“The Attack,” Ziad Doueiri’s affecting thriller about a Palestinian surgeon living in Tel Aviv who discovers a shattering secret about his wife, is firmly rooted in the most despairing roots of the Arab-Israeli dispute, with its seemingly endless cycle of humiliation, violence and reprisal.
But next to two stunning documentaries that played alongside “The Attack” at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, its dramatized version of events doesn’t come close to the breathtaking impact of truth. Dan Setton’s “State 194,” which follows Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad as he embarks on a state-building mission in the West Bank, conveys the bracing image of a region in the throes of civil and material progress, albeit fragile. In “The Gatekeepers,” one of the breakout hits of the festival so far, filmmaker Dror Moreh interviews six leaders of the Israeli security force Shin Bet to get their views on why, after 65 years, peace between Israel and the Palestinians has still proved elusive.
At the InterContinental Hotel here on Tuesday, Setton noted that after Moreh saw “State 194,” he told Setton that “his view is bleak and mine is rosy.” Although in the course of “State 194” we see Fayyad’s efforts end with a vote against recognition of Palestine in the United Nations, Setton insists that the institutions and security measures the prime minister created still represent hard evidence that progress is possible.
“The past few years of making this film taught us that a compromise and a solution and a Palestinian state is a possibility,” said Setton, who grew up in Israel. “The film shows that it is possible for the Palestinians to govern themselves, [and] to have a state that would be a valuable addition to the region.”
In “The Gatekeepers,” which will arrive in theaters next year, the crafty, hard-bitten men who led one of the world’s toughest (and controversial) security forces agree that a two-state solution is the only viable outcome in order for Israel to survive. In both films, filmgoers are presented with supremely rational actors – whether it’s the cool-headed Fayyad or the hard-bitten macho men of Shin Bet – whose common-sense views have been dismissed and discarded by their more irrational political leaders. (Fayyad, who was supposed to attend the Toronto festival, was detained in Ramallah after demonstrations broke out last week over high prices in the occupied territories.)
Moreh, who also grew up in Israel, says that it’s precisely that disconnect that makes him less optimistic than Setton. “I come from the dark side of the moon and he comes from the bright side of the moon,” Moreh said, smiling. “Look, at the end of the day you need strong leadership on both sides. “What needs to be done to solve a conflict like that, which involves religion, which involves land, which involves emotion, which involves humiliation, which involves so many aspects, you need two great leaders on both sides at the same time. And even then it’s doubtful.”
Still, the fact that “State 194” (which has yet to be picked up), “The Gatekeepers,” “The Attack” and “Zaytoun,” a fiction film starring Stephen Dorff as an Israeli fighter pilot who befriends a Palestinian refugee, are all on offer in Toronto seems to suggest that a tipping point is at hand. “I think films like ‘State 194’ are going to give an opportunity for a U.S. audience to see a different treatment of the conflict than they’ve seen before,” said producer Elise Pearlstein. “Speaking personally, growing up as a Jewish person in the U.S., we’re exposed to a pretty limited spectrum. . . . It’s usually images of violence, images of Palestinians in kefiyyahs throwing rocks. And some of the things I found most fascinating in the footage were people shopping in Ramallah. I think you can’t overstate the power of seeing different kinds of images.”