en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Herzl, by Rita Cannon
This may sounds odd to some people, but a lot of the time, if I want to relax, I’ll watch a documentary. I find them strangely calming, even if the content of the film is disturbing. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe there’s something centering and meditative about sitting in front of the TV and basically saying, “Okay, I’ve set my brain to ‘receive.’ Now tell me some things.” Maybe the guilty anxiety I sometimes feel when I sit down to watch something – the nagging idea that I must be neglecting something more important – is lessened when watching a doc, because, you know, at least I’m learning something. Of course, a documentary can be informative without being good cinema, and some of the greatest ones succeed because of the lack of answers they provide. If a doc’s quality were measured by the number of facts it relayed, then Capturing The Friedmans would be considered inferior to Biography‘s profile of Ben and Jerry. (If you think I’m undervaluing a great Biography episode, I’ll be happy to hear you out in the comments section.) Some documentaries expertly use their medium to enhance the stories they’re telling, and others feel like listening to an audio book while someone shows you a slideshow culled from Google Images. Sadly, It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl falls into the second category.
Born in Hungary in 1860, Herzl was a noted journalist and playwright, but his greatest legacy is as the author of 1895’s Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), which outlined Herzl’s vision of an independent Jewish state as the solution to anti-Semitism in Europe. He’s considered by many to be the father of modern Zionism, and in effect the State of Israel. It Is No Dream was produced by Moriah Films, which is a division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization that lists “standing with Israel” as part of its mission statement. Two of their films – Genocide in 1982 and The Long Way Home in 1997 – have won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Obviously, being part of an organization with a clear political stance does not mean you can’t make a good movie. Nor is it a bad thing to make a documentary with an agenda – it’s great when you can feel a filmmaker’s passion for his or her subject. The problem with It Is No Dream is that there is no sense of passion. The film is 100% certain of Herzl’s greatness, but in an incredibly staid way that minimizes the dramatic conflicts inherent in any discussion of Zionism and Israel. I think the strongest word I can apply to it is “dutiful.” It recites dates and facts without interpreting or analyzing them in any way. It’s not that it’s portrayal of Herzl and his beliefs is one-sided, it’s that it seems to exist in a vacuum. Director Richard Trank doesn’t seem fascinated by Herzl so much as he seems burdened by an obligation spread the good news about him.
The part of history that It Is No Dream covers is an interesting one, and you’ll probably learn a lot by watching it. That’s a perfectly fine goal for a historical documentary to have, and one that this film achieves. But there’s a difference between learning facts about a time in history, and being absorbed in someone else’s experience of it. Ultimately, there’s very little in It Is No Dream that you couldn’t get from reading Theodor Herzl’s Wikipedia page, which makes one wonder, why bother making the movie at all?