Monday, January 23, 2012

For a Change, An Israeli Film Not About 'The Conflict' Is Getting Some Buzz - Oscar Update*

... and I wonder how that's going to go over with Oscar's shortlisting committee...

Israel isn't allowed to have an existence apart from the one the world projects on it. Israeli films must always be about the conflict, and must always take the correct position. But that's not enough. Often, sanctimonious windbags like director Ken Loach actually withdraw from film festivals (I should say little film festivals like Melbourne) so as not to be contaminated by the inclusion of films funded by the Israeli government, and attempt to exclude the participation of Israeli films in other festivals (Edinburgh). Somehow, however, when it comes to Cannes, Loach manages to overcome his phobia. I guess size does matter. 

Who knows, maybe Loach, and Mike Leigh, etal, got their knickers in a twist this year when, Footnote, by Israeli-American director, Joseph Cedar, won the Cannes Prize for best screenplay. I sure hope so. Now the film is up for shortlisting as one of five foreign film nominees for the Academy Award.

Unlike Cedar's earlier Oscar contender, Beaufort, about the 2000 Lebanon War, Footnote depicts a tiny dispute -- a tempest in a teapot (as described by the director in a NY Times interview) that is created between warring father and son academics over a prestigious prize and the ideological differences that animate the universe of Talmudic scholarship. 

As Cedar tells 
Annette Insdorf in the Forward, 'This film does not deal with conflict at the national level, but rather within the context of a personal story. It reflects the desire to live peacefully in Israel. In the Talmud, it says that you should not do unto others as you would not like them to do unto you. In a word, compassion.' Talmudic texts were edited and conveyed orally, written down and copied in manuscripts over hundreds of years, and finally printed in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today the study of traditional sacred texts is controversial because the analytical approach questions the reliability of the manuscript. Uriel is a proponent of this 'big picture' approach, while traditionalist Eliezer calls himself a philologist."

I enjoyed the director's response to the predictable question posed by his NY Times interviewer, Larry Rohter:

Q: It’s really unusual to see an Israeli film where, at least in the English-language version, you don’t hear the words “West Bank” or “Palestine” even once. In your previous films, you’ve dealt with settlers and soldiers. Did you deliberately want to break from that? What explains heading off in this particular direction?

A: I can understand why that question would come up, but from my point of view none of my films have to do with the conflict or the region or politics. They’ve all been about experiences that are very personal to me. But I can see why when you just look at the descriptions, some of them seem to be even exploitive of the politics of the region.
“Here there was nothing in the structure or the way the story is presented that has to do with the conflict. But it’s consistent with what I’ve done so far. It does have to do with the relationship between an individual person and the establishment he lives in and wants to belong to, but is ashamed to. So in that sense there is something in this film that is as political as in any other film.”

In other words, Joseph Cedar, like all interesting film makers dares to choose subjects for personal, creative reasons, declaring for himself what 'political' means and not in conformity with the world's reductive expectations. I hope he makes it to the Oscars.

* Oscar nominations were announced today and Footnote was among the five films chosen to compete for best foreign film.

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