Joseph Cedar’s films about Israeli society are not merely serendipitous
His “Time of Favor” (in Hebrew, “Ha-Hesder”), about a fictional young Israeli fanatic who wanted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s most sacred sites, hit theaters in 2000 just about the time Ariel Sharon took it into his head to go for a stroll to the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock, thereby pretty much blowing up whatever peace existed between Arabs and Israelis anyway.
Now Cedar’s second movie, “Campfire” (“Medurat Hashevet”), which puts the private crises of a mother and her two daughters –– including a teenage gang rape ––within the framework of the Settlement movement of a quarter century ago, is opening in New York this Friday, just days after the same Ariel Sharon has enforced the evacuation of the very settlements in Gaza and the West Bank he once pressed into existence.
“You know,” said director Cedar last week, “it’s not luck. It’s just that things don’t change. ‘Campfire’ takes place in 1981, at the time of the evacuation of the settlements in the Sinai when the Sinai was given back to Egypt.
“Twenty-four years later, there are the same issues, the same debates, even the same people involved in both. I’m not telling a story that’s relevant to a certain time. I’m telling a story that is relevant always.”
In a Village coffee shop he was served orange juice with a straw, which he didn’t use, though he peeled the wrapping off the straw and fiddled with it.
Joseph Cedar has dual citizenship, U.S. and Israeli. He was born here, at Mount Sinai Hospital, on August 31, 1968; spent the first five years of life in Stuyvesant Town; then his parents––genetic scientist father, drama therapist mother––took themselves and him off to Israel, more precisely to Bieth Vagan, a Jerusalem neighborhood in which “Campfire” was shot.
“The settlements in the desert [after the Six Day War] were––unlike Gaza––never considered part of Israel. They were not even called settlements,” Cedar said. “The evacuation then was as traumatic as now––very traumatic. Actually it motivated many of the [more recent] settlements in the West Bank––gave fuel to a movement.”
The major 1981 evacuation was of Yamit, a city on the Mediterranean shore below Gaza.
“It wasn’t called an evacuation. It was called a ‘disengagement.’ I was there,” said Cedar. “I was 14. In a youth movement, sort of like a summer camp. My parents didn’t let me stay to the very last days. I had to go back to Jerusalem, but I was envious of friends who were allowed to stay.”
Asked how he feels about the present disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, the baseball-capped 37-year-old writer-director, an NYU Film School graduate, fiddled with the little white sheath that had wrapped the straw.
“I realize how people who were forced to leave their homes see it as tragedy. But from my point of view,” he said, “it’s a good thing. And if you put that in perspective, it’s not even a tragedy for them.”
He stopped, thought, spoke again:
“In other words, I’m very happy Israel left Gaza. I think that, over the years, the value systems in the settlements shifted, and most of the people in those settlements have lost what, to my mind, originally led them to go there. The Gaza Strip was so militarized,” he said, “the people had to drive home in armored trucks. They got used to it, but that contradicts the values I grew up with.
“In the beginning the people of the settlements were very idealistic in a socialist way and also an educational way. Now, having put all that energy into building settlements, there was less energy for idealism.”
Sharon’s reason for pulling out was to bolster the security of the State of Israel. Does Cedar feel more secure now? How does he feel about Sharon’s 180-degree change of mind?
“I don’t know. I’m not a security expert. Either way,” said Cedar dryly, “there’s not a lot of security for Israel. Trying to analyze Ariel Sharon is a big job––but someone should do it. Sharon has been around every stage of the State of Israel, at every juncture good or bad.
“To me, there is only hope if leaders show they can change, and Sharon has proved he can change. The leaders who dig their heels in leave me very pessimistic.”
All well and good, but all this might be seen as periphery to the human center of the film––the restless, unsatisfied widowed mother Rachel (actress Michaela Esher) who at 42 has never been in love and wants to move to a settlement; her two young daughters, smart-ass Esti (Maya Maron) and the more silent, more withdrawn 15-year-old Tami (Hani Furstenburg). Those three females plus the clunky, lonely bus driver (Moshe Ivgy) who thinks he isn’t good enough for Rachel but is her most loyal support emotionally and otherwise.
And at the center of all this, the manhandling of young Tami, if not worse, by a bunch of teenage Israeli males at a bonfire in the woods one dangerous summer night. The scene breaks off when the chief sneering, filth-talking bully (actor Moshe Weinstock) has a hand clasped as tight as duct tape over the mouth of twisting, struggling Tami.
Is that rough sequence merely an incidental touch of drama?
“I like to believe that things turn out to be less incidental when you think about them,” Cedar said. “This is a film about social pressure, about the price you have to pay. Not only the girl has been raped, but also the mother is being raped, the bus driver is being raped.
“The events resemble experiences I had as a boy approximately Tami’s age.”
Long, slow thought by Cedar.
Then: “The incident at the campfire is something I’m familiar with. And it was the easiest scene to shoot.”
Furstenberg, who rather resembles a little blonde rabbit, was 24 when she played 15-year-old Tami..
“We auditioned her to play the older sister, but then decided to go with her as Tami after we had exhausted all the 15-year-olds in Israel,” Cedar explained. “There was one other girl considered, an actual 15-year-old, but her parents were leery and asked to see story boards. When I looked at the story boards, I realized we couldn’t ask a 15-year-old to do that.”
This coming winter, shooting starts on Cedar’s third film, a war picture called “Beaufort.”
That’s the name of “the most dangerous military post in southern Lebanon”––a fort that goes back a thousand years to the Crusaders and the Turks and the Muslims, only to be evacuated by Israel in May 2002.
“I was there,” said ex-Sergeant Joseph Cedar. “In 1987. I lost a friend there. Over the years we lost hundreds of people there.”
Watch for Beaufort to make the news––somehow, some way––right around the time “Beaufort” the movie is ready to open in a theater in New York. But don’t call it luck.