Three Promises: A Cinematic Journey into Love, Loss, and the Untold Stories of Palestine 

by Hoor ElShafei

‘Mom, I’m scared. Mom, please stop filming,’ says Dima to her mother Suha as she records the explosions happening outside their house. Set against the backdrop of the early 2000s, amid the Israeli army’s retaliation during the Second Intifada in the West Bank, a mother documents her family’s daily life, often seeking refuge in the basement to shield them from harm. Years later, her son Yousef Srouji, the director of Three Promises (2023), revisits the home videos she shot during this period, portraying a painful situation faced by parents compelled to decide between ensuring their children’s physical safety and grappling with the emotional turmoil of abandoning their home.

The Reel Palestine film festival recently celebrated its triumphant 10th edition, a heartfelt tribute to the resilient people of Gaza. Hosted at Dubai’s inaugural independent cinema, Cinema Akil, the festival unfolded from January 26th to February 4th, showcasing films that encapsulated the essence of Palestinian struggle, resistance, and unwavering resilience. Beyond the cinematic experiences, the festival offered enriching masterclasses, workshops, and a vibrant souk spotlighting Palestinian businesses and organizations.

Among the remarkable films featured at Reel Palestine, Three Promises (2023) stood out. It unravels the narrative of a mother, her camera, a son navigating repressed memories, and an entire nation. Through multiple traumatic incidents that lead the family to hide in the basement of their home, Suha makes promises to God during these perilous moments, pledging to leave if they survive every time. In 2017, Yousef Srouji discovered this archival home footage, reigniting a connection with a suppressed past. While the initial frames of the footage evoke warmth, and joyful family moments, the focus shifts towards capturing the harrowing realities of the intifada. Together with his mother, they explore the motivations behind capturing a life marked by suffering and a stolen childhood, struggling with the delayed choice of fleeing—an intricate balance between hope for change and the challenging decision between physical safety and emotional upheaval.

Three Promises directly tackles the harsh realities of life in Palestine, and subtly unveils the profound beauty of a mother’s love. Yousef Srouji seamlessly intertwines the present voice with touching family footage, ensuring the continuation of Suha’s narrative and safeguarding against the act of forgetting, both on a personal and collective level. Yet, amidst the hardship, political turmoil, and sense of displacement impacting the families, the film manages to convey a message of hope and the indomitable spirit that refuses to be destroyed.

The cinematography transports the audience to the heart of Palestine, immersing them in the landscapes and daily lives of the characters. The footage, acting as both a time capsule and a validation of fading memories, reconstructs a personal history that had started to blur after 15 years post-intifada. The film adopts a non-chronological approach, disrupting the narrative flow as it weaves through years of archival footage. However, this stylistic is not arbitrary; rather, it serves a distinct purpose. To begin with, the director noted that his mother primarily recorded footage during periods of relative calm, missing pivotal moments from the intifada. Consequently, Srouji’s journey involves rewriting history and reconstructing his memories, blending what he observed in the footage with his own recollections. Moreover, this narrative technique immerses the audience in the director’s subjective experience as he reconstructs his memories of the intifada. By witnessing the director’s journey of memory reconstruction, the audience is prompted to reflect on their own experiences, fostering a deeper connection with the film. The fluid movement between years of footage uncovers a recurring motif of promises, a thematic thread that aligns with the three pivotal acts of the film: their home, their grandparents’ house, and the school. This motif also serves as a symbolic guide, leading the audience through the director’s emotional and historical journey.

In the Q&A after the screening, Srouji responded to the question about the intention behind this emotional revelation of recovering the family footage, explaining that it was not his initial goal to open up memories for the Srouji family. Reflected in a present car ride with his mother, a poignant conversation brought generational trauma and repressed memories to the forefront, unintentionally surfacing profound feelings and initiating a shared reflection process. Srouji adds, “I was playing with the camera settings and just started filming, and it was really hard for me to sit with my mom and get her to speak about her emotions. When I ask her questions, she responds as if she is narrating a story and I’m trying to get some real, deep emotions out of her that I know are there. So, in that moment, by accident, it just happened and it felt like there was something so I kept recording and pushing.” 

Throughout the film, the mother’s voiceover serves as a guiding thread, offering insight into the motivations and emotions of each family member. The father’s voice is notably absent in the present scenes, possibly because the mother played a leading role in the family footage. While the father’s involvement could have added another layer to the family dynamics, Srouji acknowledges that he could not recall his father’s feelings during the intifada. This absence of the father’s perspective becomes a poignant thread that led Srouji to uncover the footage, underscoring the complexity of reconstructing memories.

In the realm of personal rediscovery and familial storytelling, Three Promises stands as a testament to the power of archival footage and the profound impact of memory. Upon reflection, what resonates most profoundly is the film’s capacity to capture the human experience. By centering the narrative on Palestinian families, the film transcended mere representation, delivering a touching portrayal of humanity in its vulnerability and resilience. In the broader context, addressing and affirming these memories becomes an act of resistance against historical erasure and a reclamation of a narrative often overshadowed by external perspectives. The film acknowledges the complexities of reconstructing memories in the face of political turmoil, displacement, and a struggle for self-determination. It underscores the importance of asserting one’s narrative and history, pushing against attempts to silence or distort the lived experiences of the Palestinian people. Three Promises moves beyond a mere cinematic representation. The archival footage, a precious time capsule, becomes a vessel for collective memory, embodying the struggles, losses, and enduring resilience of an entire nation. By navigating the intricate interplay between personal and collective memory, the film not only sheds light on the struggles unique to Palestinians but also becomes a universal call for understanding, empathy, and the recognition of the shared humanity that transcends borders and political boundaries.

Hoor Elshafei is a bilingual writer, filmmaker, and film festival programmer with an MFA Degree in Film and TV Studies from Boston University. Based in Dubai, UAE, her international experience inspires her research and teachings on identity and the cultural flow in film, with a focus on Arab Cinema. Her work has been published in renowned journals such as Film Quarterly, Science Fiction Film & Television and ProQuest, among others.

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