Certain documentaries would be well served by being branded as part of a series, like the For Dummies books. Those already familiar with the basics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the reasons why Palestine hasn’t yet been accorded full member status by the United Nations (which currently comprises 193 countries), will have little need for State 194, which examines the efforts of Palestine’s former prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to achieve that goal. (Fayyad resigned a month ago, well after this film made its festival première; an end title to that effect has reportedly been added.) As a primer, however, the film does the job, albeit less thoroughly and with more needless digressions than would even a lengthy magazine article on the subject.
Some of those digressions are an inevitable by-product of the fashionable doc mode in which a filmmaker simply follows subjects around with a camera hoping for moments of interest. Photo ops are a political necessity, but it’s not clear why a movie audience needs to see Fayyad complimenting a little boy on his soccer prowess, or even reciting the same optimistic platitudes to the masses over and over again. Once he’s told the camera the gist of his nation-building program, which takes about five minutes (the alternative is to actually go into detail, which would take five hours), there’s not much more to be said. Interviews with student activists in both Israel and Palestine take up some of the slack, but there are still only so many ways to express opposition to the status quo and determination to change it.
Ultimately, State 194 wants to rally viewers to the cause of a two-state solution, and that entails glossing over many of the reasons why it hasn’t already happened, in spite of it being in almost everybody’s best interest. Even a meeting between Fayyad and some Israeli settlers, which clearly means to pay lip service to the opposing viewpoint, doesn’t make it clear why the issue has been so intractable for so many years. Israel’s refusal to relinquish the territory it annexed in 1967’s Six-Day War never gets explained, and while Hamas is repeatedly mentioned, the group’s habit of launching rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip is not. Last November, the United Nations chose to grant Palestine only non-member observer status for the time being, but that, too, happened months after the film had been completed, so there’s no context for the decision. Come to think of it, dummies wouldn’t necessarily learn that much in this particular case.