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Writing Footnote

Director Joseph Cedar on Orthodox Judaism, The Social Network, and the nightmare scenario behind his latest Academy Award-nominated film

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Joseph Cedar, director of the Oscar-nominated film Footnote. (Ren Mendelson, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The Israeli film Footnote, which was nominated for an Academy Award last week, is the fourth feature film by writer-director Joseph Cedar. Footnote is a slice-of-Jerusalem-life, set at Hebrew University’s inbred Talmud department; it centers around a father-son rivalry for the coveted Israel Prize. Cedar’s first two films, Time of Favor (2001) and Campfire (2004), were box-office hits in Israel and were chosen by local film industry representatives to be Israel’s official selections for the Foreign Language category at the Oscars. Beaufort (2007), his third film, was critically acclaimed  for its depiction of an IDF unit’s experience withdrawing from Lebanon and was also nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar.

Cedar’s latest film sparkles with intelligence and droll characterizations but is hardly the kind of movie you’d expect to break out beyond its homegrown base. Yet that is exactly what has happened, making a good argument for the more local the product, the more universal its appeal: Even before its Oscar nod, the film picked up the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes, where it was acquired by Sony Classics. It will be interesting to see whether Footnote, which opens in early March in New York and Los Angeles, lives up to its early billing—whether viewers will respond with equal enthusiasm to its quirky human drama, in which Talmud scholarship and Hebrew philology feature as much as the personal lives of the characters. One of the singular pleasures of this film is the way it delves into the aches and pains of an esoteric intelligentsia, a group who don’t usually get much play in the popular media, without becoming self-conscious in the process. Cedar moves with ease from scenes featuring academic tempests in a teapot to those that give us a glimpse of the domestic backgrounds of his two main characters. Shlomo Bar Aba, who is a well-known comic in Israel, is superb as Eliezer Shkolnik, the dour academic outsider who finally—almost—gets his moment of glory, and the other roles, including Lior Ashkenazi as Eliezer’s son, a deft academic player, and Alisa Rosen, as Eliezer’s shut-out wife, are equally well-cast. The closing 15 minutes of the film, which are choreographed as much as directed, are priceless.

Last weekend, after Shabbat was over in Israel and in anticipation of the movie’s release, I spoke on the phone with the 43-year-old director at his home in Tel Aviv. Cedar, who immigrated to Israel from New York with his family at the age of 6 and later studied philosophy and theater history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and NYU Film School, is married and the father of three children, ages 10, 6, and 2.

Did the response to the film surprise you, especially given its very specific Jerusalem setting?

When it was accepted to Cannes, I was in shock. It was very hard to picture this film in a competition in Cannes. I think a lot of the people there had a similar response: that it was an odd choice. Cannes gives it the kind of exposure that’s so hard to get with a film. And then Sony buying it on the first day. It’s a narrow crack a film goes through, and Cannes is a gateway. More than a film that can only take place in Israel, it’s a Jerusalem film. Even if it had taken place someplace else geographically, it’s still a Jerusalem film. Two scholars fighting over the tiniest nuance of language: That’s what Jerusalem is—or what I want it to be.

Did you have any model for the kind of film you were trying to make?

It’s a film that can’t be compared to anything. While we were preparing the shoot, we decided that the way the father character sees the world—in extreme detail, the way a philologist looks at a text—was the way we were going to look at the story. Extremely subjectively and not considering the larger context. My previous films had left me with a lot of ideas that I didn’t know how to fit into the story; that’s the way narrative films are. Because of the style of this film, its flexibility, anything that was important to the story found its way onto the screen.

What led you to cast Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik?

There’s something about him that’s reminiscent of Peter Sellers—someone people don’t know what to expect from, although Israelis know him and expect to laugh when they see him. I had him in mind when I was writing the film, but I didn’t know him and didn’t know if he could deliver. When I met him I thought he was wrong, but during the rehearsal period and during the discussion of the character it turned out that there were so many things he identified with. He’s very connected to this kind of person.

How autobiographical is the film?

It’s more my nightmare than my life. The jealousy between a father and son—the inability to be proud of your child—is something I’m afraid of more than I actually feel.

How would you characterize Eliezer’s marriage?

His wife is afraid of him. They don’t really have a relationship. Once he thinks he gets the award, things become softer. She’s so trapped with the information she hasone of the best things that happens in her life is based on a mistake. He has problems, this man. He’s not easy to live with. But everyone becomes a little softer when they feel their self-worth is confirmed. He doesn’t turn into Robin Williams, but he becomes a little easier.

Why did you set Footnote in the Talmud department of Hebrew University?

The Talmud department is an extreme version of other departments. I like the tension that exists there. No one compromises anything for anything. I spent a few months meeting a Talmud professor regularly once a week, going over different issues that exist in the department, generational conflicts, the history of the department, and in the field of Talmud study. One of the questions that interests me is whether the Talmud was edited after it was a written text or on oral deliverance? In other words, when was it first written down, before or after it was edited? The written word is inflexible, while oral tradition allows for a lot of flexibility. When we lost the flexibility is a question that is important to me in my life. I feel closer to the oral world than the written world.

How would you define yourself Jewishly?

I belong to a community that observes. But I asked the New York Times’ publicist to take out a sentence that described me on a blog as an Orthodox Jew and pro-Zionist because I don’t define myself that way. I don’t want to be labeled with those three wordsOrthodoxy has some positive connotations but many negative ones. It stands for many things I oppose in an active way. I do wear a kippah most of the time and find some consistency to the times I wear itI do so publicly, and privately I won’t. I’ve shaped my observance to my lifestyle.

Who are some directors you admire, either in America or elsewhere?

American cinema has not been very impressive in the last couple of years. There’s a Hollywood I admire but it’s not the Hollywood of today. I loved The Artist. … The Social Network is the sort of movie I want Hollywood to create: It’s smart, well-made, with real Hollywood charisma. It has a good story, great writing and actingtells something that’s so much bigger than what’s in-between. I’m really interested in Paul Thomas Anderson. Boogie Nights is one of the most complete films that exists. It has what a great film needs to have.

How would you like people to be affected by your film?

I’m happy if they go into the film. The way they leave is their problem.

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A correction for your opening paragraph. Waltz With Bashir is a depiction of the 1982 Lebanon War, while Beaufort is a depiction of the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

Matthew Fishbane says:

Thanks for the watchful eye, Ron. The piece has been corrected.

Cedar sounds like a fascinating man. I would give my eye teeth to meet him next time we’re in Tel Aviv.
Bryna Weiss
SAG/AFTRA/AEA

Huh? Wears a kippah publicly and lives in Israel as a child of American olim but does not define himself as Orthodox or Zionist. Whatever. I have enjoyed his moveis tremendously, but that is a ridiculous statement. He may not define himslef as such, but if it walks like a duck…

Bucky; the question is what kind of duck. Cedar’s point is well taken . I know many ‘observant’ Conservative and non-denominational Jews who fit that description. You need to find a bigger pond to swim in. Contemporary Orthodoxy does not own traditional judaism.

Elaine- says:

it’s odd, he admits that it’s a nightmare of his, but how does he even conceive of it? he says he’s happy if we go see it and how we leave is our problem? well most of the world isn’t getting it; a son trying to take on the father he loves and sees as a hero’s pain, to become him, so he doesn’t have to hurt. and nobody sees the father who is KNOWINGLY detroying his son at every possible turn, how does he conceive of such evil if he hasn’t lived it? and how is he so callous in the end to those of us that have lived it? well, sure, he made the movie in such a way that people could be blind to what he was saying, i can see that he is calling fools fools, but don’t be just another person who hurts people who are living that kind of life, admidst that kind of evil… just trying to get a kind word, and at the end of this article, he stabs us all in the heart. why? to say that it didn’t destroy you? to say that you are strong and fine and now YOU do the hurting? i don’t respect that, there is no need to hide, you revealed yourself for all who care to look and it’s not JUST our problem if we see.

Elaine- says:

ok, you know what? i get it, i’m sorry.. i was trying to explain the movie to my husband and why it was upsetting me, and he fell asleep while i was talking… so in a way, i can see why the guy is being a big dick about it, so he can say that he’s smarter than the people who are listening, so that… the people who are listening don’t fall asleep while he’s telling this thing, so that he can hide, that the whole will nosh on his heart if he doesn’t hide it… it’s like that book ‘IT’ by stephen king… this evil that everybody pretends isn’t in them, that everybody pretends not to see… i’m ok with it, see the movie, it’s good, feel free to not see ‘it’.. but i have to choose, everyday, if the world is ‘eat or be eaten’ that i choose to be eaten, because i don’t like the eaters, and that’s that. and i have to hide it too, or i would be dead already. so sorry for the previous comment.

Elaine- says:

and it’s just a nightmare of mine, not how i feel, i’m glad if you read my comments, but how you interpret them is your problem

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Writing Footnote

Director Joseph Cedar on Orthodox Judaism, The Social Network, and the nightmare scenario behind his latest Academy Award-nominated film

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