October 3, 2004, Updated September 19, 2012

Black is always in fashion in Tel Aviv, especially at the cafe’ in the Cinematheque, but Joseph Cedar’s black kippa is a little unusual. 

The 36-year-old writer/director, whose latest movie, Campfire, just opened in Israel, has come to the Cinematheque for an interview and must be used to being the only religious person in the room by now.

Although he describes himself as Orthodox, he says that he and his wife, journalist Vered Kellner, who live in Tel Aviv with their daughter, belong to “a community of people who don’t want to belong to a community.”

As the New York-born, Jerusalem-raised Cedar discusses his movie, it’s clear that his love/hate relationship with the whole idea of “belonging to a tribe” is an essential part of what drives him to spotlight in his movies the religious Zionist community in which he was raised.

This milieu would seem to be unlikely to provide material for a successful career in the Israeli movie industry, which tends to be secular and leftist, but Cedar has become one of the country’s leading filmmakers in just a few short years.

His 2000 debut film Ha Hesder (Time of Favor), the story of a soldier in a West Bank yeshiva who learns that some of his friends are planning to bomb the Temple Mount, won five Israeli Oscars, including Best Picture, played all over the world, and picked up some awards at Jewish film festivals.

Campfire, which focuses on a Jerusalem widow in 1981 who dreams of joining a new settlement in Samaria, may sound even more offbeat but is poised for even greater success. It played at the Berlin Film Festival to great acclaim and won a Special Mention. Last week it won three Israeli Oscars – including Best Film, Best Director for Cedar, and best supporting actress (Hani Furstenberg). It was nominated for 13 Israeli Oscars – one in every category; that’s more than any other film, in a year in which critics agree the Israeli movie industry produced better movies than ever.

Although he’s become an insider in the film community, Cedar still clearly identifies with the outsiders he portrays in his movies. Rachel, the main character of Campfire, is “motivated by her need to belong to the community more than by any ideology…. Her political commitment wasn’t important to me. What was important was her need to belong to a tribe. She needs to be embraced,” explains Cedar.

He knows the world of the settlements well, since many of his friends moved to the West Bank when he was in high school, and he has several close relatives living in Judea and Samaria. He lived on a settlement for over a year while he was writing Ha Hesder.

He didn’t set out to criticize the settler movement, he says, although many on the Right will not be pleased with his take on their community, where even a Jewish widow is seen as so different that she is a threat to the purity of a West Bank community.

Cedar is interested in the social dimension of the settlement movement, and Campfire emphasizes what he sees as its smugness and hypocrisy. This point of view is made clear in scenes such as the one where Rachel is shocked to discover that only people with a certain amount of money in the bank will be accepted to their group, as well as a humorous one in which a parade of would-be settlers answer the settlement committee’s questions in almost identical phrasing.

Still, Cedar insists, “I never had an intention to criticize… Criticism is really external to the process of making a movie.”

But the criticism of the film by the religious Right has already begun. Cedar says several viewers have been particularly upset by his portrayal of Motke (played by Assi Dayan), one of the least sympathetic characters in the film, who heads the acceptance committee of the settlement Rachel hopes to join.

“If you choose to see yourself in that character, of course you’ll be upset. Why not choose to identify with one of the other people in the movie?” he asks, such as Rachel, her rebellious daughters, or her suitor, Yossi (Moshe Ivgy), a 50-year-old bachelor who drives a mini-van and isn’t taken seriously by anyone.

“Religious Zionism is very proud of its values, its activism, its national commitment, its religious commitment. It’s important to [religious Zionists] to maintain a perfect picture. But if you’re so proud of being perfect, you don’t leave room to examine your flaws. And every group has flaws. What you’re concerned about is how people will see you from the outside,” says Cedar.

The outsiders, then, “are left out of the tribal circle.”

While in the movie it is a widow and a bachelor who find themselves set apart, Cedar acknowledges that there is a much wider group about whom the movement does not concern itself, including impoverished Sephardi Jews and, of course, Palestinians.

But what makes Cedar’s films so exciting is that at every turn, he chooses the dramatic integrity of the story over any attempt to preach or convey a message. It makes sense that he seems more comfortable talking about the nuances of each character and their stories than about political debate the film is likely to provoke; his characters don’t talk in bumper-sticker lingo, and he doesn’t either.

The son of Howard Cedar, a professor of molecular biology at the Hebrew University who won the Israel Prize for his work, and Tzippi Cedar, a psychotherapist, the filmmaker takes his craft seriously and earned a degree in film from New York University. A Hollywood career doesn’t tempt him, however.

“I have an American film in my head, but this isn’t the right time,” he says. To work in America, “I would have to relinquish the control over my movies I have in Israel.”

He’s now writing the script for a movie about the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and relishes the fact that he will make all the important decisions concerning the film – not a producer or a star as would be the case in the US.

“So many things can go wrong when you’re making a movie,” he says, just before he switches his cellphone back on. “But if the plot is good, they’ll forgive you.”

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post)

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