Joseph Cedar, writer/director of the Oscar-nominated “Footnote,” tells MATTHEW KALMAN that Israeli films do not have to focus on the conflict to attract international interest
The Jerusalem Report, issue dated February 27, 2012
Film director Joseph Cedar returns to the Academy Awards this month for the second time in four years. His latest movie “Footnote” – a compelling tragi-comedy of father-son relations set in the obscure world of Talmudic philology – has already won Israel’s top cinema prize and was named best script at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Now it has been nominated for the best foreign film Oscar, just like his last movie “Beaufort,” which in 2008 became Israel’s first Academy Award nomination in nearly three decades.
A flood of awards and nominations has accompanied what the “Los Angeles Times” called “Israel’s film renaissance” in recent years. Since Cedar broke the drought, two more Israeli films – “Waltz with Bashir” and “Ajami” have also been nominated for Oscars, while these and other Israeli films have taken home gold and silver Globes, Bears, Cameras and Lions from film festivals in Berlin, Venice, Los Angeles and Cannes.
Unlike the three previous Israeli Oscar nominations, including Cedar’s own “Beaufort” which dealt with the gut-wrenching tensions surrounding Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, the director’s latest movie marks an abrupt departure from the theme of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
But Cedar, who at 43 is widely considered the leading light of this sparkling new generation of Israeli filmmakers, tells The Jerusalem Report that Israeli cinema has much more to offer than a variation on the political themes thrashed out each day in the newspapers.
“I really think that some of the best films that came out of Israel recently are not necessarily about the conflict or about political angles of things in our region,” says the soft-spoken Cedar, whose distinctive New York tones recall the city where he was born and raised. He emigrated to Israel at age six before returning to New York for film school. He now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife Vered, a journalist, and their three children.
“When you look at those films, the reason they were nominated or received attention outside of Israel didn’t really have to do with their political message or their subject matter. It had to do with the filmmaking,” he says.
“‘Ajami,’ at least for me, was such a miracle in how it was made and how it was able to give an audience this authentic experience that seemed effortless but was actually constructed of really challenging elements of non-actors doing extremely dramatic scenes.
“It’s more of a coincidence that they were films that dealt with kind of political aspects. They are films that were interesting for other reasons,” he says.
Father versus son
Cedar happily admits that the subject of “Footnote” could not be more opaque. The film is all about interpretation, set in a world where scholars labor in dusty basements over fragments of ancient texts. A father and son, both Talmudic scholars but with radically different approaches, are caught in a scholarly rivalry that stretches the bond between them to breaking-point and challenges their own integrity.
“New York Times” film critic A.O.Scott said the film “blends academic satire, classic Jewish humor and an almost Shakespearean sense of the tragic potential of the paternal bond.”
The two lead characters, brilliantly played by Shlomo Bar-Aba and Lior Ashkenazi, inhabit a world where an entire life’s work might win international acclaim or be reduced to a single footnote in a forgotten monograph. When outside society comes calling in the form of an ambitious young reporter, the elderly scholar is forced to confront the painful truth that his whole life has been devoted to the study of a subject that no one but a handful of people care about or can even comprehend. The plot turns on whether public acclaim for son or father will be decided by a simple bureaucratic error.
“I’m still in a battle zone, just not between armies, between family members. It’s about a father and son and a competition between them that just crosses all the boundaries that you’d think would exist between a father and son,” says Cedar. “In ‘Footnote’ the characters cross that red line and do things that are really extreme one to another.”
But Cedar declines to be drawn further on interpreting his own award-winning story, preferring others to seek their own meaning in the movie.
“There is something about this film that my instinct has been telling me not to interpret,” he says. “There are a few things that seem to exist in the storyline. Every time I put my finger on one theme or another it somehow reduces what actually is there for the audience.
“Clearly the main dramatic tension is between a father and a son, but the thing or the issue or the sentiment that they are arguing about is really wide in how it seems relevant to many things in my life – not only in my relationship to my son and to my father.”
Cedar says he chose to set the film in the obscure world of philological research after stumbling across the Talmud department at the Hebrew University, where his own father happens to be a world-renowned professor of science.
“Aside from issues that are extremely relevant to me, I found rivalries that were just really extreme, and characters who are unforgiving and who never compromise about anything. It was clear that I had found a gold mine of dramatic treasure,” he says. “The fact that these great epic rivalries had to do with the tiniest, sometimes esoteric nuances of this text that is probably the most important text in our culture, is an added bonus. It allowed me to touch things that I’m happy I had a chance to deal with.”
Asked to explain how such intense passions are ignited by such tiny matters of scholarly analysis, Cedar likes to quote Henry Kissinger, who said the reason that academics are so vicious “is because the stakes are so small.”
While the movie clearly transcends the very small world in which it is set and has proven its appeal to a broad audience, Cedar likes the fact that it is so Jewish.
“There’s something very unique about the world that this film takes place in. Hopefully there are things that an audience outside that world can appreciate or at least be interested in but these characters are extremely specific,” he says.
“The field of manuscript research and Hebrew philology and Talmudic philology is so challenging in Judaic studies because, unlike the Vatican, we don’t really have archives and libraries that connect us to manuscripts continuously over the decades. There are big holes in our heritage. So the job of a Talmudic philologist is really to put together a puzzle with many, many missing pieces. That in itself is unique for Judaic studies.
“Jewish texts were always in danger. It became a survival tool to pass on our data from generation to generation orally, which is also a great philological challenge to decipher because there’s such a big difference between how you convey something orally and how you would convey it in writing,” he says.
The interaction between text and meaning, and the layers that evolve as different people communicate, lies at the heart of “Footnote.” It is also a film about the limits of integrity, an issue that is familiar territory for Cedar. Rare among Israeli filmmakers, he is an Orthodox Jew who is strictly observant. To collect his awards at both Berlin and Cannes, where the ceremonies started just as night was falling on Saturday, Cedar and his 100-strong entourage walked a mile or so through the crowded festival streets to arrive on foot and avoid desecrating Shabbat.
Despite his fluency in both Hebrew and English, Cedar says he has no particular desire to make films outside Israel, but language continues to fascinate him.
“It’s something I’m dealing with now. It’s actually in a remote way the subject of my next film. Not whether I can make a film in English, but how far a character can move away from his comfort zone or his roots without feeling that he’s all by himself in the world,” he says, declining to describe the new movie in any more detail.
“I’ve decided not to talk about it until it’s there,” he says. “Too many times I’ve said something about a project that hasn’t happened or turned out to be completely different. It’s hard enough to talk about a film after it’s made. Talking about it before it’s made is impossible.”
He says his filmmaking process is largely “unconscious” – something brought home to him after comparisons were drawn between themes in his last two films. “Beaufort” was set in a military base built on the ruins of a Crusader castle. The word “fortress” turns out to be the key to deciphering the central text in “Footnote.”
“Someone pointed out to me after the film was made the relation between the word ‘fortress’ and the fact that I just made a film that deals with the complexities of a fortress.”
“In retrospect, there’s a direct connection between those two films, how they show two sides of what a fortress is,” Cedar says. “It’s something that someone pointed out to me afterwards. I had not thought of that.”