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Israel: The Micro View

Joseph Cedar, the 33-year-old American-born director of Time of Favor, is a former Israeli paratrooper and an Orthodox Jew. He spent a year living on a Jewish settlement on the West Bank while writing the script for the movie, inspired by a news story about a religious army officer falsely accused of belonging to a Jewish terrorist group. I spoke by phone to Cedar in New York about the making of his film and its reception in Israel.

ELLA TAYLOR: You’ve chosen to deal with one of the central fault lines in Israeli society, as opposed to the struggle with the Palestinians, so that the debate in the movie is to some degree internal, between different kinds of religious Jews.

JOSEPH CEDAR: That’s one way of looking at it. The story takes place within a very specific group of Jewish Israelis. They’re the people that I know, and I felt comfortable telling their story. But the central idea in the movie is not something only Israelis are dealing with. It’s a story about a crisis in ideology. At the center is an individual who feels that this very politicized environment is slowly biting into his personal life. I would like to think that this very same story can be told about a Palestinian boy who is recruited to a militant Islamic terrorist group, and over the process of his training finds that he doesn’t fit into this kind of doctrine. In trying to break away from his close environment, he’s paying the price. Hopefully it’s universal in that sense.

Still, I’m not an expert — not on terrorism, not on fundamentalist groups, not on Israeli interrogation methods. If I feel fluent in any area, it’s in these specific characters in my movie. I really don’t know if they reflect a larger trend that might be true for other terrorist groups. It’s a story of a few people who get in trouble and have to deal with a certain situation. The only way I can deal with it is in a micro point of view. I can’t extrapolate anything from this story to the larger political arena.

You surprise me, because Time of Favor seems to me a highly political film as well as a thriller.

But that’s the point. When I started making this movie, I had in my head some political — or at least social — criticism that I wanted to put on the screen. As the movie progressed, my focus moved from the message that I thought I wanted to deliver into the personal motivations of these characters. And that’s exactly what happens to the main character. He starts out getting his energy from the sense that he’s a representative of a group. By the end of the movie, all he wants to do is represent himself. Michal begins in that place, Pini is someone who never really sees himself as a human being with personal desires, and the main character, Menachem, is in the center of those two, between someone who is completely individual and someone who is carrying the flag of an idea. Like him, I went from one side to the other.

I heard that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated while you were writing the first draft of the script. How did that affect the movie?

You know what I took from [Rabin’s killer] Yigal Amir? A certain kind of arrogance in a character who thinks he can change the course of history. If you think that you can influence millions of people by a single act, you have to be arrogant, you have to think that you are better than the average person on the street. It’s easy to say that anyone who could do this kind of act is just a lunatic and we can’t identify with him because his world of reference is completely different. Yes, Pini’s somewhat crazy, but that’s not the entirety of his personality. There has to be a collection of circumstances that come together with different motivations to bring someone to that kind of act.

How was the movie received by religious people in Israel?

The feedback I get is either very angry or very supportive. You can divide the responses of those who thought this movie was about them into two. Some wanted to see how I dealt with questions they face in their daily life. Others, who thought I was suggesting answers, thought that after so many years of being stereotyped as fanatics or messianic or just plain crazy, if an insider is going to make a movie about us, why can’t he show the good side?