Exclusive Q&A: ‘State 194’ Director on Israel, Palestine and the Messiah

Filmmaker Dan Setton’s latest is a dispatch from the frontlines of hope, peace and infrastructure.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (R) speaks with cave dweller Mahmoud Hamamdeh in the shepherd community of Al-Mufaqara near the West Bank city of Hebron.(Photo: Mohamad Torokman)

Sep 10, 2012
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

State 194, a new documentary illuminating the quest for Palestinian statehood, is remarkable for the fact that individual Israelis and Palestinians trusted one another in a collaboration to make a film about resolving the mistrust and enmity that have plagued their peoples for more than half a century.

Even more remarkable: State 194 charts out concrete steps that its characters—Palestinian, Israeli and mixed—are taking toward a day when the greater majority of Palestinians and Israelis greet one another as equal neighbors. And it looks like they just might succeed.

MORE: Bereaved Parents: Unlikely Allies for Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation

The Israeli Palestinian conflict is the most intractable divide in the Middle East and the most difficult to discuss in the United States. Conversation at any sophisticated, progressive dinner table can be awkwardly silenced by broaching opinions on Palestinian autonomy or Israeli security or the occupied territories.

Still, it’s an axiom that issues will not be resolved if conditions and circumstances cannot be freely discussed.

State 194, directed by an Israeli, Dan Setton, and produced in conjunction with Participant Films, TakePart’s parent company, eschews footage of bombing and soldiers on patrol to focus on a two-year period in the work of Palestinian National Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Fayyad’s mission has been to finance, plan and install an infrastructure in the West Bank—everything from parking meters to hospitals and schools—so that any emerging Palestinian nation will arrive prepared to function.

Director Dan Setton speaks with TakePart about the difficulty of filming the drama of hope, one difference between Israelis and Palestinians that really matters, and why he no longer has patience for the attitude that peace is impossible.

TakePart: Why was it important for you to make State 194?

Dan Setton: I have been making films about the conflict for the past 20 years. I’m an Israeli, and what you see in the news around the world doesn’t always reflect what I wanted to convey in this movie. This movie is about hope. It brings to the screen a wonderful human being, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, working for peace. We are living in a time that the window of opportunity for peace is closing down. I thought it’s about time, that I really give my utmost to make a film that will engage people to do something for peace.

“It’s difficult to make a film about moderation. You don’t see people demonstrating on the street for moderation.”

TakePart: Why did you pick Salam Fayyad?

Dan Setton: Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian authority, has been engaged in changing the destiny of the Palestinians by preparing the territories for statehood, much like the Israelis did back in 1946 and 1947. The Israelis had a state in place way before 1948 [when the country declared statehood].  

In the past two years, Ramallah looks different; the West Bank looks different. Everything is new, and that is very, very comforting. People don’t build new schools, new hospitals, new institutions, new music centers, new cinemas, if they want to go to war. They aren’t building bunkers; they are building toward a future of peace. State 194 is showing an opportunity for peace here, and hope.

TakePart: How did that hope become clear to you?

Dan Setton: Well, I set about interviewing people who are working for peace. And it was clear to me: I am making a film in which people working for peace really believe in what they are doing. Finding the characters was surprisingly easy. There are a lot of people in both Palestine and Israel working for peace. I wanted to interweave them in the story with the lead character, which is Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority.

TakePart: What was the hardest part about making State 194?

Dan Setton: I would say the most challenging thing is to actually make a film about hope in a dramatic way. It’s difficult to make a film about moderation. You don’t see people demonstrating on the street for moderation.

“You have no options but to be optimistic. I cannot accept anyone saying there is no solution.”

TakePart: What do you want the viewer to take away from State 194?

Dan Setton: That there is hope. And at the same time, that window of opportunity is closing. And I want the audience to understand that the difference between Israelis and Palestinians is simple: Israelis want peace, and Palestinians want to end the conflict, and they want an end to the occupation. In order to have that, we need to give them a state and have the two-state solution. When they have the state, when they are equal citizens like the Israelis, two free people can negotiate and come together to an agreement of peace. The Israelis will pay a price; Palestinians will pay a price.

TakePart: How forthcoming was Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad?

Dan Setton: Once he opened the door, he left it wide open. There’s a scene in the movie where Fayyad comes home after a day’s work and takes off his jacket, like an ordinary man. We visit his home; we go with him in the office. We sit in his car while he’s taking us everywhere.

For me, as an Israeli who lives there, these were uplifting historic moments. I could see things that I had never seen before. I could see the joy on peoples’ faces when he reopened the school. I could see the joy on peoples’ faces when the Palestinians played their first international soccer game on Palestinian soil, against Thailand.

As Fayyad says in the movie “We lost the game, but we won before we even started it.”

TakePart: Why is that window for peace open now?

Dan Setton: There are very moderate leaders in the Palestinian authority right now, and less moderate leaders who have an opportunity to come in. As long as the moderate leaders are there, this is the best opportunity we’ve had in a really long time to actually make headway in ending this conflict. This movie shows that a lot of work has already been done. It’s an opportunity to keep that window open and really insist that it doesn’t close.

TakePart: With all the years of frustration, how does the hope stay alive?

Dan Setton: Salam Fayyad has a line in the film that stuck with me: He says if you were a Palestinian, you have no choice but to stay optimistic. And, I think, as an Israeli, it’s the same: You have no options but to be optimistic. The journey that I've taken while making this film has affected me so that today I cannot accept anyone saying there is no solution.

Nowadays, people are looking everywhere in the world to make a change. I want to say something personal. My father was a religious Jew. One day, I asked him, “Dad, do you believe in the messiah?” He said something to me that was very touching. He said, “Son, the change, the messiah, is in the heart. When the hearts of people are going to change, that’s the messiah.”

I took that with me when I decided to make this film.

What are some of the reasons why your only option is to be optimistic? Leave the light on in COMMENTS.

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