Cedar's time of favor

After winning the prestigious Silver Bear Award in Berlin, Beaufort is set to conquer Israel.

joseph cedar 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
joseph cedar 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
After garnering February's prestigious Silver Bear Award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival, Joseph Cedar's 'Beaufort' is set to conquer Israel this week When the judges vote at a major film festival, the winners get a call before the closing ceremony to make sure they will attend. The likely winners tend to sit by the phone, waiting to hear. Unless they're Joseph Cedar, the Israeli director who won a Silver Bear Award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival last month for his latest movie, Beaufort, a fact-based drama about the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
  • Read Hannah Brown's raving review The judges made their decision on Friday night, but Cedar, who is observant, doesn't answer the phone on Shabbat. So the word came from one of his producers, who dropped by Cedar's hotel room in Berlin to break the good news in person. But Cedar still didn't know what award Beaufort had won and he didn't want to get too excited. "It was very important for me all week to lower expectations," he said in an interview at his Tel Aviv apartment last week. "There was a lot of Israeli press there and everyone was building expectations for an award, that this has to lead to some kind of climax. First of all, I didn't think that that was really true and I thought it was enough of an honor just to be in the competition... I didn't want anyone to be disappointed, so I actually convinced myself that we didn't need an award. But after you get it, it's kind of nice." What the soft-spoken Cedar, 38, didn't say was that it was no coincidence that there were high expectations for Beaufort. Based on the Sapir Prize-winning novel If There Is a Heaven by Ron Leshem, who collaborated with Cedar on the screenplay, the movie is being released just months after the second war in Lebanon broke out and brought back memories of the earlier conflict. In addition, anyone who follows the Israeli movie scene knew very well that Beaufort was likely to be a breakout success at Berlin. That is because Cedar's previous two films, Time of Favor (Hahesder) (2000) and Campfire (Medurat Hashevet) (2004), which both won the Ophir Award for Best Picture (the Israeli Oscar) and opened abroad to acclaim (Campfire won a Special Mention at Berlin in 2004), were among the most original and well-made films that have come out of Israel. Both were also unusual in that they dealt with the national religious community that has become more prominent and politically powerful in the last three decades, but was virtually invisible in the movie world. Cedar, the American-born, Jerusalem-raised son of Howard Cedar, a professor of molecular biology who won the Israel Prize, and a mother who is a psychotherapist, is the rare Orthodox Israeli filmmaker. In Time of Favor and Campfire, he turned his camera on the complexities of the community in which he had grown up with both sensitivity and a critical eye. When he took on the project of making a film about Israel's involvement in Lebanon, there was every reason to hope that he would make a significant film, one that would help explain the soldiers' experience both to the Israeli public and audiences abroad in a way that would illuminate their struggles. All too often, filmmakers here have chosen either to make narrowly political films that at best preached to the converted, or movies that were set in a strange vacuum, one in which politics and war (not to mention military service, hourly news broadcasts and political debate) simply do not exist. Because of Cedar's track record for making high-quality films on aspects of the Israeli experience that no one else had tackled, there was every reason to believe that Beaufort would be a triumph. The award at Berlin simply confirmed that Cedar had done it: He had made the first major Israeli war film. Although the nation has been plagued by war throughout its history, there had never been a serious, large-scale drama that examined war through the eyes of IDF soldiers. This isn't to say that no one had tried. But until Beaufort, no one had made a war movie with this kind of impact. THE PRIZE at Berlin came at a time when the high quality of recent Israeli films, after a couple of years of ups and downs, is being recognized around the world. Two other Israeli films, Shaul Dror's Sweet Mud and Eytan Fox's The Bubble, also picked up prizes at Berlin this year, although Beaufort's win marked the first time an Israeli film had won a top award at the festival, one of Europe's most prestigious and competitive. And since this win comes on the heels of the triumph of Sweet Mud at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where it won the top prize for international feature films, the Berlin win for Beaufort marks a new era in Israeli moviemaking. For Cedar, though, there was far greater pressure than just to impress the Berlin judges. "I can't even begin to explain how stressful it was dealing with this story," he said. A great deal of that stress came from the fact that, although it is fiction, it was based on recent, true events, in particular the memories of the last soldiers stationed on an outpost built on the strategic site of Beaufort, the Crusader castle that was captured in a bloody battle at the beginning of the first Lebanon war in 1982. "There are so many people who feel that this story is their own," he said, including soldiers who were there and the families of soldiers who were killed. "Taking it from them and reworking it, then taking them into a theater and showing it to them, the potential for disappointing and upsetting people is paralyzing. The only way to get yourself out of that is... letting go and being free enough to turn this story into something that's your own." But the families were never far from his mind. "Some of the families came with us to Berlin," he said. "Knowing that they would be watching was a big part of making the film. It was part of the editing process." Trying to see the film through the eyes of these parents inspired him to "spend a longer than I would have with some of the characters who are killed, preparing for their death." Although he worried that this decision might be "anti-dramatic," in the finished film it gives a far greater impact to the moments when the characters' lives are lost. In their attempt to give the film immediacy and authenticity, Cedar and Leshem spent several years working on the screenplay, writing 18 drafts and vastly altering the story from how Leshem told it in his book. Cedar was first inspired to make a film about the war when he saw a monologue from the point of view of a soldier who had been at Beaufort that Leshem wrote for Yediot Aharonot in 2001. It moved him and he contacted Leshem to ask him to collaborate on the movie long before he had finished writing the book. Although Cedar was not at Beaufort, he served as a paratrooper and medic in the late 1980s and spent time in Lebanon, where he lost two friends. Other acquaintances died as well, and the experiences of collaborating with Leshem helped Cedar begin to look at his IDF experience and how he repressed his own fear while serving. "We encourage children to take risks," he said, "but we don't want to deal with the consequences." In a particularly moving moment in the film, Liraz, the 22-year-old commander of the outpost on Beaufort (played by Oshri Cohen), watches a television interview with the father of one of his soldiers who died there. Rather than lashing out at the government or the enemy, "the father says, 'I blame myself for not giving my son the survival tool of fear that would have protected his life,'" said Cedar. This monologue was inspired by Cedar's own father, who grew up in a middle-class American family, which "gives you the idea that you are the most valuable thing in the world." In a scene with some high-ranking officers who are flown in to meet with the Beaufort soldiers, Liraz says, "If we're going to withdraw, then bring us home. But if we're here to fight, let us do our jobs." It's impossible to watch the film without thinking about mistakes that were made by the IDF brass in both Lebanon wars. But asked to comment on this, Cedar said, "Of course the government is not sensitive enough to individual human life. Of course it's not sensitive. It's a government. That's banal. What's more interesting is why these soldiers want to be there. What mechanism does our society give them that turns them into war machines and overrides their survival instinct? I don't have an answer, but the film tries to deal with that." At one point, some of the soldiers discuss whether they came to Beaufort on purpose or by mistake. "I wanted to be here," says Zitlaui, the funniest and most rambunctious character, played by Itai Turgeman. "That was the mistake." EXCEPT FOR the last moments, the movie takes place entirely on Beaufort and "the mountain becomes a character in the film," Cedar said. Although missiles hit the outpost and kill soldiers, not a single enemy soldier is shown throughout the film. The claustrophobia of being stuck in one place with nothing to do but be shot at - which is as much a part of modern warfare as dramatic battles - has never been shown quite like this before. At the end, as they prepare to evacuate and blow up the outpost, Liraz takes down the flag. "Most war movies show someone putting up the flag. But this is the exact opposite," Cedar said. Another groundbreaking aspect of the film for Israeli movies is the gritty reality of the outpost and the scale of the pyrotechnics at the end when the soldiers blow it up. After some deliberation, Cedar chose to build an outpost at the Nimrod's Castle Crusader fortress, not far from the Lebanese border, which bears a resemblance to Beaufort. The construction - and the destruction - were a massive undertaking for which he enlisted the services of a veteran military contractor. Liraz, who has come to identify with the mountain, "needs an explosion to bring him to that reality," that in spite of all he has experienced there, Israel is withdrawing. The explosion was "a cinematic moment that was larger than life. That's the end of a thousand-year cycle of young men being killed on this fort... What a fantastic way to finish a shoot, to blow up the set," said Cedar, who clearly relished the pyrotechnics and their dramatic beauty. One controversy that came up while the movie was being shot, and which took Cedar by surprise, was when media reports revealed that most of the actors had not served in the army. Cedar said that the real number is about one-third. However, he wasn't particularly concerned about it. "That percentage is probably representative of the overall percentage of actors who weren't in the army," he said. But when IDF officers spoke to him about their concerns that actors without military experience played soldiers (a controversy that would never come up in the US or in most countries), Cedar told them, "I didn't let them out of the army, you did." None of them dodged the draft, he emphasized, but all were released for medical or psychological reasons by army doctors. The phenomenon of young people deliberately evading army service "is a serious issue, but tying it to a movie isn't right." Conversely, he was somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that he was using his own military background to imprint the movie with a stamp of authenticity. "I feel bad about [mentioning that]," he said. He talked about his own military experience when promoting the film "to show how the story evolved," not to convince people that he is an authority on the subject. To indicate the absurdity of using the military history of his actors to point to the deterioration of patriotism among Israeli youth, Cedar described a conversation he had with a well-known general. "He said he had three things to tell me," Cedar said. The first was that many people in his office had enjoyed Campfire, while some thought it was too critical of West Bank settlers. The second was that he had heard that some of the Beaufort actors hadn't served in the army and he berated Cedar when he confirmed this, asking how he could have had the nerve to cast them. And the third thing? Actress Uma Thurman was in Israel for a wedding, and could Cedar help the general contact her? Cedar, who lives with his wife, journalist Vered Kellner, and their two young children, is now occupied with promoting the movie, but is also hard at work on his next script, which he isn't ready to discuss yet. He's experiencing a certain tension as he waits to see how Israeli audiences will react to Beaufort, but he's trying not to dwell on it. "This was a loose production. One of the things I had with this film that I didn't with my previous films was that we had the time, we could be creative during the shooting. We were on one location, on this mountain, and that allowed us to figure out what we were doing. Nothing had to be set in stone, even though the set was made out of stone," he said, with a laugh. "Once we were up there, there was no turning back and we said, 'Let's just shoot this movie.'"