Shooting for peace

<em>Beaufort</em> - set during the occupation of Lebanon - has been hailed as Israel's first great w

Halfway through Israel's fourth-biggest grossing film of the year (after Ratatouille, Shrek III and Harry Potter), a 19-year-old soldier guarding an outpost in South Lebanon is incinerated by an incoming missile. The next day, his replacement is killed in an identical attack. Shell-shocked comrades weep, smoke and sing songs about wanting to scream alone as they wait for their leaders to get them out. The film ends with a hasty running-down of the Israeli flag, and the young commander surrendering to neurasthenic sobs. Disney/Pixar it ain't.

Beaufort, now being shown in London at the Jewish Film Festival ahead of UK-wide distribution next March, is set in the dog days of Israel's 18-year occupation of South Lebanon. It tells the story of the last unit to withdraw, quaking with fear as the Hezbollah rockets rain down. Given that the Israel Defence Force assisted with the production, it is very off-message.

Israel has its share of left-wing film-makers. But few have made films about fighting and even fewer have enjoyed commercial success. Yet 135,000 (in a country of only 7 million) went to see Beaufort in its first two-and-a-half weeks. The Jerusalem Post, a conservative daily, dubbed it "Israel's first great war movie". An Israeli official describes it as "Israel's Platoon". But Beaufort's success also reflects something in the national mood. Its location, and its portrait of the futility of an unwinnable war, has struck a chord with audiences reeling from last summer's fighting.

But the director, Joseph Cedar, rejects glib comparisons. "The film is about war in general, not about Lebanon or even Israel," he tells me. Beaufort's message, if it has one, is of the value of human life. The father of one of the soldiers killed trying to defuse a bomb is interviewed on Israeli television and asked whether he blames the military leadership for his son's death. "No," he replies, "I blame myself for failing to educate my son that his life is precious, that when one person dies, a whole world collapses."

"I'm interested by the way politics finds its way into our households in times of war," Cedar explains. "What kind of a message are parents [in Israel] giving their children about courage and glory? Are our fathers betraying us by encouraging us to be brave? Why is that expected?"

Cedar talks of two Israels, one which feels it has to show strength, and one which feels the state ought to have more western attitudes towards the value of its citizens' lives. The box-office takings of his film indicate that the second camp is larger than people think.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet