Opening this weekend at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 is a very hot-button new documentary called State 194, which follows the recent history of Palestine. Many will approach this film with trepidation, since it is difficult to find any piece of journalism, be it in print or on film, which does not choose sides, demonizing either Israel or the Palestinian Authority for its lack of participation in the peace process. State 194 centers on the trajectory of the construction of the state of Palestine as a political entity and comes close to a balanced perspective in its imperfect portrayal of a complicated situation.
State 194 starts in 1947 and runs up until the present day. Salam Fayyad, who served as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority until last month, is the film’s protagonist. He stresses the importance of building institutions that can sustain a state before building the state itself, copying the successful Israeli model employed decades earlier. Fayyad travels throughout his land overseeing construction projects and championing the right of the Palestinians to have their own state. Palestinian bloggers appear, advocating for peaceful resistance, and the Parents Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost children in the conflict, is seen frequently educating those on both sides about the vitality of a two-state solution.
Difficult subjects like settlement building and terrorist activity are acknowledged, if not fully covered. Israelis are interviewed and showcased, explaining their perspectives on what they see as obstacles to peace. Former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter, last seen arguing vigilantly for the Palestinian cause in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, points out that terrorism does exist in Gaza. Tzipi Livni, a past candidate for the Israeli Prime Minister post, meets with residents of settlements to voice her feelings about continued building as problematic. The scathing and emotional critique of settlements, including a boycott on settler goods, dominates the film’s second half, while the reverberations of the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, portrayed so powerfully in the documentary Unsettled, which showed at film festivals in 2007, is touched on only lightly.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enters the picture in the film’s third act, making a tour emphasizing that the peace process must involve the Israeli people because it cannot be achieved otherwise. The film almost achieves true neutrality when it includes a clip from the AIPAC Policy Conference in 2011, though its effectiveness is minimal since it merely serves to underscore Netanyahu’s commitment to a defense of current borders. J Street, on the other hand, gets a good deal of screen time, as executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami voices his opinions on what the Palestinians need. The film closes with the words “The time to act is now,” implying that this issue is far from resolved.
There are moments when it seems like State 194 truly does see the whole picture, but its trajectory ultimately implies that, much like the Palestinian bid for statehood to the United Nations, this is a process that need not be resolved through negotiation but through political action. Director Dan Setton’s previous films have examined Jewish participation in terror and concentration camps, among other things, and while a liberal-minded investigative Israeli journalist is a positive notion, it would be reassuring to see a project that is both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli, equally applauding both sides for their efforts and sternly instructing them both on what each needs to bring to the table next.