The cover of the latest issue of Moment Magazine asks, “Is the Two-State Solution Dead?” Israeli documentarian Dan Setton approaches the same question in his new film “State 194,” opening on May 17, with a sober, somber tread befitting the slow-motion train wreck that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have become.
Using the September 2011 efforts by the Palestinian Authority to convince the UN Security Council to recognize Palestine as the 194th member state of the United Nations, and focusing on the efforts of the PA’s then-prime minister Salaam Fayyad to build viable state institutions on the West Bank, Setton assesses the state of the conflict in what are, ultimately, discouraging terms.
It has been said that film is a great medium for persuading but a lousy one for debating. Complex issues and nuanced positions are ill-served by the motion picture, which is rather better at exhortation than deliberation. “State 194” is an intelligent and balanced picture of the facts on the ground, with thoughtful contributions from almost every side of the issue but, as a result of that balance, the film is frequently dispassionate to the point of blandness. Given the shrill tone of so many documentaries on this topic, it’s something of a nice change of pace, but even though Setton tells the story in an economical 98 minutes, there are times when the film feels stolid.
The story is, for all the complexities inherent in the conflict, a surprisingly straightforward one for much of the film’s running time. Fayyad, an economist with a doctorate from the U.S. and a stint at the International Monetary Fund, was the platonic ideal for a Palestinian leader. He was shrewd, reasonable, calm, unflappable and dedicated to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He saw the way to resolution in the establishment of a state-like Palestinian entity that would be so good at delivering goods and services, infrastructure improvements and, most important, a fully functioning security apparatus, that no one could possibly find fault. Throughout the film we see him at building dedications, hospital openings and the like, working crowds like a Chicago alderman, chatting pleasantly with everyone and repeatedly stating his commitment to non-violence and a future that includes two peaceful and secure states.
In the meantime, Setton introduces numerous other proponents of the two-state solution from both sides of the divide. Yitzhak Frankenthal and Sweety Nabeel are founders of the Parents Circle, an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have had family killed in the conflict. Majd Biltaji is a Palestinian blogger who is a founder of People Want to End the Division, a group that opposes the continuation of the occupation and supports the two-state solution. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, is seen lobbying Congress and speaks of the consequences of the failure of the two-state option.
Setton also gives significant screen time to Prime Minister Netanyahu, George Mitchell and UN commissioner Robert Serry. In short, the film is about as balanced as can be imagined without losing any coherent point of view. The settlers, too, are given a chance to make their case in a dinner meeting with Tzipi Livni. About the only party that can complain of being unrepresented is Hamas, whose efforts at obstruction and the militarization of Gaza come in for understandable disapprobation.
“State 194” recounts the events between 2009 and 2011 more or less chronologically, which may account for some of the arid patches in the film’s center. But in the last half-hour, when the presentation at the UN approaches, Setton seems to lose track of his issues. Or, more appropriately, the various players do. No one on either side of the UN question seems able to make it clear what is at stake in the Security Council’s choice. With all sides falling back on the double-talk of diplomacy, an ordinary viewer may shake her head in confusion. And when the dust has settled and the issue is left unresolved but appearing to be a defeat for the PA, it is hard to understand Fayyad’s proclamation of optimism. His optimism seems even more misplaced since he was forced to resign his post, as the film notes in its ripped-from-today’s-headlines postlude.
The greatest obstacle to making an effective documentary about an ongoing crisis is simply the fact that events change faster than the film medium can take into account. The coincidence of the Moment Magazine cover and the release of “State 194” is serendipitous, but events unfortunately have already begun to leave both a monthly magazine and a film two years in the making in the dust of history.
“State 194” opens on Friday, May 17 at the Village East Cinemas (181-189 Second Ave., at 12th Street). For information, call (212) 529-6799 or go to www.villageeastcinema.com.