"Colliding Dreams" is a film of ideas and a film of history, a thorough and engrossing look at the root causes of the tortured relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. But as far as its title goes, "Collapsing Dream" would have been a more accurate choice.
As co-directed by veteran documentarians Joseph Dorman ("Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness," "Arguing the World") and Oren Rudavsky ("Hiding and Seeking"), "Colliding Dreams" does in part concern itself with the conflicting hunger of two peoples for the same sliver of land.
Talking only to people who live in the land in question, "Colliding Dreams" interviews thoughtful and articulate individuals on all sides of the issue, including Israelis like historian Benny Morris and novelist A.B. Yehoshua and Palestinians like PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi.
They all examine a situation comparable to, as someone vividly puts it, jumping out of a window of a burning house only to land on someone else's head.
But despite the many Palestinians it talks to, the film's subtext is a mournful and distinctly Israeli one as it concerns itself more and more with the gradual death of the dream of secular Zionism.
How did a hopeful, idealistic movement whose symbol was the kibbutz collective farm become a state viewed in some quarters as an oppressor whose symbol is settlements of questionable legality? How did a movement that wanted to normalize Jewish existence, to create kinship with other peoples of the world end up, as one witness says, not escaping the ghetto but instead building a bigger one?
"Colliding Dreams" begins by underlining how crazy the dream of a homeland for the world's dispersed Jews was when it began in the 19th century. "To be a Zionist it is not necessary to be mad," Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, memorably said. "But it helps."
Inspired by theoreticians like Leon Pinsker and Theodor Herzl, European Jews began returning to the former lands of Israel after the dream of a peaceful life in Europe via assimilation did not lead to promised acceptance by the wider world.
The first aliyah, or wave of Jewish immigration, came in the wake of 1881 pogroms and the second came after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. The British had apparently offered Europe's Jews the land of Uganda instead of Palestine, but nothing but the former Jewish homeland would do.
The problem with that homeland, however, was that another people were already living in it. As an early Zionist wrote back to colleagues in Europe in a kind of code, "the girl is beautiful but she is already engaged."
Their desperation increased by the Holocaust, Jews after World War II felt they had no other place to go. Palestine Liberation Organization spokesperson Ashrawi sees it differently: Though superficially a success, Israel is a failure because "it exists on the negation of Palestinians as human beings with rights."
Things came to a head in 1947, when a civil war erupted after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine. Arab states invaded in 1948, and the film explores the thorny question of whether Palestinians were expelled or simply left. When the dust settled, 700,000 Palestinians were left homeless, Egypt and Jordan claimed their land, and they came to use the word Nakba, or "catastrophe," to describe their plight.
One of the most interesting points "Colliding Dreams" makes is that because partition had not been a problem for secular Zionists, from the establishment of the state until 1967 the word was not on everyone's lips.
Then, in 1967, the Six-Day War brought all of historic Palestine under Israeli control. This led the influential Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook to embrace Zionism as part of a divine plan, to give the previously secular movement a religious, Messianic cast. That feeling intensified and led to religious settlements on the West Bank after Israel's victory in 1973's Yom Kippur War.
While nonreligious Zionists quoted in the film felt this was "going backwards, turning a state into a movement," religious Zionism grew ever stronger. If secular Zionists felt that having a Jewish state was a right, religious Zionists felt it was a religious obligation, a belief that led to the pivotal assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"Colliding Dreams," with its more than 30 articulate talking heads supplemented by more erratic "person in the street" interviews, tells this tragic, compelling story in a completely straightforward way. "If we blow this opportunity," American-born writer Hillel Halkin says frankly near the conclusion, "we don't deserve to go on."
For the Record
March 3, 6:16 p.m.: An earlier version of this review misspelled Hillel Halkin's last name as Hankin.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Town Center 5, Encino; Regal Westpark, Irvine