An Interview with Joseph Cedar

Award-Winning Director Discusses His Oscar-Nominated “Footnote”; Will Take Part in YU Film Festival

As part of the Ring Family Film Festival, Yeshiva University will host a special screening of “Footnote” on February 16, followed by a question and answer session with American-born Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar. The film has been nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at this year’s Academy Awards and has won the Ophir Award in Israel for “Best Picture” and “Best Director” as well as “Best Screenplay” at the Cannes Film Festival.

Director Joseph Cedar (Photo by Ren Mendelson / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Director Joseph Cedar (Photo by Ren Mendelson/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

“Footnote” tells the tale of a great rivalry between a father and son. Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are both eccentric professors, who have dedicated their lives to their work in Talmudic Studies. The father, Eliezer, is a stubborn purist who fears the establishment and has never been recognized for his work. Meanwhile his son, Uriel, is an up-and-coming star in the field, who appears to feed on accolades, endlessly seeking recognition. One day, the tables turn when Eliezer learns that he is to be awarded the Israel Prize, the most valuable honor for scholarship in the country, and his vanity and desperate need for validation are exposed. His son, Uriel, is thrilled to see his father’s achievements finally recognized but, in a darkly funny twist, is forced to choose between the advancement of his own career and his father’s.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Cedar and Dr. Eric Goldman, adjunct associate professor of cinema at Yeshiva University and artistic director and moderator of the festival, which will be published in The New Jersey Jewish Standard later this month.

Eric Goldman: We are seeing films from Israel that deal with Jewish issues. You are the innovator in this area!

Joseph Cedar: It’s very hard to define a film with that kind of categorizing. The films that I make are not Jewish because I wanted them to be. I made my films because they are part of my life. If they touch something, it’s because it’s relevant to me. Any film, made anywhere by a Jew is a Jewish film, because of his [or her] identity somehow coming out.

Lior Ashkenazi as Uriel Shkolnik and Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik (Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics)
Lior Ashkenazi as Uriel Shkolnik and Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik (Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics)

EG: You bring something very different into it because you are the American Israeli. Is there an American Israeli Jewish stylistic?

JC: I don’t know how relevant that is or at least I’m not aware of its relevance. I can say that it has given me an outsider’s point-of-view on my Israeli life. It’s a good place for any story-teller to be… my point-of-view has always been from the outside, as that of a story-teller who is looking at someone else and not himself. In fact, this last film is as close a story that I’ve told about my own world.

EG: Where did it come from?

JC: It’s from a few different things. The plot is something that almost happened to me. Awards and recognition have become a part of my life. It has always been a part of my father’s life. My father is biochemist. He’s done great work. He’s at the Hebrew University. He has received the Israel Prize. He’s received every prize imaginable and he’s very, very well recognized—in that sense, he’s not like the father character at all. All these elements exist in my life and these characters exist in my social circle. And I’m somewhere between the father and the son. It’s not someone else’s story. It’s my story.

Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik (Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics)
Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik (Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics)

EG: How is this different from your previous films?

JC: There are a lot of connections for me between the cinematic language that I found myself using in this film and some of the themes of this film. It’s the first time that I’ve had that!

EG: And the way you shot scenes?

JC: Every scene has very distinctive choices. That’s also relatively new for me. Usually, you come to see that there are a few options on how to shoot. Each option represents a different understanding of what’s happening. Sometimes, you check a few options and see what happens in the editing. Here, every scene required a choice that negated all the other options. We had to find a way to shoot the film that services a specific idea in each scene… Each scene has only one way to shoot it. In that sense, we were really working like the father character, not the son. There was very little compromise.

EG: Is there a central conflict?

JC: There are two sides to the conflict in this story. These are two sides we are trying to walk in between. One is someone who will never compromise, who will never leave written, strict, inflexible tradition. We could just call him the father or the written text—the text that doesn’t become relevant with time. The other side holds that anything written is threatening, because it’s not flexible. So he’s gone to the extreme of the oral… something that works very hard to stay relevant.

This is not a new tension. In the Talmud, that’s the tension that fuels every argument. If you look at the five students of Yohanan ben Zakkai, there’s Rabbi Eliezer, who never said anything that he didn’t hear from his rabbis. That’s an amazing mantra. There’s Rabbi Yehoshua, who says that if it’s not new, it has no content. ‘We’re not studying if we are not innovating!’ That’s Uriel and Eliezer [in the film]. It’s clear that without Uriel, we are not relevant. We are not productive. We are not communicating. But without Eliezer, nothing really has worth. There has to be some connection to a truth. You need both. You try and take the viewers’ sensibilities from one side to other, not really ever settling in one place. For me, it’s about how close I can come to Eliezer without losing touch with what’s important to me as a modern human being.

Learn more about the YU Ring Family Film Festival at www.yu.edu/film-festival.

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