Only two members of the Promised Band could really play music, but that didn’t stop this group of Israelis and Palestinians from “rehearsing” as if their aim was to win the Eurovision song contest.
Their ultimate goal was not commercial success, but rather to bridge the actual and metaphorical barriers between them, and in fact, their efforts have earned honors — not for them, but for the filmmakers who captured their effort in the The Promised Band. It was chosen as Best Documentary at the highly respected Cinequest Film Festival earlier this year.
At a screening on Friday, Nov. 18, at the Film Society of Summit, the cinematographer, Martina Radwan, will describe the struggles and unexpected pleasure involved in making the documentary.
In a recent interview with NJJN, Radwan explained how she heard about the project from Jen Heck, an American writer, director, and producer. The two had collaborated a number of times before, and given the wide range Radwan’s work has covered — from a small film about the color pink, to action thrillers, to searing studies of tough social issues in areas around the world — it was a natural fit for her.
The plan was to film the five women and their one male companion as they met for the first time, and then subsequently, as they got to know one another. That some were inhabitants of West Bank towns, getting together was problematic. They had to secure permits to travel and find safe spaces to practice and perform, or to do so illegally.
But before she could film them, Radwan, who is based in the United States, had to get into Israel. “I loved the idea and the story,” she said. “My concern was my German/Syrian heritage. I was unsure if I would be welcome. In addition, I had multiple visas in my passport that could have seemed suspicious, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and India,” all countries she had previously shot films in.
However, she had “a secret trump card”: She had made two films with Gideon Raff, the creator of Prisoners of War, the hit Israeli TV series that inspired the equally successful American version, Homeland. “So when I had trouble at the border to enter Israel, I asked the border controls and Immigration to call him, and they immediately let me in. In the end, the officers and I ended up having a long, animated conversation about movies.”
Once she was in Israel, she relaxed — to some extent. “I met wonderful people who were interested and engaged in what we are doing. All the characters in the film are exceptional people who want to get engaged, invested, and are willing to take risks for it.
“Unfortunately,” she added, “the overall climate is less so. The constant check points, hostility in certain areas, and a feeling of us-versus-them, on both sides, is very draining. It is hard to be creative or fully embrace your environment when you feel you have to walk on egg shells all the time.”
Despite that stress, they wanted the resulting film to be light-hearted. “No one wants to see another serious film or lecture about ‘the Conflict,’” Radwan said. “So Jen was hoping that a lighter approach would make the story more accessible. I suppose it helped that an outsider was the motivating factor; it allowed the women to be outrageous, brave, and silly. It is also a story of women getting together, and naturally, there is more laughter and openness to tease, but also to listen.”
Aside from Lina, the Palestinian who plays the accordion and sings well, and Shimshon, the rabbi who plays the guitar and wanted to be a rock star before he became a rabbi, “everyone else had no talents,” she said. “But again, the band was only a reason to get everyone together, and everyone understood this.”
Radwan was deeply moved by the “performers.”
“They were always willing to overcome the obstacles to get together and have a good laugh,” she said. “It was extremely moving to witness the first baby steps between two groups of people, Israelis and the Palestinians, who live in such close proximity yet had never met someone from the other side of the wall before.
“Their bravery and willingness to listen and embrace each other was inspiring and energizing. There were many moments I was moved to tears, which really doesn’t happen normally.”