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A Tree Grows in Israel: Joseph Cedar and his Beaufort
Liraz Liberti in "Beaufort" by Joseph Cedar
Winner of 4 Israeli Oscars, the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Director, and a highlight of both the Palm Springs International and The 17th Annual New York Jewish Film Festivals, Joseph Cedar's Beaufort is a powerful, trenchant, beautifully shot war drama about the supposed last days of Israel's presence in Lebanon.
The year is 2000, and after 18 demoralizing years, the only Israeli soldiers left in Lebanon are holed up in a mountain outpost called Beaufort. Finally, word has come that these young men are to return home, but in how many days or hours? And will anyone still have to die?
Cedar has noted: "What intrigued me most in the story of Beaufort is that it deals with how wars end. There is an abrupt, definitive moment in every war when the mission, or purpose, for which soldiers gave their lives until that moment, ceases to exist. With Beaufort this moment comes with a great horrific explosion, destroying one of the bloodiest mountains in the Middle East - an unforgettable, adrenaline-saturated moment, but also an image that crystallizes the inconceivable waste of human life."
The following interview took place earlier this month at The Palm Springs Film Festival.
BJ: Your film is an antiwar film with numerous major awards under its belt. Do you hope Beaufort will break big in New York? Is that the dream?
JC: I think what's nice about Kino [the American distributor] is that it's a realistic and solid company. The folks there know whom they are. They pick films that they think they can distribute in an intelligent way--and breaking big is not necessarily their goal. It's more allowing a film to meet its potential, even if that potential isn't that big. It's still knowing how to reach that sort of potential.
BJ: So what will its distribution be like?
JC: It's opening in a few countries in the next couple of months, but hasn't opened in any other country yet.
BJ: Were any international buyers sort of nervous about taking it? When you think about an Israeli film about the war in Lebanon, you might have second thoughts.
JC: The truth is I don't know. It was sold to about 15 territories, and I guess they must think it has an audience; otherwise, they wouldn't have bought it. But I don't know what they're thinking.
BJ: In Israel it broke all records?
JC: It did very well in Israel.
BJ: When I was spoke to [director] Eytan Fox, he noted that his The Bubble opened just as the recent war in Lebanon began, and that audiences weren't ready for a pacifist film. Do you consider Beaufort a pacifist film or just a realistic rendering of what occurred?
JC: It's hard to say. I think most people see in the film what they want to see in it. Any war film with integrity is going to be an antiwar film, but this one is not only antiwar, it's anti-heroism. The hero in the film is a hero because he acknowledges his fears, not because he overcomes his fears. And that's something that some Israelis understood in the film and liked it for that reason. And others either didn't get that aspect or got it and didn't like it for that reason. But people still went to see it because they were curious to know what all the fuss was about.
BJ: Now you did something that Hitchcock did in Psycho. You took a big star and then you killed him off. Was the audience shocked? What's his name again?
JC: Ohad Knoller. He's the lead in The Bubble. And in Yossi and Jagger.
BJ: Those familiar with his past roles, as most Israelis must be, were probably shocked at his death.
JC: But again, only for Israeli audiences, who assume when they see his face that he'll stay at least for the first hour and a half of the film. It wasn't a conscious decision. I cast him because he was the best actor for that role. But after we started screening the film, I understood that that was what was happening to Israeli audiences. That they were very surprised that he dies.
BJ: It makes his death for some reason more devastating.
JC: Yeah, it's not only that he's a star in Israel; he's also a very sympathetic character. He's someone that you like almost automatically. It's kind of economical for me. It allows me to involve an audience in this person's life without a lot of screen time.
BJ: Moving on, this is sort of the Kosher Golden Age of Movies. I mean for Israel.
JC: I'm not sure if my rabbi would call all the films coming out of Israel kosher.
BJ: You know, in America, everything Jewish is kosher.
JC: Yeah, it's kosher like the Second Avenue Deli was kosher. Kosher-style. Not necessarily kosher-kosher.
BJ: You're considered one of the golden boys of this new movement. Is there a reason that it is happening? Like for a while there were all these great films coming from Iran and South Korea. I've had Israelis tell me that they would not go see Israeli films until recently.
JC: The fact is there have been some really successful and great Israeli films in the last couple of years, but it is very hard to find a common thread that links these films. So it might just be a coincidence. I'm not sure it's a movement in the sense that there's something that you can define that links them all. I'm not sure there's a New Wave in Israeli film.
If you take the films that came out of Israel this last year, they're all very different from each other, but they have happened to do well. It might be a coincidence. It might be the beginning of something even better--or it might be the peak, and from here on it's downhill. I don't know.
BJ: How did Beaufort evolve?
JC: It started out as a newspaper article. And that turned into a book. And then came the movie. And then came a documentary. And altogether it turned into this big conglomerate around Beaufort.
BJ: Were you a soldier? Did you serve?
JC: I spent most of my army service in Lebanon between '86 and '89.
BJ: You seem so innocent. I can't see you with a gun.
JC: Neither can I. (Laughs) It must have been someone else over there with a helmet and a gun.
BJ: With a film like Beaufort and the acclaim you've received, you have now moved into the pantheon of upcoming world directors to watch.
JC: Really! You think so?
BJ: Yes. Does this mean people are throwing projects at you? Will it be easier for you to get money for your next film?
JC: I think the sincere answer to that question is that . . . the opposite. It's just makes it more difficult. Finding a project or writing a project that creates a commitment on my side--to spend a few years developing it and working on it-- is difficult no matter what.
Doing that with expectations is even harder, and the more expectations you have, the more you feel you have something to lose, and that creates an anxiety that is not necessarily creative.
BJ: It would be much worse if you had directed a film no one had wanted to see.
JC: Right. Granted. Granted. It's better dealing with high expectations than no expectations. It's still extremely difficult to find a project that really creates that kind of commitment you really need, no matter what kinds of acclaim your previous films have gotten.
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