Director in the headline

Despite having won the Best Screenplay Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his seemingly un-cinematic story about rival Talmudic scholars, Joseph Cedar is modest about his success.

Footnote film 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Footnote film 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Good humor is necessary everywhere," says Joseph Cedar. And that good humor has served him well recently.
It’s not that he’s needed it to get through rough times. On the contrary, the film director, 42, has just enjoyed a huge success. His latest film, Footnote, won the coveted Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes Film Festival in late May, the first time an Israeli film has won a prize in the main competition at that prestigious event since 2005. That’s a gratifying experience for any director, but it’s the nature of the film itself that has made his homecoming a bit difficult.
The movie is about – of all things – the rivalry between two Jerusalem Talmud scholars, who happen to be father and son.
The plot concerns their vying for the Israel Prize. It’s an amazing achievement that Cedar made this story accessible enough to charm the festival jury. That jury wasn’t composed of a bunch of Bible experts – it was headed by Robert De Niro and included Uma Thurman and Jude Law. But what’s made the aftermath of his success slightly nerve-racking is that total strangers keep trying to psychoanalyze Cedar about his relationship with his father. That’s because his father, Howard Cedar, a world-renowned biologist, won the Israel Prize in 1999 for his work on cells and genetics at the medical school of the Hebrew University.
Sitting in the living room of the Tel Aviv apartment he shares with his wife, journalist Vered Kellner, and their three children, Cedar is both extremely happy and slightly wary. He has not had to speak much about autobiographical aspects of his work before, and never about whether his films were about his family, and it’s making him uncomfortable.
His last film, Beaufort, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008 (the first Israeli film in 24 years to receive a nomination), was based on a novel by Ron Leshem about IDF soldiers in Lebanon. Cedar himself had served in Lebanon, and he could speak articulately and without hesitation about his experiences in the army. Before that, his 2004 film, Campfire, about a religious widow and her daughters in 1980s Jerusalem, was set in the milieu in which Cedar grew up, but was also obviously not about his own life.
Born in America, he moved to Israel as a child and was raised in Jerusalem in a religiously observant family. His first feature film, Time of Favor (better known here by its Hebrew title, Hahesder), also looked at the world of religious nationalists – in this case, a young soldier who stumbles upon a plot inspired by a charismatic rabbi to blow up the Temple Mount. Cedar’s three pre-Footnote films garnered much praise and many awards, but no one thought they were about the director and his parents.
“It’s not about him. It’s not about us,” he says of Footnote, although he admits to having a certain insider knowledge of the Israel Prize ceremony and announcement process because of his father.
When he is told in the middle of the interview that his father is on the radio, talking about his son’s film, Cedar very gently asks for permission to listen in. Catching the end of it, he’s pleased but a bit sheepish.
He doesn’t need to be; hearing the pure pride in his father’s voice, it’s crystal clear that his father is not the model for Eliezer Scholnick – the father in the film, played by Shlomo Bar- Abba – who is resentful of and conflicted about his son’s success.
And Cedar himself is not Uriel – the son in the film, portrayed by Lior Ashkenazi – who feels oppressed by his father’s narrow definition of success and alternately pleased and guilty over his own triumph at popularizing Talmud scholarship to a wider audience.
SUCCESS, RECOGNITION, competition and prizewinning are all very much on Cedar’s mind lately. But at the heart of the film is the conflict between the two main characters.
“Technically, the film is a tragedy. Its resolution is not comic, although there is humor in it,” he says. “Stories about fathers and sons can’t be resolved in a harmonious way. There has to be tension and rebellion.”
The plot turns on an incident that exacerbates the rivalry between them.
“This is the most complex situation I can imagine. It’s an impossible situation,” he says, choosing his words carefully to avoid revealing any spoilers.
Commenting on the fact that it’s a story that steers clear of easy answers, and that the audience’s sympathy shifts between the two heroes, he notes, “The son has an outlook that says that compromise is a high ideal. Compromise means giving up something of your own truth... But there is a side effect to that. He’s extremely productive, but there is less substance to his ideas than to his father’s... In his father’s world, as he says, ‘nice’ is not enough. I have admiration for the father, the truth for him is the highest value... There is always a tension between truth and compromise...
Truth is violent, compromise is peaceful. There’s always tension between traditional thought and progressive thought.”
How did he even come up with the idea of making a film with this seemingly un-cinematic plot? “Philology is as far away as you can get from a popular field,” he says. Academia is not well paid, and while there are “other avenues of recognition in the arts, or in business or in just about anything else,” in the rarefied world of Jewish scholarship, “the Israel Prize is mandatory for self-valuation.”
Just as film buffs tune in to CNN the day the Oscar nominations are announced, those who hope their life’s work will be rewarded by an Israel Prize know well when that “awards season” starts.
“The announcements come between Hanukka and Pessah,” says Cedar. “They’re not all announced at once. If you get to a certain age and you’re in one of these fields and you haven’t won it, you’re very aware of when the announcements come.”
Winning a prize at a film festival associated with topless starlets posing on the beach is about as far as you can get from a corner in the basement of the National Library, and Cedar is well aware of the irony.
“Cannes has ceremony and ritual with strict rules, that I feel honors the films. I respect ritual,” notes the religiously observant director. At Cannes, for example, there is a strict dress code, and all men appearing on the red carpet, as Cedar did with his film, must wear tuxedos. Cedar says he enjoyed wearing his. But other rituals in his life threatened to come into conflict with the Cannes screening.
“It was on a Saturday night at 9:30, but because of Shabbat, we asked that it be postponed till 9:45. And just at 9:30, we started walking to the screening. We were all dressed up, the women were in high heels.”
Besides the 15-minute delay, there was another way Cedar’s Shabbat observance, extremely rare among Israeli filmmakers, impacted him during the festival.
“The press screenings were held on Friday night,” he says. Most directors pace anxiously in the back at press screenings, trying to gauge the audience’s reaction, and generally the audience at these showings includes the most important international critics. But Cedar didn’t attend. That wasn’t so hard, but it was more difficult “when the reviews went online Saturday, and I didn’t read them. That was the highest test of my observance. It was good for my mental health, it was cleansing.”
The film received mostly positive reviews and was purchased for distributions by Sony Classics, a major US distributor for independent film. The distribution deal is an important and meaningful step for Cedar, since it is not a given these days that even movies that win awards at Cannes will be seen by a wide audience.
“I was completely surprised by that,” he says. “When I was honest with myself, I thought the film was a long shot.”
AFTER THE Cannes premiere, Cedar, along with his wife and his parents, who had attended the red-carpet screening with him, went home to Israel. The award ceremony at Cannes wasn’t for a week, but he didn’t think there would be any need for him to be there.
Back in Israel, when he got the call saying he had won the Best Screenplay award, “my first instinct was, it’s a mistake.” He says he had the same reaction upon learning, months earlier, that his film had been accepted to the competition at all.
When I mention that based on the reviews I read from Cannes I thought it so likely he would win a prize that I alerted The Jerusalem Post news desk in advance, he seems genuinely surprised.
Even now, weeks later, he seems almost apologetic about his success.
“When you win a prize, you’re playing along with a ritual that exposes your need for love,” he muses.
He flew back to France for the ceremony, then turned right around and went to a screening of the film that was, in some ways, just as important for him: The Israel premiere, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on May 23.
The movie, which of course was filmed on location in Jerusalem, was financed in part by the Jerusalem Fund, which encourages the production of films in the capital. Mayor Nir Barkat came onstage to praise the sense of place that it conveys.
“There’s nothing more Jerusalem than the rivalry between two scholars,” Cedar says. “I wanted to show a city that is the furthest you can get from all the clichés... the Jerusalem that’s not a postcard. I showed the Modernist architecture of the Israel Museum, the National Library, Binyenei Ha’uma [the International Convention Center]. It’s all from the ’50s and ’60s. There’s [the neighborhood of] Rehavia, too, but even that isn’t the cliché view.”
It was attended by his family and friends, as well as many of the Talmud scholars he consulted while doing research for the film. “It will never have a better audience. The 20 people in the world who could see their lives portrayed on screen were all there.”
Indeed, as I walked out of the screening, I overheard different groups of moviegoers arguing about whether Eliezer was based on Prof. X or Prof. Y. Cedar laughs, but says, “Of course, it made me nervous, knowing that so many people who knew so much about the subject were there.”
Real professors and their work are mentioned by name in the film, and most of them attended, he says.
I assure him that while the discussions I heard were spirited, they were all conducted with the good humor that Cedar believes in.
Like the scholars his film is about, Cedar has realized that “in the Israeli movie industry, nobody gets rich.
It’s a nice thing in some ways. It keeps us naïve and sincere. And there’s no exploitation.”
He does expect the film to turn a profit, a rare outcome in this country. “The sad truth, though, is that there is a limited market for movies in Hebrew.”
So he is contemplating making his next film in English, his first language. “It makes sense,” he says.
Talking about the reactions he has gotten to the film, he says, “The film is really nuanced, there are thousands of little details, and there are things that I know almost nobody is going to notice. But these scholars [at the Jerusalem screening], they’re philologists, they’re trained to look for details.”
He then tells a story that reveals as much about his characters as it does about the audience: “You know the thank-you credits at the end? There are three ways you can do that. One is alphabetical. One is in the order of importance, and one is random. And they read all of it and said, ‘Why did you do it like that? Why did you thank this one first?’ And I said, ‘It’s just random,’ and they said, ‘It’s never random.’”