Ostensibly, Joseph Cedar’s film Beaufort (Israel, 2007) portrays the denouement of the first Lebanon war, which came to an end with Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Undoubtedly, however, it seeks to comment on Israeli society in the aftermath of the second Lebanon war. Following Time of Favor(2000) and Campfire(2004) Beaufort is Cedar’s third film. Currently showing in Israel to both critical acclaim and commercial success, Beaufort has already garnered the prize for best director in this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Cedar’s film follows Liraz, a junior officer who, with a handful of soldiers, man the Israeli outpost on the Beaufort, in the south of Lebanon, in the months leading to its evacuation in May 2000. A crusader castle located at a top of a mountain, Beaufort dates back to the twelfth century. In the early 1980s it served the PLO as an outpost. It was taken by Israeli forces on June 8, 1982, on the second day of the first Lebanon war. A few hours after the battle ended, Prime Minister Begin arrived at the fort in a helicopter, together with Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. The visit – broadcast on Israeli television that very evening – was meant to celebrate Israeli might and a swift military victory. But with the prolongation of the war and the collapse of Israel’s “New Order” in Lebanon as well as mounting local resistance to the Israeli military’s presence and a growing public debate within the country over the war, Beaufort became a symbol of a conflict that divided the Israeli public. In the eighteen years that Israeli soldiers occupied the fort, a concrete maze of tunnels, passageways, ditches, and fortifications was constructed next to it. Finally, when former Prime Minister (and recently installed Defense Minister) Ehud Barak decided to end Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in 1999, the fort was blown up.
The opening titles of Cedar’s film serve as a beautiful emblem of Beaufort as a whole. A narrow, octagonal frame appears over the dark screen: a tunnel or a corridor with walls of concrete slabs opens into a blinding bright light at its far end. The dark figure of a heavily geared soldier appears in the light; he enters the tunnel and then tiredly leans against one of its walls. As the camera zooms out, letters appear on the screen and reveal the octagonal frame as the Hebrew letter vav, the second in the Hebrew transliteration of the nameBeaufort.
Cedar focuses on the lives of soldiers who are enclosed within the tunnels and fortification of Beaufort. Under continuous attack from Hezbollah forces, the soldiers are doomed to lead their lives in the darkness of the underground tunnels and fortifications dug into the mountain. Every leap into the light becomes a dangerous flirt with death, a journey whose ending might very well be the “sweet hereafter.” When ordered out into the open, soldiers rush to cross the unprotected space and dive down into the shelter of the mountain as soon as possible.
The Israeli troops are held inside the mountain not only by Hezbollah’s guns and rocket launchers, but also by the orders of their superiors and, most importantly, by the decisions of Israeli politicians. Yet, even while Israel’s political leadership resides just a few miles away, it occupies a completely different world, protected from the constant threat of Hezbollah by the full might of the Israeli Defense Forces. Cedar is not interested, however, in comparing the two perspectives – of IDF grunts on the one hand and of generals and the politicians – but, rather, in underscoring their utter incommensurability. On the one hand, the military and political echelons seem uninterested in what Israeli troops are going through: the soldiers are merely pawns in their game. On the other hand, the troops seem to be utterly removed from the political and military debates that preceded the decision to withdraw Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. They are oblivious to the political and military maneuvers that sent them there, and that, ultimately, lead them to withdraw from the outpost and return to Israel. Indeed, when these are brought up, they seem irrelevant to the soldiers’ daily experience. Over and against the abstractions of political and military tactics, Beaufort juxtaposes the very real bodies of Israeli troops.
Cedar’s film thus throws into relief the breach between common soldiers, their military leaders, and the political echelon. Such criticism is topical, and was at the center of the public debate that followed the second Lebanon war. Indeed, it emerged while the war was still going on and spurred a protest movement that traced the roots of the Israeli failure in that war to such a breach: it is not the common soldiers who failed to achieve the military goals assigned to them – so the argument goes – but, rather, the military and political leadership, both of whom failed to prepare for that war, and lacked a clear strategy fight it once the conflict began. Most importantly, the protesters blamed Israel’s military and political leadership for a breakdown of communication, for failing to perceive realities on the ground and for failing to employ Israeli forces to address these changing realities. The protesters presently endeavor to force the resignation of Prime Minister Olmert, alongside those of former Defense Minister Amir Peretz and ex-Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, both of whom have since been replaced by Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi respectively.
Beaufort also highlights another recurring national issue that is presently at the center of Israeli public debate: What makes a good officer; what makes a good leader? The myth of the junior commander is crucial to the Israeli self-image: the young man who, endowed with charisma, courage, and an innovative ability to overcome obstacles, leads his soldiers into battle, and achieves the goal against overwhelming odds. With his battle cry “Follow me!” he sets a personal example and motivates his soldiers. This image is commonly contrasted with that of the commander in other armies and, in particular, in Arab forces. Their military leaders supposedly send their troops forward, while they remain safely behind, controlling them and conducting battles from a safe distance.
Liraz, the young lieutenant who commands the Beaufort outpost does not conform to the myth. He finds himself in a terrain that has little to do with it. Abandoned in effect by his military and political superiors, he is left alone to deal with circumstances that prevent him from realizing himself as a commander. Since the outpost is undermanned and under constant attack, the troops are confined to the fort; when Liraz asks his commanders to allow him to leave the outpost and lead his men in an attack on the enemy, he is flatly turned down. The military and strategic superiority of Hezbollah in the region is too prohibitive. He is thus confined to his underground shelter, reduced to making sure that his subordinates show up to their sentry duties.
On the eve of the Israeli pullout, the attacks of Hezbollah on the Israeli post intensify. As the number of Israeli casualties grows, so does the pressure on Liraz. How could he assign his soldiers on dangerous missions when he knows them to be futile? One of his subordinates confronts him, demanding that he prove himself a good commander by admitting to his soldiers that what they do is indeed useless. But Liraz is unable to do that. By admitting this he would be admitting that the only thing that makes him a commander – his loyalty to the mission, his loyalty to the mountain – no longer exists.
Liraz’s frustration is underscored by the self-conscious dialogue Beaufort maintains with James Bond films. Compare, for instance, the famous opening titles of James Bond with those of Beaufort . In the former, the familiar Bond silhouette crosses the screen horizontally, and when it reaches its center, turns to the front and shoots. While Bond is presented as an individualistic, glamorous and handsome agent, conspicuous in his manners and style, it is hard to tell Cedar’s characters from one another: under the guise of the heavy gear they are forced to carry, they all look alike. Indeed, they are defined by their immobility and lack of agility to the same extent that Bond – like the Israeli mythical commander – is defined by his mobility and quickness. While Bond’s films are characterized by their movement, by Bond’s daring escapes from closed quarters to the open space, the men of Beaufort are confined to their underground shelters. And while Bond travels to the most exotic parts of the earth, Cedar’s film presents the breathtaking scenery of the crusaders’ fort only to send its protagonists back underground. If Bond stands for the mythical soldierly desire, Beaufort represents its frustration.
Most conspicuously, Beaufort corresponds with Clint Eastwood’s latest films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Cedar’s debt to Eastwood is the clearest in the visual outlook of his film. Like Eastwood, in Beaufort , Cedar adopts a limited palette of color, controlled by brownish-grayish tone, which turns much of the film almost black and white and contributes greatly to its oppressive atmosphere. And, like Eastwood’s two films, Cedar focuses on the experience of common soldiers to expose the way they are manipulated and abused by the their military commanders and political leadership.
At the same time, the juxtaposition of Cedar’s Beaufort and Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima also exposes the limitations of the Israeli film. At the center of Eastwood’s productions is the encounter between the American and the Japanese soldiers. It is a bloody and murderous encounter, yet one that exposes the shared humanity of both sides. Indeed, by providing literally opposing perspectives of the same battle, Eastwood turns the island of Iwo Jima into a ground both sides shared in war, but now, fifty years later, through the memory of the bloodshed rather than of animosity, share in peace.
What is strikingly absent from Beaufort is the other side, the enemy. Not once do Hezbollah forces appear. Cedar’s characters experience Hezbollah only through the loudspeaker system of the outpost, which throughout the film announces the launches of missiles, a sign for the soldiers to take cover. Even more frightening are the times when Israeli surveillance fails to identify an enemy missile launch, and the outpost is hit by surprise. The effect is quite striking; rather than experiencing a confrontation of two warring sides, Beaufort’s defenders experience Hezbollah’s attacks as though they are a force of nature, beyond human control. In Cedar’s film, there is no space for human encounter, for the clash of warring soldiers as human beings.
Beaufort’s exclusive focus on the soldiers occupying the Israeli outpost is disturbing for other reasons as well. The film, in effect, severs the Israeli experience of Beaufort from its context, from Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon, and the price paid for it by the local Arab population. Completely absent from Cedar’s film is an acknowledgement that the Israeli presence at Beaufort allowed for the continued occupation of southern Lebanon and the harsh tactics employed by Israeli forces to secure its presence. Stories about these measures came out in the Israeli press in the weeks leading to the Israeli withdrawal from the region in April and May of 2000, but gained little attention. Cedar’s film – precisely because of its strength – reproduces the elision of the horrors of Israeli occupation of Lebanon.
In excluding the other parties in the conflict from Beaufort, Cedar continues a line already noticeable in his earlier two films. Time of Favor related a settlers’ plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, while Campfire exposed the personal price paid by women for the settlement project. While both films figuratively dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they gave no room to Palestinians, focusing exclusively on the confusions of their settler protagonists. The conflict these films present is an internal Jewish-Israeli conflict rather than an ethno-national or even religious conflict. Perhaps this explains their great popularity amongst Israeli audiences.
Cedar’s films are no exception in current Israeli cinema but, rather, make the rule. In the 1980s, Israeli directors focused on the encounter between Israelis and Palestinians, between occupier and occupied: Daniel Wachsmann’s Hamsin (1982), Nissim Dayan’s On a Narrow Bridge (1985), or Uri Barabash Beyond the Walls (1984) are the most notable examples. Since the mid-1990s and, even more so, since the outbreak of the second intifada, such films have become rare. Israeli feature films seem to turn inside to examine Israeli Jewish society and, with only few exceptions, leave the conflict with the Palestinians to documentary filmmakers.
In fact, Cedar’s films are “unilateralists.” Those who bear the brunt of Israeli colonialism, whether it be in the Occupied Territories or in southern Lebanon, are not the local Palestinians, Syrians, or Lebanese but, rather Jewish Israelis themselves. Cedar’s discussion of Israeli violence turns into a discussion of the effect of that violence on Israeli Jews and, more precisely, on common, simple people, and it is up to them to save themselves from a political, military, and religious system that abuses them. Cedar finds hope in turning to these kinds of Israelis. An encounter with Israel’s regional antagonists, and an acknowledgment of the violence done to them while Israelis resolve their confusion, remains out of the frame.
Shai Ginsburg teaches Israeli cultural studies at Duke University.