In Tel Aviv, Israel, there is a large, gorgeous opera house inside of which challenging productions are frequently staged. In 2010, the venue put on Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin’s “Dreaming Child”, a tragedy about a small girl whose life is ruined by war. There are many aspects of Levin’s play (adapted into an opera by classical composer Gil Shohat), and of the crew who put it on, that might be worthy of a documentary’s full attention: its strange coterie of child performers; the efforts of its director, Omri Nitzan, to pull off such a complicated production; or the life and work of Levin himself, who wrote 62 plays before he died of cancer in 1999.
But, as its title suggests, Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child chooses instead to focus on the Austrian art superstar that the Opera brought in to make its sets and costumes. The movie’s fortunate that said superstar, an eccentric with a thick Werner Herzog accent who never appears out of costume — black suit, black shades, skull-pattern bandanna shoved down over half his head — is as good as he is at painting. Because the way he receives the doc’s full attention is really the trouble with the whole thing; so little actually happens while the Dreaming Child watches Helnwein design the opera’s sets that minor production hiccups, like the Israeli government’s decision not to allow children to perform in an opera about children, are treated as if they were earth-shattering roadblocks in the path of the realization of the vision of great artists.
Helnwein is a generally convivial personality, though his paintings (which are beautiful) and installations focus on, or try to provoke an emotional response to, violence against children. He is a dedicated artist, a perfectionist, a bit of an egotist — he gets in small squabbles with both Nitzen and the lighting designer, who everybody calls “Bambi”. But so what? Theater productions are about creative heads coming together to solve problems for the greater good, and no serious clashes are even shown during this one. Helnwein is good at what he does, we watch him do it, we get some nice shots of the tableaux he’s created for “The Child Dreams,” and that’s it. It’s hard not to feel like a serious opera about childhood amongst war and death has taken a back seat to a puff piece about a man whose international recognition already exceeds that of any of the people he’s working with.