'Footnote' director Joseph Cedar and the new Israeli cinema
The Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar was in town last month for the Academy Awards, which honored his latest movie, “Footnote,” with a nomination for the foreign language film Oscar. To make him feel at home, I took him to lunch at an Israeli café in a neighborhood that has so many kosher markets it’s known as Little Israel. The café owners gushed over Cedar’s movie, which was a big hit in Israel, winning 9 Israeli Oscars. The waitress even delivered a free dessert plate, which Cedar politely nibbled at, confiding that “she doesn’t know how skinny you have to be to fit into a tuxedo.”
The warm reception was somewhat out of character for the typically fractious Israelis, who can argue about almost anything, as Cedar captures so adroitly in “Footnote.” The film, now playing at the Laemmle Royal Theater, is about a bitter rivalry between father and son, both Talmudic scholars at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. The father, played by Shlomo Bar Aba, is taciturn and misanthropic, resentful of any incursions from modern life. The son, played by Lior Ashkenazi, is worldly and successful, a champion schmoozer.
The men are already at odds. But when a misunderstanding occurs involving the ultra-prestigious Israel Prize, all hell breaks loose.
Many have assumed that the film has autobiographical roots, since Cedar’s father, Haim, is a celebrated biochemist who has been awarded the prize, the country’s highest academic honor. Cedar insists that he and his father are extraordinarily close. In fact, when “Footnote” earned an ovation at Cannes, the first person Cedar hugged was his father.
To me, the film is really about something larger that all artists, Israeli or otherwise, struggle with--the need to remain creatively autonomous while also connecting with a broader culture. It is an issue that engages Cedar, since he has struggled to retain a fiercely independent vision at a time when Israel's film and TV industry is amid a commercial boom.
“I’m always torn between the two sides,” says Cedar, 43, who was born in New York and emigrated to Israel as a young boy. “If you use popularity to spread important ideas, it can be a wonderful thing. Populism is a necessary force, because purists don’t always communicate very well. But without strict purism, the populist would lose his connection to the source of his subject.”
For years, Israel was something of a showbiz wasteland, with only one state-regulated TV channel. It wasn’t until 1993 that what is now known as Channel 2 became a commercial operation. The government now mandates that nearly half of Israel’s TV content be locally produced. After Israeli film production faltered in the 1990s, the government passed a cinema law in 2001 that established public subsidies that are allocated by competing nonprofit organizations.
The results have been dazzling. Israel’s now-vibrant movie business has produced so many critically acclaimed pictures that the nation has been a foreign film finalist at the Oscars four of the past five years. (“Footnote” was financed in part by government subsidies.) And the TV industry is now successfully exporting its concepts. The Showtime hit “Homeland” is based on the Israeli series “Hatufim.” The HBO series “In Treatment” is a remake of a similar Israeli show.
Israelis say the government intervention inspired a new generation of filmmakers and TV show runners. But they also credit the country’s burst of creativity to its wealth of immigrants. “Israel is a place full of talent because it’s an incredible melting pot,” says producer Ehud Bleiberg, who made the critically acclaimed films “The Band’s Visit” and “Precious Life.” "Israel has immigrants from more than 100 countries, so you get the best of the best, whether it’s in science and technology or film, art and literature.”
Bleiberg points to another key cultural difference. “Israelis are impatient, so things happen much more quickly than in Hollywood. You’d never spend six months negotiating with a studio the way you do here. Israel is a small country where everyone knows each other. If you have a good script, you just call up the actor. If they like the script, then you get going.” And if they don’t? “When someone says no, it’s not an answer anyone in Israel accepts.”
With funding handed out by nonprofits, not bottom line-oriented studios, Israel has become an incubator for uncompromising, personal filmmaking. Yet Cedar says that having to rely on subsidies can sometimes make filmmakers feel like workers on a plantation. "A filmmaker in Israel can't function without the establishment," he says. "In Hollywood, you have an odd sort of freedom, since the film industry won't do anything that isn't financially successful. So it replaces conformism with the desire for success."
Cedar's ambivalence about the larger role of the state in all aspects of society emerges in one of the bravura moments in “Footnote.” It depicts an epic committee squabble, filmed in a tiny, claustrophobic room where all of the scholars are hemmed in by books and sheaves of papers.
“It was based on a committee I had to deal with to get my daughter into kindergarten, the only difference being that it was women who were all pregnant,” Cedar explains. “Everywhere I go, everything I need is blocked by a committee. The dynamic of a committee automatically means there is a power struggle, usually weighted toward those in power, so having everyone in a tiny room was a perfect metaphor.”
Even though "Footnote" is set in academia, for Cedar, the film is a quiet commentary on the power of the establishment in Israel. "If in order to be embraced by the establishment you have to betray everthing you stand for--well, that's pretty political for me," he says. “Israel started out as a small country that had to be more ingenious and creative to survive. But as we became more prosperous, we became a bully. And when you gain power, you lose your hunger for innovation. So when you look at Israel today, what do we boast about? Our high tech industry, which uses our intellect to make lots of money. We should be creating different roles other than the role model of being rich.”
Still, Cedar doesn’t see himself as a government critic so much as an artist who invariably finds himself in conflict with the establishment. For Cedar, what really matters, especially in “Footnote,” is the struggle to preserve culture. “The question is how to do it—do we preserve culture by retaining the older traditions or by keeping them relevant?” He smiles. “There’s no real answer. I guess it’s the debate that matters.”
Photo: Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik in "Footnote." Credit: Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics