Joseph Cedar (center) received the
Berlin International Film Festival’s
Silver Lion for Best Director of 2007.
Photo credit: Pascal Le Segretain/
“I believe images from BEAUFORT
will endure long after most films released in 2007 have faded from memory.
BEAUFORT is more that just a milestone in Israeli filmmaking, it’s one of the most significant combat films ever made.”
See Jan's Article: "Beaufort: American-born
Israeli Filmmaker Finds
His Historical Moment"
in JEWISH FILM WORLD
Volume 3, No. 1
Jan thanks JFW editor Barbara Greenleaf for her suggestions, as well as her permission to post pdf on FF2.
A Thought Experiment for American Audiences ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FOR FF2 READERS
By Jan Lisa Huttner
Ziv arrives at Beaufort Castle.
All stills courtesy of Kino International.
All rights reserved
When new Israeli films open internationally, viewers bring lots of opinions into the theatre with them. This is inevitable, of course; we carry our mental baggage with us wherever we go. But all too often, when I read reviews of Israeli films (by critics, bloggers, and others), I find them at odds with what I think the filmmakers intended. So, in the case of Joseph Cedar’s new film
BEAUFORT, I’d like to suggest a thought experiment: I’d like you to bring “Quint” into the theatre with you.
You remember Quint, right? He’s the guy in
JAWS who tells the WWII yarn about the USS Indianapolis: “…eleven hundred men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945...” I’m betting you can visualize this chilling scene perfectly in your mind’s eye. So bring Quint into the theatre with you, and then you may well see one of the best and most important films of 2007.
Cedar’s film is set in a castle in southern Lebanon. Beaufort Castle, with its excellent 360-degree views of the surrounding hilltops and valleys, was built by Crusaders in the 12th Century AD, and it changed hands many times through successive waves of conquest. In 1982, Israeli soldiers occupied Beaufort Castle, fortified it with tons of concrete and heavy weaponry, and used it to secure Israel’s northern border. But after 18 years of increasingly acrimonious internal debate, Israel’s sitting Prime Minister (Ehud Barak) ordered the Israel Defense Forces (the IDF) out of Lebanon.
BEAUFORT deals with the last IDF soldiers to occupy Beaufort Castle. Like the seamen plunged into shark-infested waters after the Japanese torpedoed the USS Indianapolis, they are isolated; they live hour by hour on the periphery, in extreme danger. The main character is “Liraz.” Even though he’s only 22, Liraz already thinks of himself as an old vet, and he refers to the soldiers under his command as “the kids.” In one early scene, the medic (“Koris”) tells a newly arrived demolition expert (“Ziv”): “Liraz is exactly what the army needs here right now – someone who can’t believe the army gave him the job.” When Ziv asks what they do all day, one soldier responds: “Guard the mountain, so it doesn’t escape.” Political realities constrain them. They’re not allowed to attack, but their retreat must be calculated “What are we here for?” Koris asks in a rage. “So they will know we haven’t left yet,” he’s told in reply.
There are many ways in which Liraz resembles “Captain John H. Miller,” the citizen-soldier Tom Hanks played in
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but there’s a specific Israeli spin to his character. Cedar doesn’t explain any of this explicitly, but Israelis watching the film will all know that Liraz comes from a Mizrachi family and that the chip on his shoulder is like the one a bright African American or Latino street kid might have here in the States. These background details reveal themselves in dialogue Liraz has with Ziv in
BEAUFORT’s opening scenes. Ziv is clearly from an Ashkenazi background, and his family is obviously much wealthier and better connected. But non-Israeli audiences, even Jewish-Americans who are relatively familiar with Israel’s unique cultural stew, will have to listen carefully to catch all of this.
Liraz is played by Oshri Cohen
Oshri Cohen, the actor who plays Liraz, also played an important supporting role in Cedar’s last film
CAMPFIRE. The “Rafi” character there was much younger than the “Liraz” character here, but they are the same type. For those of us who have watched Cohen grow from
BONJOUR MONSIEUR SHLOMI to
CAMPFIRE to BEAUFORT, his performance is a fulfillment of early promise. He has grown from an adorable boy into a young mensch The long, tight close-up of his face at the very end of
BEAUFORT speaks volumes.
All of the other actors are excellent as well, particularly Ohad Knoller as Ziv (best known to Americans for his roles in the Fox/Uchovsky films
YOSSI & JAGGER and
THE BUBBLE). There are no women on screen in
BEAUFORT; they’re not even seen from a distance (as the women are in
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA). Like the sailors in Quint’s story, the
BEAUFORT soldiers exist in an all-male world of blood and fire and pain
Ziv is played by Ohad Knoller
BEAUFORT’s technical dimensions are state-of-the-art (unlike those in most Israeli films, which are typically low budget domestic dramas). The sound design is excellent and greatly enhances the imagery. The human spaces in
BEAUFORT are a deeply unsettling amalgam of
PATHS OF GLORY
(Remember Kirk Douglas in all those muddy WWI trenches?) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
(Remember Keir Dullea in his final high tech confrontation with HAL?).
definitely unfolds in our time and our reality. When the film begins, daily life at Beaufort is a given. Should these particular soldiers be in this particular place at this particular time? The question is as irrelevant to
BEAUFORT as the comparable question would be to
JAWS. Should Quint have boarded the USS Indianapolis? It was never his choice; the decisions that placed him there were all made for him by other people (many of them already long gone before the scenes in question even began). Soldiers obey orders: they go where they’re told to go; they do the things they’ve been trained to do. They fight for their friends and mourn each death.
While it’s not an overtly political film in any way (and I believe the critics who say it is are wrong), the experiences of the characters in
BEAUFORT certainly resonate. With our own soldiers bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire, this is the perfect time to think about the citizen-solider: who he is and what he does “in our name.” Furthermore, sitting in the audience we are just like “Chief Brody” (Roy Scheider), and “Matt Hooper” (Richard Dreyfuss) in
JAWS. We’d like to think we’re safe… but we know we’re not.
Cedar gives no indication of his personal views about the occupation of Lebanon (although we do know from the “Director’s Statement,” posted on the
BEAUFORT website, that he served in Lebanon himself and also lost friends there). And there’s no indication if the feelings he had when he wrote the original
BEAUFORT screenplay changed in anyway after the 2006 war (during which it became obvious to everyone that Hezbollah started building a huge stash of armaments in southern Lebanon as soon as the IDF pulled out). He’s a filmmaker, not a politician. In fact, when he came to Chicago in 2004 to screen
CAMPFIRE at the 40th annual Chicago International Film Festival, he explicitly told me: “It’s hard enough to draw a realistic character, and that’s where all my energy goes.”
Watching BEAUFORT fills us with empathy for these specific soldiers, yes, but it creates personal anxiety as well. Since 9/11, we all know more than we would like about how it feels to be at the mercy of forces way beyond our personal control War movies used to be about battles, but there aren’t many skirmishes per se in “the war on terrorism.” Israelis have been living with this anxiety much longer than most of us; therefore it makes sense that an Israeli director would do the best job of depicting the world in which we all now live. “Incoming! Incoming! Impact! Impact!” It’s not just “out there” anymore.