Most 43-year-old film directors/screenwriters cannot say that half of the films they have made were nominated for Academy Awards. Joseph Cedar is an exception to that rule. The 43-year-old Cedar, born in the United States but raised in Israel, just secured his second Oscar nomination this week, making it two out of the four major films he has directed being nominated for the coveted award.
What is it about Cedar’s films that have attracted the attention of the Academy, and of major film critics around the world? How do we explain the phenomenon of a young director in a tiny country with relatively small film budgets being able to garner worldwide attention for his films?
Who is Joseph Cedar? He is an Orthodox Jew who does not shy away from the complexities and issues that exist within his community. In fact, his creative talents as a director and screenwriter have taken topics that, on paper, would never seem to attract much interest. Stories about religious IDF soldiers (Time of Favor), Jewish youth groups (Campfire), IDF soldiers in Lebanon (Beaufort)—which seems so overdone in Israel—or the rivalry between father and son Talmud professors (Footnote) hardly seems like a sexy sell to a wide audience – in Israel, or around the world. Yet Cedar, a deep thinker, a spiritually committed religious Jew, and a talented filmmaker, has taken these relatively mundane subjects and transformed them into four of the most intriguing films ever made in Israel, with two (Beaufort in 2007 and Footnote this year) nabbing Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film. He has treated these subjects with the combined perspective of a religious Jew “from within the community” and an artist whose freedom of expression is not limited by his personal religious practices.
Cedar’s willingness to explore sensitive topics within his religious community, including fanatic nationalism (Time of Favor) and sexual harassment and abuse (Campfire) have not gone without harsh criticism from religious circles in Israel. Accused of negative portrayal of “the community,” or of “airing dirty laundry in the public,” Cedar has handled the criticism with grace, responding that the role of an artist is to explore difficult topics and create discussions that might otherwise not take place, especially within religious circles.
In Beaufort, an anti-war film about Israel’s last months in Lebanon just prior to the pullout in the year 2000, Cedar was not necessarily exploring religious issues. Yet the fact that an Orthodox Jew made a film that leveled an open critique of Israel’s war policies in Lebanon was totally out of the box for an Orthodox Jew in Israel. This also created animosity within his community and labels of “traitor” and “leftist.” But Cedar accepted the criticism with professionalism, and continues to be a religious, Sabbath observing Jew with a kippah on his head.
With Footnote (Cedar’s second Oscar nomination), Cedar presents the Israeli public – and the world – with an Israeli film where you do not see a single IDF soldier, where Lebanon, Gaza and the Palestinians are not even mentioned, and where the only violence is a physical shoving match between two Hebrew University professors. The film explores the complex and intricate relationship between two professors of Talmud at Hebrew University – a father and a son. Cedar manages to take the world of ancient Talmud manuscripts and intellectual rivalries and transforms it into a humorous, touching and tragic tale exploring generation gaps, family complexities, the often rocky relationship between religion and academia, and the paradox of cut throat, mean-spirited behavior from professors who teach religious texts.
So, what is the secret to Cedar’s success? One can find it in a very wise Talmudic reading of the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo. In the opening verse, God says to Moses: “Bo el Par’oh” – “Come – or go—towards Pharaoh.” The rabbis comment that this verse teaches us a very deep lesson in life – don’t run away from problems, rather, confront them head on. Pharaoh was the root and source of all of the problems that the Jewish people faced in Egypt – slavery, humiliation and denial of human rights. God challenges Moses to go straight to Pharaoh and confront him head on, and it is this confrontation that ultimately leads to the liberation of the Jews from Egypt.
In his films, Joseph Cedar confronts controversial issues head on. He challenges himself and his audiences to think, to contemplate and hopefully to help effect a positive change in Israeli society. That is the role of an artist. It is also the hallmark of a truly religious person.
Now, on to the red carpet again!