Friday, August 10, 2012

Richard Trank's IT IS NO DREAM tracks Herzl's early push for a Jewish state

First the positive: TrustMovies, not being Jewish, knew only the very basics about Theodor Herzl and his early plan, back in 1895, to solve "The Jewish Question" by creating an actual Jewish state (the hope was to settle in Palestine, though at one point the British offered him Uganda!). I learned quite a bit from watching this 97-minute documen-tary, even as I winced from the very first scene, as Herzl's words, written at the end of the 19th Century, are handed us via the dulcet tones of Christoph Waltz. In this section, the visuals of which show today's Israel, Herzl refers to his dream as a "model state." The juxtaposition of this visual with that particular description is at best embarrassing, at worst morally repugnant. And so, throughout the remainder of the movie, one can only wonder at what Herzl might make of the utter quagmire that is Israel today. Sure, it's a model state in many ways -- if we leave out the fundamentalist thinking and actions, the corruption, and the treatment of the Palestinians (click and scroll down) still living within its borders -- not to mention those who were summarily removed when the state was created).

Read correctly, the movie's title, taken from Herzl's writings, is all too true: It's a nightmare, for many people at least, and one from which there appears to be no waking. The title functions on another level, as well. It reflects the rather draggy and eventually lifeless quality this documentary possesses overall. Full of information, much of it good, its visuals are too often repetitive. We see the same photo of Herzl used over and over again; if we visit an estate and the camera pans toward the entrance as we arrive, you can bet it'll pan back away from it when we leave. The same photos are used anytime a certain city or place is mentioned. This becomes boring, and the photos themselves are none too scintillating to begin with. For an apt comparison, contrast this with the terrific and varied use of exceptional archival photos in the recent and spectac-ularly fine documentary about another Jew, Sholem Aleichem.

Beginning with the Dreyfus Affair (depicted at left) in France, to where, at the time, Herzl had been posted as an Austrian newspaper columnist, the film then goes back to the lives of the man's parents, his birth and that of his siblings, tracking back to Dreyfus again, which appears to be the turning point for Herzl. The anti-Semitic incidents occurring all over Europe at the time placed The Jewish Question, as it was then referred to, front and center. From that point Herzl begins to ruminate, write and then set about the creation of a Jewish state.

The film's director, co-writer and co-producer, Richard Trank, shown at right, has placed his ducks in a row and achieved, I suspect, what he wanted to create: one hagiographic portrait. There's not a negative word whispered anywhere about Herzl, his life, work or personality. It's all good -- and for a very good cause. One that, we might suggest, has simply morphed from The Jewish Question into The Israel Question. While this will please many people, a chance at creating a more definitive, nuanced, thoughtful and inclusive documentary has been lost. While there is mention of the Palestine state, there is not a word spoken about the Palestinians themselves, except a nod to them found in Herzl's writings telling us that the final, realized Israeli state will be better for everyone. Oh, really?

It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodore Herzl opens today, August 10, in New York at the Quad Cinema and next Friday, August 17, all over the Los Angeles area at various Laemmle theaters. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters.

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