Joseph Cedar’s learning curve has been impressive. The New York-born Israeli filmmaker has made only three feature films to date, and each has been the Israeli representative to the Academy Awards. From his intelligent but uneven first feature, “Time of Favor,” through his sophomore effort, “Campfire,” to his new film, “Beaufort,” is a series of quantum leaps in assurance, control of tone, creative use of screen space and sheer cinematic intelligence.
“Beaufort” is, quite simply, the first really great film of 2008, and the best Israeli feature in several years.
That steady improvement is not an accident.
“Every film is the result of some lessons and conclusions that are drawn from the one made before it,” the 39-year-old Cedar says, leaning back in a swivel chair in the cluttered conference room of Kino International, the distributors of his new film. He offers as an example the transition from “Campfire” to “Beaufort.”
“ ‘Campfire’ is very accurate, almost too accurate [in its depiction of the settlement milieu], and because we cut it in the camera, when we got to the editing there was almost nothing left to do,” Cedar explains. “I felt that on my next film I needed to be a little more flexible. When we began talking about ‘Beaufort’ I knew we’d have a larger budget. I felt I could have done something more controlled or tried something riskier.”
He opted for the latter, creating an intensely claustrophobic film about an Israeli unit defending the medieval Crusader fortress of Beaufort, inside the Lebanon border, during the days before the IDF’s withdrawal in 2000. Working with a small cast in an almost suffocatingly confined location — the modern fortifications built atop the ancient walls — Cedar creates a profoundly disturbing portrait of young men walking a knife-edge between death and fear.
The confining nature of the location, it turns out, was a liberating experience for Cedar.
“Actually, the single location gave me more flexibility,” he says. “It made me more willing to explore a story with some risk. There was something intuitive about the way the film progresses. We were creating until the final day of editing.”
The flexibility didn’t start during shooting. It really began in the writing process. “Beaufort” marks the first time that Cedar has written a screenplay in collaboration, and he readily admits that working with award-winning journalist Ron Leshem was a different experience than writing alone. Although the film’s credits say that their script is an adaptation of Leshem’s novel “Im Yesh Gan Eden (If There Is a Garden of Eden),” in fact, Cedar says, the screenplay came first, or almost simultaneously.
“It’s not an adaptation in the conventional sense,” he says. “The project really started with a newspaper piece Ron wrote, about 6,000 words long. We met and decided to make it into a film, and while we wrote the screenplay together, Ron was writing the novel, too. But what you have is the same historical events in two very different versions, with very different emphases, the same names but not the same characters.”
Indeed, reading the novel, which is being published in the U.S. with the same title as the film, “Beaufort,” is a very different experience from seeing the film. The novel explores the lives of the soldiers in the fortress in great detail, individualizes them with a lot of back story, frequently taking them off the mountaintop. By contrast, the film never strays farther than a few hundred yards from the fortifications.
Although all three of Cedar’s feature films are based to some degree in fact, “Beaufort” is by far the most tied to historical events, in part because of a writing process in which, he says, “Ron had accumulated so much research material about the story that we had to digest what he had rather than invent.”
As a result, he says, “All the events are as real as a film version can be, but the characters are fictitious. The three television journalists in the film are real people portraying themselves and we even took the texts they speak from actual reporting they had done at the time.”
The emotions the soldiers are feeling in the film are also very real ones for Cedar. He was stationed in southern Lebanon for nine months between 1987 and 1989. He was barely 18.
“It is only as someone in his 30s that I have begun to understand it,” he says. “As a young person I had no idea what was happening to me. The actors in the film are mostly that age, so I tried in a short period of time, in the few months we were on location and shooting, to allow the characters to go through the process I went through over some 15 years, a process that goes from denying your fear [of dying] to admitting your fear, to accepting it as a survival tool.”
“Beaufort” has already been on the festival circuit, winning Cedar the Silver Bear for best direction from the Berlin Film Festival last year. Although the film has been well-received critically, there have been a few nay-sayers who object to the presentation of the enemy as, essentially, an invisible presence, or to the film’s lack of rhetorical contemplation of the morality of the conflict. Cedar shrugs off these criticisms as beside the point.
“One of the basic choices we took was that we were placing the entire story in the outpost,” he says. “We don’t show the soldiers’ civilian lives, we don’t show the enemy. Not showing the enemy helps us to examine the randomness, the inevitability of the situation they’re in. I like the limitations. [They] forced us to reach for the heart of the story. I see it as a story of survival. We could have made an entirely different film. Ron wrote the novel as an almost entirely different story.”
The story he chose to tell is the one that your average infantryman knows.
“Soldiers at the ground level don’t have the whole picture,” he says. “They’re closed in both physically and mentally. At best, they hope to survive.”
Another Jewish combat veteran turned filmmaker, Samuel Fuller, said it best in the closing lines of his WWII masterpiece, “The Big Red One.” Fuller wrote, “The only glory in war is surviving, if you know what I mean.”
“Beaufort,” directed by Joseph Cedar, opens on Jan. 18 at the Lincoln Plaza (1886 Broadway;  757-2280) and Quad Cinemas (34 W. 13th St.;  255-8800). Ron Leshem’s novel, “Beaufort” is published by Delacorte Press ($24).