On The Oscars, Talmud Scholars And Risky Filmmaking

An interview with ‘Footnote’ director Joseph Cedar.

03/05/2012
Staff Writer
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“Footnote,” the latest film from Joseph Cedar, an American-born Israeli director, will be released in U.S. theaters on Friday, March 9. But already the film has received enormous attention. It was a finalist for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. (It lost to Iran’s “A Separation.”) But it has already won a big prize at Cannes and Best Picture at the Ophir Awards, Israel’s Oscar-equivalent. “Footnote” tells the story of two feuding Talmud scholars, a father and son, at Hebrew University. The younger one is more successful. Cedar, 43, spoke about the film this week from Los Angeles, where he was attending the Academy Awards.

Jewish Week: “Footnote” pokes fun at academia and its obsession with awards and recognition. The central drama, after all, revolves around an obscure Talmud scholar’s sudden selection for the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor. Do you feel the film also works as a critique of the film industry’s obsession with prizes and award ceremonies?

Joseph Cedar: If I said yes, that’d sound like something the loser would say. Because of the film’s subject, however, I cannot pretend that awards and recognition are not important. Whatever you make of them, they have this way of taking over your life; that’s what this film was in part about.

But do you think awards, like the Oscars, are irrelevant, a distraction?

When you’re not recognized, you don’t have the luxury of not appreciating them. For many people who were in the Kodak Theater [where the Oscar ceremonies were held], they take it for granted. But the right people to ask what these awards mean are the people who haven’t won them, who haven’t been recognized.

You’ve now been short-listed for Best Foreign Language Film twice at the Oscars, first for “Beaufort” (2007). Does it bother you that you haven’t actually won?

It’d be nice to win. But an Oscar can get in the way of what you’re trying to do. I need to get out of the paralysis I’m now feeling, and an Oscar can mess that up.

Paralysis? What do you mean by that?

A movie has to take a risk, it has to risk that it might be a failure.  When you get recognition, it’s easy to become complacent. I’m still trying to take risks. I want to risk feeling uncomfortable and maintain the freedom to fail.

Much was made about the fact that an Israeli film, yours, was going up against an Iranian one — Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” — for Best Foreign Language Film. Did you follow the press? If so, what did you make of it?

I absolutely followed it. I think it’s a good thing that, while there’s hostility between the two governments, there can be mutual understanding between the two peoples. There’s no hostility between the people of Iran and the people of Israel. That’s pretty much what the Iranian director said [in his acceptance speech], and I’m happy he said that.

Did you see “A Separation?”

Of course. It’s a great film, and it deserves all the attention it’s getting.

How about the director, Asghar Farhadi; have you ever met him?

Several times. We’ve been on a similar festival circuit and our films are being distributed by the same company in America [Sony Picture Classics]. I met him at a lunch at the Telluride film festival and a few other places. We get along quite well, though that probably wouldn’t be the case if I didn’t like his film.

You’ve said that your work isn’t meant to be a commentary on Israel’s politic — even films like “Beaufort,” which focused on an Israeli army unit during the first Lebanon war. But you’ve acknowledged that politics does come into your work — in “Footnote,” there are several scenes that give a critical view of all the heightened security. Given the film’s focus on the Talmud, does it all reflect the growing role of religious Jews in Israel?

There’s a political angle in any story. But it’s mostly in the eye of the viewer. The process that goes on when I’m writing has to do with the characters and their lives, not politics.

The film deals with the professional jealousies between a father and son. While you’re not an academic, your father is a highly successful scholar not unlike some of the ones in “Footnote.” He’s a biochemist at Hebrew University and the winner of an Israel Prize, too. Are there any parallels between the father-son relationship in the film and your own?

None of the characters in my life are in the film, neither my father nor myself. But it does draw on things I think about.

The film in part parodies the immense attention Talmudic scholars put into issues almost no one but they care about. But they are dealing with texts that religious Jews and even non-religious ones find immensely important. You yourself were raised Orthodox. With the film, were you at all commenting on the worthiness of Talmudic study in general?

There’s a big difference between rabbinical study of the Talmud and what academic scholars of the Talmud do. Rabbis and academics are sometimes on opposite sides. For religious people, academics appear to be skeptical of the Talmud, its divine wisdom, its authority. To academics, rabbinical study can appear folkloric. This becomes even truer in the Talmudic Department [at Hebrew University]. Of course, they’re curious about each other, too. You go to the National Library in Israel today and you can see ultra-Orthodox men peaking through the windows, going over manuscripts.

But don’t you think that even Talmudic scholars have some kind of reverence for the Talmud? Why else would they spend their lives studying it?

It doesn’t come from a religious sensibility, I don’t think, but from an obsessive characteristic. They want to find out if something is authentic, for instance. Or maybe it’s intellectual curiosity. A lot of them are just curious.

 

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