A pained expression crosses director Joseph Cedar’s face when he is asked about the controversy that led to his wartime drama, “Beaufort,” being selected as Israel’s official entry in the Academy Awards’ best foreign language film category this year.
Rumors had swirled from Hollywood to the Middle East last fall that people behind “Beaufort” had contacted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the Oscars, to complain that Israel’s first choice, the bittersweet comedy “The Band’s Visit,” had violated Oscar rules for foreign-language films because more than half of its dialogue was in English. (That film was ultimately disqualified for consideration in the category.)
The “Beaufort” filmmakers denied the rumors, but the controversy placed Cedar, 39, in an uncomfortable position. Like any director, he wants his films to be judged for what appears on the screen, not for allegations of award season politicking.
“In order to have peace of mind, you have to believe that a film speaks for itself and that people evaluate your work for what it is,” Cedar said recently as he sat down for a tofu salad lunch in the Larchmont district of Los Angeles. He compared a director’s task to a 100-yard dash, in which the filmmaker goes quickly from script to mixing room, and when the movie is finished “you hope people appreciate it.”
Cedar will find out next week if his film, which will open Friday in New York with a tentative March release here, makes the cut and is nominated by the academy -- it was one of the nine shortlisted titles in the category announced Tuesday. Oscar nominations are scheduled for Tuesday.
Based on the popular novel by author Ron Leshem, which was inspired by real events, “Beaufort” is a tense drama about a young Israeli commander and his troops guarding a mountaintop outpost in the waning days of Israel’s 18-year occupation of Lebanon. In 1982, Israel’s army invaded Lebanon, capturing the mountain and routing its Palestine Liberation Organization defenders; the mountain contains a magnificent 12th century Crusader fortress.
On May 24, 2000, Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon, destroying their heavily fortified outpost with 6 tons of explosives, though the castle ruins were not harmed.
“The mountain was considered the most strategic spot in southern Lebanon and the first place that any military has to take over if they want to control the region,” Cedar explained.
When “Beaufort” opened in Israel last March, its antiwar tone generated widespread debate inside his homeland. “The first Lebanon war was the first war that wasn’t in consensus in Israel,” Cedar explained. “The battle of Beaufort triggered the first crack in the consensus.”
The fact that the film’s release followed Israel’s 2006 reentry into Lebanon in the wake of cross-border attacks from Hezbollah guerrillas no doubt played a role in that heated response. The resulting 34-day invasion again left many Israelis disillusioned with their leaders because the conflict had no decisive resolution, Cedar said.
“We finished filming in June of 2006, which was a month before the war broke out,” he recalled. “So we were editing while the war was happening. It was very sad to see Israel go back into Lebanon. I thought that after 18 years there and the collective memory, Israel would have been so traumatized it would be harder for any government to bring its troops back there. But I was wrong.” Only a month before the invasion, Cedar and his crew had been filming on another mountaintop with an ancient Crusader fortress called Kalat Namrud in northern Israel. The site is near the Lebanese border and within view of the actual Beaufort. The filmmakers used 50 trucks to haul in 1,000 tons of concrete, creating a replica of the Beaufort outpost. “Every time the enemy improved its weapons, Israel had to improve its fortifications,” Cedar said. “So, over 18 years, it turned into this massive, underground city of concrete. We asked the army to assist us in building the [replica] outpost, but they said no.”
The army, however, did allow the filmmakers to rent military equipment. “It wasn’t an easy decision for them,” Cedar said of the army’s cooperation. But he noted that the fact that the Beaufort story was so widely known and that Leshem had co-written the screenplay with Cedar ultimately helped his cause. “The army decided, if that’s the case, let’s help to make the film accurate and not try to fight it.”
Still, criticism erupted when families of soldiers who had been killed in Lebanon learned that some of the actors had not served in the Israeli army, usually a requirement for Israeli citizens.
“We were getting a lot of emotional criticism that we were being disrespectful to the actual people who had been killed there,” recalled Cedar, himself a paratrooper who had served in the first Lebanon war. “Israel may be the only place where actors are expected to have actual combat experience when playing soldiers in a movie.”
As it was, he said, the actors spent a month at an Israeli army outpost rehearsing their roles.
Controversy aside, the film went on to win four awards from the Israeli Film Academy for best cinematography, editing, art direction and sound, and Cedar also took home the best director’s prize for “Beaufort” at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
Cedar was born in New York, and his family moved to Jerusalem when he was about 5. As a youth, he was recruited into the Beni Akiva youth movement, which supported the idea that Jews should settle every part of biblical Israel, and he was personally involved in a number of settlement initiatives in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem as a young boy and into his early 20s.
His first two films, 2002’s “Time of Favor” and 2005’s “Campfire,” each of which were selected as Israel’s official entries to the Oscars, dealt with the complexities and mixed emotions he had toward this movement. “I never saw it as something political,” he recalled of his participation. “It was a great, social, exciting, romantic time for us.”
Cedar, who lives with his wife and two children in Tel Aviv, studied philosophy and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is a graduate of New York University’s film school.
Growing up, Cedar said, he appreciated mainstream American cinema, “the kind of films where you don’t know who directed this. The films I enjoyed as a kid, I found out who directed them 20 years later. So, when I found out that James L. Brooks directed three of my favorite films, it was a revelation because I didn’t know they had the same director.”
In making “Beaufort,” Cedar noted, he was influenced heavily by Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 antiwar film “Paths of Glory.” When filming a scene in which an Israeli demolition expert seeks to defuse a roadside bomb, Cedar explained that he used the ritualized execution ceremony in Kubrick’s film as a template.
“It’s all ceremony,” Cedar said of the routine the demolition expert goes through before disarming a bomb. “And it’s a ceremony that is supposed to give him a sense of safety, but it’s clear that there is no way to really protect yourself. In effect, it’s just a way for him not to think that he is going to die.”
Asked if he is a peace activist, Cedar replies: “I hope so.” Then he quickly adds, “I know some real activists, and I’m nowhere near that. I’m not that good a man.”