In the 65 years since the creation of Israel and the scattering of millions of Palestinians from their historic homeland, hope of resolving the core crisis of the Middle East has risen to joyous pinnacles like Camp David and crashed into despair with deadly outbreaks of violence and bloodshed.
When Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in 2009 launched a two-year program to build up the economy and institutions of democratic rule, his vow to show the world that Palestine was ready for statehood inspired filmmakers Dan Setton of Jerusalem and Elise Pearlstein of Los Angeles to document his mission.
The film, “State 194,” blends scenes of grass-roots activism by idealistic young bloggers and pacifist groups like Parents Circle and J Street with Fayyad’s diligent work to build a state from the ground up. It is a chronicle that captures popular yearning for an enduring peace as well as frustration with political leaders on both sides who have repeatedly squandered chances for compromise and reconciliation.
Fayyad, a U.S.-educated economist and former International Monetary Fund banker, resigned his Palestinian Authority post in April, ending a tenure that won respect from global peace brokers but was undermined by rivalries within the two largest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.
“State 194,” as Palestine would become should it gain United Nations recognition, premieres Friday in New York and Los Angeles. The debut coincides with the 65th anniversary of the nakba, or "the catastrophe," the 1948 flight of Palestinians from the new state of Israel.
Although the documentary on Fayyad’s mission ends before his resignation, Setton, who directed the film, and Pearlstein, who produced it, said in an interview with The Times that opportunities for peace and statehood nevertheless endure:
Q: When you set out to make this film, did you have the expectation or hope that the film would end with the achievement of statehood for Palestine?
Setton: I had hoped there would be some advance in the direction of reconciliation, but I didn’t have illusions that it was all going to work out like a miracle. I did believe in one aspect very strongly, and that was what Salam Fayyad was set to do, which is to change the mind-set of the people in his country. The mind-set and the life that we have unfortunately gotten used to here is a mirror image of the two peoples. We each have a demonic image of the other. Fayyad took it upon himself to change this image. One of his strongest models was the immense power of nonviolence. He is almost Gandhi-like in advocating this.
Q: Salam Fayyad is such a key figure in your film. How does his resignation affect the prospects for resuming peace talks and achieving statehood?
Setton: There was a loss of momentum even before his resignation. I’ve spoken with him recently, and he said he resigned his job but he hasn’t resigned his mission. He will push Palestinians to continue working on what he believes will create the conditions of statehood.
Q: A lot has changed since you concluded filming, with the fighting in Gaza late last year and the Israeli elections in January. Was “State 194” intended as a snapshot of where the pursuit of a Palestinian state was last year, rather than a comprehensive account of the advances and setbacks?
Setton: This film is certainly not a Hollywood classic film where you have a beginning, a middle and a great victory in the end, despite all hardships. The film is about a reality that is very complex. We tried to make it as clear as possible for the many underinformed people that are in our audience. But it’s not really a snapshot -- that minimizes what happened in this region that has gone through tremendous change. Despite what people may think, there is more possibility today to achieve reconciliation and reach an agreement. It won’t happen in a short time, but the possibilities are there.
Pearlstein: When we were making the film we were fully aware that we didn’t know how Fayyad’s plan would end. For years his position had been unstable, never knowing whether he would remain in office or not. We were trying to make sure the film served as a historical documentation of the time when change felt really possible.
Q: You have mentioned misconceptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in your wider audience. What are some of the circumstances of which viewers are unaware or misinformed?
Pearlstein: In general in the United States, and in particular in the American Jewish community, there is a lack of exposure to images of the conflict that are not violent. Some of the things that have been most fascinating to me have been the normalized versions of Palestinian life on display, the leaders who are well educated and speaking out against violence. There’s no blood in this film. It’s all about the constructive building of institutions and a political movement.
Q: The film expresses the frustration of many Israelis and Palestinians with the status quo of suspension, having neither peace nor war. Why isn’t there more of a sense of urgency in getting peace talks back on track and working on the mechanics of a two-state solution?
Setton: It’s a mixture of frustration and indifference on both sides. I would say it is resignation on the part of Palestinians. In shooting the film we took a lot of aerial shots and wide shots, as we thought it would be a good cinematic approach to rise up from the day-to-day little things and show a bigger picture. The big picture is changing. I went to Ramallah before I even knew Fayyad so I was able to see how the city changed, how it has turned into a little Amman with cafes and shopping malls. Something was happening. There have been a lot of setbacks, but the possibility is still there. I wish I could shout out from the top of every building that "We can do this!"
Pearlstein: The problem is that nobody wants violence, but violence creates a sense of urgency. With this film we were trying to create a sense of urgency before violence resumes. It’s a tricky thing, because in the absence of violence people get complacent. It felt the whole time we were making this film that we were in a calm before the storm.
Q: There was some speculation after the Gaza fighting in November and the cease-fire that ended it of Fatah and Hamas reconciling and uniting in the pursuit of statehood. How likely do you consider that happening?
Setton: Even though Hamas and violence go very well together in the minds of Israelis and others, Hamas can be talked to, and there can be an agreement reached. They have to solve this problem. Fayyad explained well that it would be a mistake to try to do reconciliation ahead of everything else. Forget that. We can reach that place but by addressing first the fundamental issue in the way -- security. Until we reach agreement on that issue, we can’t move forward.
Q: What is at risk if Israel continues to build more settlements while there are no active negotiations on borders and possible land swaps?
Setton: Everything. The risk is that they’re occupying more and more land on which Palestinians are supposed to have their future state. It works completely against the idea of a two-state solution. It is working toward creation of a dual-national state in which the Israelis are going to be inferior from a demographic point of view. They are shooting themselves in the foot.
Q: The Arab League has recently elevated its role in pursuit of a peace accord and Palestinian statehood. What are the prospects for this broader international approach to succeed in getting peace talks restarted?
Setton: That is always helpful. It also reflects change in the region. As a result of the unsuccessful "Arab Spring" rebellions, we in this region and the world in general are in an age of reassessment, in the economy and across the board.
Setton: Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize early in his tenure and people thought he was going to do a lot for peace. But some compare that to a director who has a great idea for a film and gets the Oscar before shooting a single frame.
Pearlstein: Our film begins with Obama’s  speech in Cairo and the promise he brought with him. I think it’s important for people internationally to hold leaders to be accountable for the promises they make.