Weaving together home video and family films, still photos and animated illustrations, along with interviews and vérité footage shot primarily by director Jeremiah Zagar, In a Dream showcases hundreds of Isaiah's glimmering, mirrored murals and mosaics, which line the outer walls and interiors of buildings throughout Philadelphia. The camera captures Isaiah's process, showing him mixing a huge barrel of paint, breaking up tiles and mirrors with a hammer and placing them piece by piece to create his gigantic mosaics.
The murals chronicle his love for his wife, Julia, and their sons Ezekiel and Jeremiah, but also hint at the dark corners of his extraordinary imagination. Shortly after the couple married in the '70s, Isaiah's mood darkened, and he was plagued by delusions. At 29, he tried to commit suicide and was institutionalized for 15 days. After his release, the Zagars bought a place in South Philly and welcomed Ezekiel and then Jeremiah to the family, while Isaiah started creating mosaics and other art, which began to spill into spaces outside.
Where Isaiah is obsessive - a former Peace Corps volunteer who has become an icon in South Philly's art community - Julia is gracious. She says that for years they were living a dream, buying buildings where Isaiah would create mosaics, then renting them out while raising their boys.
During the course of In a Dream, Isaiah declares, "As people get older they have less and less passion." He confesses to an affair with his assistant, is subsequently kicked out of the house, and spirals into a debilitating, suicidal depression. In time, Julia lets him back in, though he's relegated to the third floor. Eventually, he's allowed time downstairs, but shows little energy. After Julia encourages him to plant something, however, Isaiah's creative spark returns. He starts drawing and writing, and eventually goes back to his murals. "They are life to him," Julia says, "and he is life to me."
Director Jeremiah Zagar observes, "I started filming a documentary about my father in 1999, back when I thought of him and our family as perfect...As the interviews progressed, I began to realize there was a much larger movie to be made than I originally envisioned. It was a strange feeling because, although I wanted it, I never expected [to] see this man who I revered as the flawed and fragile person he actually is...What started as an exploration of my father's life has exposed the secrets of our entire family. But I don't think it's a bad thing...We know now how imperfect we really are, but also how much we need and love each other."
At age 19, Jeremiah Zagar made the documentary "Delhi House," which premiered at the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival, and has since made the award-winning short films "The Unbelievable Truth," "Baby Eat Baby" and "Coney Island 1945," which have screened in numerous festivals in the U.S. and abroad, including the Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW Film Festival and the London Film Festival.
In a Dream has received numerous awards, including the Emerging Visions Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival, Grand Prize at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna, the Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award at the Full Frame Film Festival, and Best Documentary and the James Lyons Best Editing Award at the Woodstock Film Festival.
In a Dream was directed by Jeremiah Zagar; produced by Jeremy Yaches; executive producers, Ross Kauffman, Geralyn White Dreyfous and Pamela Tanner Boll; editors, Keiko Deguchi & Jeremiah Zagar; director of photography, Erik Messerschmidt; For HBO: supervising producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.