Beaufort author hopes to bring Oscar back to Israel

Ask Ron Leshem “Who are you wearing?” to the Academy Awards this year, and he draws a blank. The Israeli writer doesn’t really get the finer points of Oscar night fashion. But he does know how it feels to be nominated.

“Beaufort,” the tale of an Israel Defense Forces outpost in the waning days of the Lebanon war, earned Israel its first best foreign language film nod in years. As author of the novel on which it was based, as well as the film’s co-screenwriter, Leshem gets much of the glory, as well as the trip to Hollywood.

So how does it feel to be nominated?

“It’s a very tense time for me now,” Leshem said by phone from Israel. “Usually I don’t know how to enjoy anything. When we got the news about the Academy Awards, I was happy for half an hour and then it turned to tension.”

For Bay Area cineastes hoping to catch the Oscar contender, “Beaufort” will be an opening night offering at the Contra Costa International Jewish Film Festival on March 1. It will also be screened Thursday, Feb. 28 at the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival. Leshem will be in the Bay Area for several speaking engagements.

The Oscar nomination led the nightly news in Israel, but by then “Beaufort,” both the novel and the film, had already become a national sensation.

The story follows a group of young Israeli soldiers based at a mountaintop fortress in Lebanon. Coping with the stress of war, the swaggering boys become battle-hardened men, perhaps sooner than they would like. “Beaufort” is based on a real place and real events.

“More than a war story, I wanted to write about being 18 in Israel,” Leshem said. “I tried to create a psychological experiment, like ‘Lord of the Flies.’ What happens when you put a group of children, isolated from the world, in a small cage in a jungle without adults to supervise — to check what happens when they create their own adolescent kingdom, with rules and a language of their own.”

Leshem’s description of

army life and the labyrinthine Beaufort compound is so richly detailed, it’s hard to believe he never set foot in Lebanon. Although “Beaufort” was his first novel and screenplay, Leshem is a veteran print and TV journalist. In his “day job,” he runs an Israeli TV news division.

As he wrote the novel, he was already thinking ahead to a possible film version. With his manuscript half-done, he contacted Israeli film director Joseph Cedar to pitch the story.

“I was afraid maybe I wouldn’t write a good book,” he recalls. “And maybe a book isn’t a big enough audience. I felt this was a story I really needed to tell everybody, to run around the streets and shout to everybody, and I thought film is the best tool to fulfill this feeling.”

Cedar heartily agreed, and the two collaborated on a screenplay.

“I got a lot of inspiration from him while writing,” Leshem adds. “For me, it was the best opportunity to learn, sitting next to him, quietly watching how he works. I said this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the best school for film.”

The novel — at once profane, violent, tragic and hilarious — shook up an Israeli public previously unwilling to examine the country’s long occupation of Lebanon. “Beaufort” earned Leshem a Sapir Prize (an annual Israeli arts award), and went on to become an international bestseller, translated into 10 languages.

The film retained the novel’s basic arc, with a different emphasis. “What [the director] wanted to do was deal first of all with the simplicity of death and create the feeling of suffocation and claustrophobia,” Leshem said. “That was the main goal.”

That, and fill seats. And now Oscar has come calling.

“It’s really a huge moment for Israeli writers and Israeli culture,” Leshem says. “We have a good film industry, and over the last few years, we got better.”

Whether or not he takes home a statue on Oscar night Sunday, Feb. 24, Leshem knows he’s done Israeli society a favor.

“Israel withdrew from Lebanon after 18 bloody years there, on May 24, 2000, and three days later the war in Lebanon didn’t exist in any newspaper. Journalists assumed the public doesn’t want to handle it. We suffer from a schism here. We don’t want to process. We create the concept of forgotten wars.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.