Interview: Peter Kosminsky

The Promise is a new TV drama which, says its writer/director, sheds new light on the conflict of the Mandate years


February 3, 2011
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Peter Kosminsky (above, with headphones) filming The Promise in Israel.

Peter Kosminsky (above, with headphones) filming The Promise in Israel.

Peter Kosminsky cannot be accused of dodging the difficult assignments. He has made films about British soldiers in Bosnia, about the Falklands War, and the conflict in Northern Ireland. On one occasion while making a documentary about Soviet conscripts in Afghanistan he was marooned on a rocky mountainside for days as shells whizzed past his ears. However, he says his new drama series, The Promise, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as seen through the eyes of two Britons from different eras, has been by far his hardest job.

One can understand why. Not only was Kosminsky taking on what he describes as "the bleeding sore at the centre of world politics", but, rather than film on neutral territory with politically disinterested performers, he decided to make the series in Israel itself with a cast in which every Jewish character was played by a Jew actor and every Arab was played by an Arab. This led, he says, to some tense situations.

"It was quite a thing to get Jews and Arabs confronting each other in the country itself. The actor playing an Israeli soldier was actually an army reservist in real life. He was facing off against an Arab, who although he had Israeli nationality, may in real life have perceived himself to have been the victim of IDF injustice. This created a layer of difficulty and tension."

Kosminsky, although Jewish by birth, claims no insider status. He says this is a British drama made primarily for and about Britons. His starting point was a letter sent by an army veteran who served in British-ruled Palestine in the 1940s. "He told me in his letter that there had been 100,000 soldiers based in Palestine in the period 1945-48 but that no one remembers them or talks about them."

Present-day character Erin

Present-day character Erin

Kosminsky was intrigued by the letter and formed a research team to look into the subject. That was eight years ago. The Promise, a major four part series commissioned by Channel 4, is the culmination of that project.

The story of a fictional British soldier called Len, and of his granddaughter Erin, who retraces her grandfather's steps in modern-day Israel, makes for compelling but uncomfortable viewing. Len, who is in a regiment which liberated Bergen Belsen at the end of the Second World War, finds himself sympathetic to the plight of the Jews at the beginning of his tour of duty in Palestine. But faced with the hostility of the Jewish community, he gradually becomes alienated against them. This, says Kosminsky reflects his research.

"The almost universal view among the soldiers we interviewed was that they were intensely sympathetic to the Jews when they arrived. But in the three-and-a-bit years that followed, their attitudes changed. They were attacked by Jewish fighters, they were increasingly confined to quarters, their families were sent home, they were kidnapped and in one case, two sergeants were hanged. The soldiers began to see the Arabs as the underdogs and sympathy for them increased. The soldiers also felt aggrieved about what they felt was the ingratitude of Palestinian Jews, whom they felt they had helped in the Second World War."

As the process of developing the series continued, Kosminsky began to develop a parallel storyline, about Len's granddaughter Erin who, while visiting Israel with her best friend, discovers Len's story. She is also introduced to the present-day conflict through her friendship with a disillusioned ex-Israel soldier, Paul.

He says: "I have daughters of Erin's age and I noticed that some young people struggle to see the young person inside the old person. All they see is the decrepitude. I wanted to write a story about what it was like to learn to see the young person in the old person."

Kosminsky also began to see parallels between the 1940s story and the present day. "We tend to think that the IDF invented the practice of blowing up the homes of suicide bombers. But I learned the British did exactly the same with members of the Jewish underground."

His research also uncovered parallels of disillusionment between British soldiers and those of the IDF. He recalls. "I remember coming across an organisation called Breaking the Silence which is made up primarily of IDF soldiers who served in Hebron. They write, sometimes anonymously, about what happened to them there. I was interested in the transformatory effect on an individual of an experience like that. My idea was to invent a character, Paul, who has undergone such a change in his perception."

Kosminsky insists that he is not coming at the conflict from any particular angle - he says he does not show partiality to either side but rather tries to represent the complexity of what remains one of the world's most intractable conflicts. "One does a disservice to a complicated situation by presenting easy or pat solutions. So I have tried to show right and wrong on both sides, and by showing the characters not as cardboard goodies and baddies but as people who change their positions and contradict themselves."

The two central characters are uneducated in the situation and Kosminsky identifies with their outsiderness. When he arrived to film the drama, it was his first ever visit to Israel. "Things are done very differently in Israel," he says. "Although no one actually stopped us making the film, we received no official help whatsoever, possibly due to the subject matter. I wanted to film on the site of the old Acre Prison. We were depicting the martyrdom of Dov Gruner, one of the Jewish resistance heroes. But we were refused without any explanation. Things like that happened all the time. Locations were withdrawn literally at the last minute as we were about to start filming. The Israeli crew were terrific but we didn't get much help from the authorities."

Kosminsky enjoyed his year in Israel but says it only served to emphasise his feelings of Britishness.

"Emotionally I felt neutral about Israel. I'm third generation on my dad's side and I do feel very British. I had a great apartment in Tel Aviv, the weather was glorious and the people couldn't have been lovelier, but after a while I was homesick. However terrible the weather in London and however grumpy the people, I missed my home."

Snapshot

BORN: London, April 21 1956. Grandfather was a Polish-Jewish immigrant, his grandmother an Austrian refugee from the Nazis

CAREER: Joined the BBC as a trainee in 1980 and became a script editor. Moved to Yorkshire TV as a producer and director. In 1999 made Warriors, his breakthrough drama about British peacekeepers in Bosnia

PERSONAL LIFE: Lives with wife Helen and two daughters in Wiltshire

The Promise starts on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm

    Last updated: 11:07am, April 27 2011