There’s no end to the horrors shown in Yousef Srouji’s documentary, Three Promises. The mind-numbing barbarity that besieges every family stuck in a conflict zone comes alive with unnerving intimacy and escalating dread. The filmmaker yokes from his mother, Suha’s tapes, vividly disturbing uncertainties embedded in such lives. Suha had kept the tapes hidden from Yousef and his sister, Dima, for fifteen years. She had taken her family and fled their home in Palestine at the beginning of the 2000s during the Second Intifada against the Israeli occupation. After two decades, Yousef has traveled back to his home, drawn by a fervent need to know his roots.

Early in the film, which is essentially a collation of heart-pounding footage captured by Suha and assembled with seamless effectiveness by editor Mahdokht Mahmoudabadi, Yousef asks her why she held back on sharing the tapes with him and Dima for as long as fifteen years, wondering if she feared getting hurt again. As the tapes depict in their bare-bones and chillingly everyday fashion, a lifetime of unimaginable fear and disquiet would only be inevitable for anyone who has lived through and endured incidents as harrowing as Suha did.

One can gauge guilt on her part for having put her kids through brutally unpredictable circumstances, especially since she had a choice and the luxury of escaping whenever she wished. Yousef insists, however, that he had a wonderful childhood. It is a strange childhood, with the kids thoroughly acquainted with the language of war and its arsenal. Missiles, shrapnel, and debating the accurate size and nature of a particular bomb are all part of their regular conversation.

When Suha enquires how Yousef knows what he is so passionately talking about in a manner reflecting a deep knowledge, he simply says he reads about them. Through the intimate chronicle, people who usually register in public discourse as a sorry number of casualties are rendered devastatingly human, whose fragility is accentuated by a desperate latching onto home despite the precarity it stokes.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

The Intifada has had decisive, dramatic shifts in ordinary Palestinian lives. Suha’s camera observes it in granular detail, particularly the losses it triggers, ranging from familiar, local structures, some older than five hundred years, to friends and their families moving away and out of their lives without a proper goodbye. Suha talks lovingly of the kindred warm ties the neighborhood and the town were bound in, the almond and fig trees; quickly, the Intifada leaves nothing but ruins in its wake, the companionship the entire community cherished compelled to fade out.

There is a heartbreaking moment when Suha’s kids go searching and achingly through the rooms of their friends’ house the morning after their sudden departure. Grappling with the vast sadness of such events ensures children in these situations are forced to grow up and battle complex feelings much earlier than they might have encountered.

These are extraordinary circumstances Suha depicts but which have become so normalized it is just like another nightly rite: there are nightmarish nighttime sequences with the family tucked beneath the stairs as they wait out intense shelling. There are skin-curling moments like when the kids are staring out at the sky lit up in the glow of the fire of bullets, which Suha assures them are far away. The distance Suha keeps reiterating becomes a psychological shield. The footage is grainy, captured in that hushed quality, but the emotion it transmits is immediate and shattering. We are instantly plunged into the very fraught moment itself with the family and Suha’s ardent prayers for safety.

As Yousef riffles through what must have been a mountain of footage, we come to terms with the profundity of this personal project but also are made keenly and acutely aware of the universally galvanizing impact of the minutiae Suha has recorded with unerring commitment and fearlessness. This is a tremendously powerful film whose every minute is packed with distressing resonance. 

Three Promises screened at the DocPoint Helsinki Documentary Film Festival 2024.

Three Promises (2024) Documentary Links: IMDb

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