Exclusive pre-Oscar interviews

Exclusive pre-Oscar interviews

Joseph Cedar: Searching for a non-existent harmonious middle

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik in “Footnote,” a “Best Foreign Film” contender at this Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony. Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics

Award-winning writer/director Joseph Cedar discusses His Oscar-nominated “Footnote” with The Jewish Standard’s film critic, Eric Goldman. The film is nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at Sunday’s Academy Awards. It won the Ophir Award in Israel for “Best Picture” and “Best Director,” and took “Best Screenplay” at the Cannes Film Festival.

“Footnote” tells the tale of a great rivalry between a father and son. Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are eccentric professors who dedicated their lives to their work in talmudic studies. The father, Eliezer, is a stubborn purist who fears the establishment and has never been recognized for his work. His son, Uriel, is an up-and-coming star in the field, who appears to feed on accolades, endlessly seeking recognition.

What follows is an edited version of the interview.

Q: We are seeing films from Israel that deal with Jewish issues. You are the innovator in this area.

Cedar: It’s very hard to define a film with that kind of categorizing. The films that I make are not Jewish because I wanted them to be. I made my films because they are part of my life. If they touch something, it’s because it’s relevant to me. Any film made anywhere by a Jew is a Jewish film, because of his [or her] identity somehow coming out.

Q: You bring something very different into it because you are an American Israeli. Is there an American Israeli Jewish stylistic?

Joseph Cedar, director of Best Foreign Film Oscar contender “Footnote.” Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics

Cedar: I don’t know how relevant that is or at least I’m not aware of its relevance. I can say that it has given me an outsider’s point-of-view on my Israeli life. It’s a good place for any story-teller to be….My point-of-view has always been from the outside, as that of a story-teller who is looking at someone else and not himself. In fact, this last film is as close a story that I’ve told about my own world.

Q: Where did it come from?

Cedar: It’s from a few different things. The plot is something that almost happened to me. Awards and recognition have become a part of my life. It has always been a part of my father’s life. My father is a biochemist. He’s done great work. He’s at the Hebrew University. He has received the Israel Prize. He’s received every prize imaginable and he’s very, very well recognized – in that sense, he’s not like the father character at all. All these elements exist in my life and these characters exist in my social circle. And I’m somewhere between the father and the son. It’s not someone else’s story. It’s my story….

[In the film, I focused on] the Talmud department – although I never studied in that department….That became something that I’m really proud to have put on screen, because I feel as if I belong to that group. I’ve never been able to say that about any of the films that I made – it was always me distancing myself from that group. Having a little bit of a critical eye here, I’m really proud of this world that is captured in this film.

Q: Do you see yourself as accepted by that group?

Cedar: You know, it’s a tiny group. The actual [Hebrew University] Talmud Department is tiny! It used to be that this was the most important department in the university. The founders of that department were the founders of the university. The generation before Eliezer Shkolnik’s generation were great luminaries who came from Europe and brought this new school of academic thought into Jewish culture. It existed in German universities, but they saw it as one of the Zionist callings to build a university that could combine the cultural study and European academic methods….The Talmud department was the cherry on the top of that cake.

Q: And how are you in all this?

Cedar: I really identify with that idea, more than I identify with so many other things. A lot of the rivalry between the generations in the film is in some way a reflection of how the old and new can’t get along, and how the tension between the different outlooks will never be resolved. There is no way of taking two extremes and turning them into one harmonious middle.

Q: How is this different from your previous films?

Cedar: There are a lot of connections for me between the cinematic language that I found myself using in this film and some of the themes of this film. It’s the first time that I’ve had that.

Q: And the way you shot scenes?

Cedar: Every scene has very distinctive choices. That’s also relatively new for me. Usually, you come to see that there are a few options on how to shoot. Each option represents a different understanding of what’s happening. Sometimes, you check a few options and see what happens in the editing. Here, every scene required a choice that negated all the other options. We had to find a way to shoot the film that services a specific idea in each scene….Each scene had only one way to shoot it. In that sense, we were really working like the father character, not the son. There was very little compromise.

Q: Is there a central conflict?

Cedar: There are two sides to the conflict in this story. These are two sides we are trying to walk in between. One is someone who will never compromise, who will never leave written, strict, inflexible tradition. We could just call him the father or the written text – the text that doesn’t become relevant with time. The other side holds that anything written is threatening, because it’s not flexible. So he’s gone to the extreme of the oral…, something that works very hard to stay relevant. This is not a new tension. In the Talmud, that’s the tension that fuels every argument. If you look at the five students of Yochanan ben Zakkai, there’s Eliezer, who never said anything that he didn’t hear from his rabbis. That’s an amazing mantra. There’s Rabbi Yehoshua, who says that if it’s not new, it has no content. ‘We’re not studying if we are not innovating!’ That’s Uriel and Eliezer [in the film]. I think it’s clear that without Uriel, we are not relevant. We are not productive. We are not communicating. But without Eliezer, nothing really has any worth. There has to be some connection to a truth. You need both. You try and take the viewers’ sensibilities from one side to the other, not really ever settling in one place. For me, it’s a way to see how close I can come to Eliezer without losing touch with what’s important to me as a modern human being.

Q: Your films, as you’ve told me, come out of your life?

Cedar: The thing I need to resist is starting to tell stories about myself, but it’s tempting. Interesting and dramatic things are going on in my life.

Q: Thank you.

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