Sitting in a booth at Milky Way restaurant, Joseph Cedar, a lean young man in jeans and baseball cap, hardly looks the part of an Orthodox Jew, who is also one of Israel's most perceptive filmmakers.
He is in town for a couple of days to talk about his latest movie, "Campfire," which will be screened Nov. 8 and Nov. 11 at the AFI Film Fest (see sidebar).
The film itself is another surprise. It focuses on the lives, struggles and hang-ups of Israel's religious Zionists, the backbone of the settler movement in the West Bank and Gaza -- not the first subject that comes to mind when thinking of a popular hit coming out of Israel's strongly secular-leftist movie culture.
Yet "Campfire" (Medurat Hashevet in Hebrew) was nominated for the Israeli Oscar equivalent in all 13 categories, an unprecedented feat, and won five, including best picture, director and screenplay.
It is Israel's official entry for the (U.S.) Academy Awards foreign film competition and has won a number of awards at the Chicago, Berlin, Korean and Indian film festivals.
At the center of the film is the Gerlik family of Jerusalem in 1981: mother Rachel, an attractive 42-year old widow; and her two daughters, rebellious 18-year-old Esti and innocent but awakening 15-year-old Tami.
A year after her husband's death, Rachel is desperate for a communal support network in her life and wants to join the founding group of a future religious settlement in the Samaria region of the West Bank.
Ideologically in tune with the movement, Rachel is taken aback when Motke, the head of the screening committee, doubts that as a single woman, she will be acceptable unless she remarries.
Toward that end, Motke's wife casts about for suitable candidates. One is a pompous cantor-singer (veteran musical star Yehoram Gaon), the other is Yossi, a friendly 50-year-old bus driver, who can't seem to hook up in a lasting relationship with a woman.
As the two suitors pursue their quest, Motke, of the settlers' group, wavers as he reinterviews Rachel and other applicants. He is looking for people who measure up ideologically and religiously, and don't want to join merely for the cheap housing. He wants no one who doesn't exactly fit his world or is too poor to match the living standard of the core group.
Meanwhile, Tami, the younger daughter, hangs out with her friends at B'nai Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement.
There is much close friendship and patriotic singing, but when Tami is sexually molested by some of her nastier comrades at a Lag B'Omer bonfire, she is publicly slandered and becomes a near outcast.
After all the conflicts, the film ends on a rather abrupt happy ending, but that's not what has made "Campfire" such an exceptionally popular and critical success in Israel.
Rather, Cedar, who also wrote the script, explores a real, complex and divisive subject, yet his characters are not mere ideological mouthpieces, but three-dimensional, fallible and struggling human beings.
The film's greatest strength lies in the subtle and unblinking depiction of human relationships, whether between middle-aged men and women, mother and daughters or adolescent boys and girls.
"Campfire" comes alive through an ensemble cast of some of Israel's finest stage and screen actors. The veteran Moshe Ivgy gives the performance of his life as Yossi, the bus driver, a somewhat shy, awkward but never comical bachelor, matched at every point by the sometimes anguished, sometimes luminous Michaela Eshet as the widow Rachel.
Hani Furstenberg, a 25-year-old actress, is utterly convincing as the 15-year-old Tami, going through the purgatory of the teen years.
Assi Dayan, Moshe Dayan's son and a confirmed secular leftist, endows Motke, the unsympathetic leader of the religious settlers, with real humanity.
Cedar's only previous film -- three years ago -- was "Time of Favor," which also took an unsparing look at the religious right and represented Israel at the Academy Awards.
Cedar is one of three young American-born directors who have made a major contribution in raising the level of Israeli movies in recent years.
The trio includes Eitan Gorlin, a yeshiva graduate, whose critically acclaimed "The Holy Land" centered on the odd relationship between a yeshiva student and a Russian prostitute.
Eytan Fox, of "Yossi & Jagger" fame, again explores sexual identity, embedded in a Mossad vs. Nazi war criminal thriller, in the gripping film "Walk on Water," to open in the United States in January.
Cedar was born in New York into a highly intellectual Orthodox family, who made aliyah when he was 6. The family moved into the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, inhabited mainly by religious Zionists, and many of his friends later established settlements.
Cedar, a former paratrooper, lived one year in a West Bank settlement while writing "Time of Favor."
After he graduated from New York University film school and returned to Israel to make his first movie, his friends of the religious right were elated.
"They told me that since I was the first observant Jew to make an Israeli feature film, here was a chance to show how great we really are," Cedar recalled.
After "Time of Favor" and "Campfire," many of his former friends from the settlements and B'nai Akiva are now among his more vocal critics, but Cedar denies that his movies are anti-anything.
"All the characters in 'Campfire' are religious, some are 'good' and some are 'bad.' But the critics just look at the 'bad' characters," he said.
Cedar's main interest, he maintained, lies in the social dynamics among religious Zionists, but he faults them for their "elitist" attitudes and an ideological purity which excludes all others, as well as their indifference to Sephardic Jews, the poor, and, of course, the Palestinians.
Still an observant Jew, Cedar now lives in Tel Aviv with his journalist wife and their 3-year-old daughter, within "a community of people who don't want to belong to a community."
"Campfire" will screen Nov. 8 at 9:45 p.m. and Nov. 11 at noon at the ArcLight Theatre, 6360 Sunset Blvd., with Cedar and Furstenberg in attendance. For tickets and other information, call (866) 234-3378 or visit www.afi.com/onscreen/afifest/2004. Additional details on the movie and Cedar can be found at www.campfiremovie.com.
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