: I visited a settlement in the Territories. We also had extensive interview, book, newspaper article, video and photographic reference on which to draw.

MW: Omar is a bit of an enigmatic Heathcliff-type. Did you leave his identity and status vague on purpose? At one stage he says he is a Palestinian citizen of Israel (or ‘Arab Israeli’), in which case he could not have been a member of Fateh / Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, or lived in Abu Dis. If he was an East Jerusalem Palestinian he would be unlikely to live in Abu Dis, which is defined by Israel as the West Bank. What happens to him after the army arrives in Gaza in the last episode?

PK: Omar is an Israeli Arab living in Abu Dis – or the part of Abu Dis that is on the Israeli side of the wall, (which is where we filmed). Paul makes his status clear to Erin in dialogue. His character is based very closely on a number of individuals we met and on interviews I read that were carried out by others. He is a member of Combatants for Peace but has the family history he describes.

MW: Why does the story have no Palestinian heroes? You have a Zionist arch-villain – in the form of perfidious Clara – and Erin becomes a heroine of sorts, when she takes a stand in Gaza in the final episode. But why did you decide to give that scene to her, rather than to a Palestinian? After all there are many who risked or even gave their lives in non-violent resistance to the occupation.

PK: I would think of Omar as a leading Palestinian character in the 2005 story. The story is about Erin and about the journey she takes, the things she does in her attempt to fulfil, belatedly, Len’s promise to Hassan. We interviewed a number of members of ISM who were active in Gaza at that time and the “chain” incident is drawn from real experiences they described.

MW: The Promise seems to suggest that even the ‘most leftist’ Israeli activist, Paul, is ultimately ‘the same as the others.’ When faced with an attack on a military outpost in occupied Hebron, he doesn’t hesitate to take up arms against Palestinians, in the name of loyalty. Do you think all Israeli Jews are ‘the same’ in this respect?

PK: Clearly the answer to the last question is no. Just because we see Paul behaving in a particular way at a particular moment, doesn’t mean we can legitimately extrapolate anything about Israeli Jewish behaviour as a whole. And I don’t for a minute think the audience would form that impression. Just because a particular character behaves in a particular way in Coronation Street, doesn’t mean the authors are suggesting that all Brits would react in the same way in similar circumstances. I tried in Paul to create a real character, a complex character, a conflicted character – not a cardboard cut-out goodie or baddie. Much as we would wish to be strong and consistent all the time, the truth is that most of us – even the most politically committed – have uncertainties, doubts, feet of clay. It is both the tragedy and the joy of the human condition. Paul sincerely believes what he says to Erin intellectually - and does his best to practice what he preaches. But he is also quite a complex young man, motivated in part by the combative relationship he has always had with his father, who will stand up and defend his friends when they are in danger no matter what the politics of the situation. Also, although he profoundly believes in the stand he took when a soldier, a secret part of him is ashamed when he visits his old IDF base, wants to show that he isn’t/wasn’t a coward and can be counted on in a tight spot. Speaking personally, when Paul gives his justification to Erin with the single word “loyalty”, I see that as a very human, very sympathetic response – not something that would brand him a hypocrite or a “baddie”.

General questions

MW: I noticed some factual inaccuracies in The Promise. For example, there are no tunnels between Israel and Gaza. I understand of course that in a drama you’re trying to tell a story and not present a documentary and that therefore it’s ok to use poetic licence, but I wonder where you think the line needs to be drawn between sticking firmly to the facts and manipulating the facts to illuminate the story? Some might argue, for example, that the tunnel between Israel and Gaza was a step too far because it would suggest a degree of clandestine movement back and forth that has not been able to take place.

PK: How do you know they entered from Israel? We don’t show the entire journey; the location of the tunnel is kept intentionally vague. Also, I’m not sure I would feel confident to make the assertion that you make – that a given tunnel cannot exist. These tunnels are by their nature secret – some have been discovered, others not. How can you be sure?

MW: Another thing is the implication in Episode Four that Gaza was ruled by Hamas – but this was not yet the case in 2005.

PK: I don’t believe we say it was. Omar says “In this part of Gaza, Hamas is strong.”

MW: The series suggests Erin was in Israel in a period of frequent suicide bombings – but by the time the Separation Wall in the West Bank was completed in the way shown in the film, that time was long past

PK: The section of the wall in Abu Dis was one of the earliest sections of the wall to be built. It was in existence in 2005, as we show.

MW: Also, Deir Yassin, where the massacre is enacted in Episode Four, is not between Haifa and ‘Ein Hud but in Jerusalem. . .

PK: There are some geographical adjustment to help the story flow.

MW: My final question is about Jewish reactions here in the UK. Before The Promise was broadcast the Jewish Chronicle ran an even-handed arts page interview with you, but responses are very different now. You must have been aware that you were tackling an intensely sensitive area. Were you surprised at the attacks on you, for example the Israeli diplomat quoted in the Jewish Chronicle calling The Promise “the worst example of anti-Israeli propaganda he has ever seen on television” and “a special attempt to demonise Israel”? We had also heard that the Board of Deputies of British Jews wrote a furious letter to Channel 4. What is your answer to criticism of this sort – for example, their criticism of the fact that there is not a single Jewish or Israeli character in the film that is ‘positive’, or can be identified with? Has Channel 4 been supportive of the project? Would you see yourself tackling this minefield again?

PK: C4’s replies to these letters, one of which was posted on the Internet even before it was received at the channel, are in the process of being drafted. I don’t want to be discourteous by responding before the recipients have had a chance to read and respond to the replies C4 has prepared.
C4 has been enormously supportive throughout the process. They have invested a huge amount of time, money and energy to helping onto the screen what is certainly the most ambitious project with which I have been involved in 30 years in TV. I’m very confident that no other British broadcaster would currently have been able or willing to make such a programme and I am enormously grateful to the Channel for everything they have done to make this long-standing dream of mine come true. As far as making further programmes on the Middle East is concerned, I would very much doubt it. Like many journalists and film-makers, I’m essentially a generalist. I immerse myself in a subject area for a discrete period of time, struggle to acquire all the information I need to help me make the best programme I can, then move on. It’s part of the joy of my job.

For a more in-depth analysis by JNews of the context of the drama, read here.

This article may be reproduced on condition that JNews is cited as its source.

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