Shai Ginsburg writes on Joseph Cedar’s "Footnote"

Shai Ginsburg writes on Joseph Cedar’s "Footnote"

Moshe Feiglin is not known for his film criticism. A high ranking member of Israel’s ruling Likud party, the right-winger is better known for his extremist views. Yet, two months ago, he published one of the most important aesthetic pronouncements to be made in Israel in recent years. Featured in Ma’ariv, Feiglin’s statement was made vis-à-vis Joseph Cedar‘s award-winning film Footnote. Given its political significance, it is worth quoting at length:

“What shall I say? In the past, one could not find an Israeli film that did not deal with the IDF and Arabs, or settlers and left-wingers, or the ultra-Orthodox bedrooms—in short one that did not openly and publicly displayed the dirty laundry—and not just any laundry, but such that affirms the politically correct narrative of the Israeli and International Left […]

But all this is behind us. This film is pure joy because it is simply quality film. The kind that stays with you a long after you leave the theater. A human story on father and son and their relationship in a social context towards which the director probably feels close—an Israeli context, Jerusalemite, academic, national-religious.

But the story could have taken place in exactly the same way between a father and the son at the University of Berlin. That is, no political message is to be found here. Simply, a very human story, serene yet fascinating, one that gently and progressively is woven between the main characters […]

This film presents many urges and inclinations. Self-respect, jealousy, anger, but it does not have bad people. They are all good. Good people that find themselves in situations that forces them to activate their moral discretion—and invite the viewer to think how he would have behaved under similar circumstances. Each and every one there tries to be okay, moral, respectful. Some succeed—others less so, but the struggle is very real.

Footnote is a film as a film should truly be —a film that is a work of art.”

Feiglin’s review was published only days after he received more than 20% of the votes in the primaries held by the Likud in January. He was easily defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu. However, Feiglin also reaffirmed his position as a kingmaker within that party and, consequently, within Israeli national politics in general. This was made evident in the weeks following the primaries: a host of Likud MKs, government ministers and other political functionaries who normally do not identify themselves with his camp hurried to assure Feiglin’s supporters that they toe the line of his political and cultural views. His words thus carry particular weight.

Moshe Feiglin

Feiglin’s offhhand comments are troubling for those of us who write about Israeli arts and culture for foreign audiences. They question the presupposition underlying our common presentation of that culture. In writing about “foreign” arts, critics by and large take the position that a good or worthy piece of art is somehow universal. This guarantees the pertinence of art beyond the narrow boundaries of its origin. Otherwise, what interest would an American or European filmgoer, who is not necessarily Jewish, not necessarily a man, and not necessarily an academic, have for a story set in Jerusalem, whose Jewish male protagonists occupy themselves so avidly and jealously with the academic study of ancient Jewish legal literature?

Not surprisingly, Feiglin finds fault with the social and political gist that characterizes many Israeli films. He has little patience for stories that explore the local social and political hardships of life in Israel. In their place, Feiglin would prefer to see films that feature “human stories” that could have equally taken place in Berlin: that is, universal stories. His reasons are ideological. For Feiglin, films that deal with Palestinians, with the IDF, with the Israeli left, with the settlers, or the peculiarities of the ultra-Orthodox world [and I'm sure he would have more subjects to add to the list] are so enmeshed with the local that their stories cannot be viewed as human. As such, they cannot be acknowledged as universal.

Feiglin’s comments are disturbing for several reasons. To begin with, they suggest that only films that are cleansed of the social, economic and political strife of Israelis and Palestinians under Israeli rule are capable of crossing the threshold of universal humanity and can be admitted as “true” art. Only such cleansed films could take an Israeli father and son and place them in Europe – in Berlin, of all places. That Feiglin, who, like so many of his fellow party members, never tires of noting the fate of European Jews under Nazi Germany, names Berlin of all places as the marker of that universality testifies to the ongoing, uncritical fascination of Israelis with Germany as the epitome of European culture, its murderous past notwithstanding. This preoccupation is particularly striking in the case of those right-wing Israelis who repeatedly call on the Israeli government to disregard European political pressure to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. It evinces an unrequited desire to be admitted by Europe even as—or precisely in spite of—Israeli rejections of European political and civil decorum as duplicitous.

As troubling is what is implicit in Feiglin’s comments. The parliamentarian insinuates that the insistence of Israeli filmmakers on exploring social, economic and political strife in Israel is in vain. Since such films are so lacking in universal themes, they’re logically incomprehensible to international audiences. Feiglin thus judges the hopes — shared by many writers, filmmakers, visual artists, critics and scholars, that the arts might communicate the struggles of Israeli life - futile, a priori.

One can only wonder whether Feiglin would have reasoned similarly about a film that features the miseries of Jews in Europe or in Muslim lands. Would he regard a film that features, for instance, the religious, political, social and economic factors that led to the persecution of European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s to be likewise so particular and local as to have no interest to anyone but their European Jewish victims? (One can think here of Vittorio de Sica’s Academy Award Winner The Garden of the Finzi-Continis or Joseph Losey’s Palme d’Or recipient Monsieur Klein). Would Feiglin likewise argue that a film that explores the Jewish endeavors to establish a political entity in Mandatory Palestine, like Otto Preminger’s Exodus, as lacking in universality?

Be that as it may, it is certain that Feiglin does not like to see “bad guys” in films. The merit of Cedar’s Footnote according to the rightist, is that its characters are all good [if not perfect]: people who endeavor to do the right thing, even if not always successfuly. No one, of course, would judge good people for their lapses, for good people are in no need of correction. A judgment—and a call for correction, both personal and collective—is called for only when and if one believes people are not always good: that they can be, and often are, inimical, dishonorable, corrupt and immoral. But then, as I have already noted, Feiglin dismisses—or shrieks away from—the demand for correction and change. One cannot alter the “human condition” in its universality. One may only observe it.

Following Feiglin’s comments, as a scholar, I find myself in an uncomfortable position. If Feiglin is correct, then to write about Footnote appears to be writing about a film cleansed of those aspects of the Israeli experience that I deem most significant and crucial. And yet indeed, Feiglin does identify a major trait of Cedar’s film.

Joseph Cedar

Footnote tells the story of  Eliezer Shkolnik (played by Shlomo Bar-Aba) and Uriel Shkolnik (playd by Lior Ashkenazi), his son, who both hold academic positions in the Department of Talmud at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Whereas the son achieves fame and receives all possible professional accolades for his work, the father’s scholarship is considered marginal. Bracketed between two awards ceremonies, Joseph Cedar probes the harsh relationship between father and son, and through it, so it seems, wishes to comment on academia, in general. Rather than a pursuit of knowledge and lofty ideals, this world is presented as ridden by envy, hostility, and outright violence. Just like most other professions.

Cedar epitomizes the dissatisfaction of Israeli filmmakers, in the past fifteen or so years, with earlier Israeli films. His generation of filmmakers rejects the poetics of poverty that informed Israeli cinema until the mid 1990s—with only few notable exceptions—a poetics deemed unavoidable given the scarce resources available for film production, and that often resulted in the over-emphasis on the presence of actors, at the expense of other aspects of film production. The Israeli filmmakers who emerged at the turn of the century, on the contrary, strive to produce more well-rounded films, in the tradition of classic American and European cinema.

As a part of their endeavor, Israeli filmmakers started to look for creative strategies that would make up for the relative poverty of their productions and “conceal” it as it were. They came up with divergent solutions, still bringing recent trends in global cinematic traditions to bear upon local production, all focusing on the visual dimension of the film, commonly neglected in early Israeli productions. Consequently, the filmmakers of “the New Israeli cinema” put into relief the visual pleasure to be derived from their films. Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, and Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami, to name but a few recent films, all testify to this preoccupation with the visual. Footnote is the most recent example of this.

Among Israeli filmmakers, Joseph Cedar stands out for his mastery of  all of the divergent aspects of filmmaking, through his ability to produce films that successfully mesh together the audio and the visual, cinematography and editing, script and acting. From this perspective, Footnote confirms the US-born director as a highly accomplished filmmaker. Certainly, Footnote is one of the slickest products to ever have come out of Israel. Whereas his previous films showed the influence of American popular cinema, Footnote is no doubt indebted to quirky French comedies such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 Amélie. Following the French example, in Footnote, Cedar presents a uniquely closed world, insulated from outside influences, guided by its own slanted logic. Limiting the narrative to a bounded space, cut off from reality allows the director more control, and often results in a more cohesive vision that compensates for his inability—due to scarce resources—to simulate “real” spaces.

In Footnote, Joseph Cedar employs this strategy effortlessly, by injecting life into the otherwise dry ivory tower practice of textual study. A combination of ironic subtitling, complex character portraits, slanted camera angles, and fast-paced editing keeps viewers edgy and amused through the film. This allows the director to fully document the eccentricities of his characters, and the relationship between them.

Like its French counterparts, Footnote focuses on the clash between two worlds, between the “real” world and the grotesque world within which the characters of the film reside. That clash is embodied by the manifest awkwardness Eliezer Shkolnik presents when he is forced to face the world outside the academy. The world of the bubble is not without its threats and pain. However,  the outside world is deemed even more dangerous and threatening. This is made amply clear by a glimpse of a memorial constructed for a victim of a Palestinian attack, which Eliezer Shkolnik passes daily on his way from home to the library. The “bubble” world thus also offers a sense of security lacking in the real world.

Quite ironically, it is this sense of insulation that Feiglin locates the true humanity of the film and its allegedly universal appeal. Outside of this insulation, Footnote provides only slanted and skewed perspective of the “real” world (made literal by the camera work,) so whatever Cedar’s film shows of that world can be easily dismissed as slanted and skewed. Reading as a realist the grotesque world depicted by the director—obviously, Feiglin does not think to highly of university professors—the Likud MK  celebrates our ability to block out reality, as Eliezer Shkolnik blocks the site of the memorial, and remains within his bubble.

Herein lies the problem the film presents. Notwithstanding its merits, Footnote ultimately provides the viewer with the blindfolds that may render it an authentic commentary on the “human condition,” at the expense of it being a commentary on a certain kind of “Israeli condition.” It all depends on your political orientation.

 Footnote screenshot and Joseph Cedar photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. Moshe Feiglin photo courtesy of Wikipedia. Feiglin translation by Shai Ginsburg.

This article originally appeared in Souciant, and can be accessed at the following: