All industries have a divide where the accessible and mainstream proliferate while the traditional and passionate struggle. It exists in art, business, and as we see in Footnote, in scholarly circles. Nominated for the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Footnote explores how a simple mistake leads to a divide between father and son, or perhaps just widening one that had already existed for years.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) has studied the differences between versions of the Tulmud for decades with little recognition. However, his son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), has made a name for himself with a list of acknowledgements that go on and on, using methodologies that Eliezer considers unscientific. Eliezer has a very specific daily routine, but one morning he receives a phone call that would change his life. He has been given the Israel Prize for his research on the Talmud, one of the highest honors. Uriel receives a phone call too, that the prize was actually meant for him.
Footnote examines the very real battles and competition that exists not just in Talmud studies, but in most scholarly spheres. The common notion of publish or perish is a real threat for many scholars and professors. This reality pushes researchers into publishing more works of inferior quality than taking the time to publish papers that are exact and game changing. While Uriel does everything he can keep his father from knowing the truth and prevent him from being embarrassed, Eliezer has held a very real resentment towards Uriel’s success and recognition on material that Eliezer considers severely lacking and immature.
My first graduate class I took towards my master’s degree was a course about research and methodologies in cinema studies. The course is designed to ensure that I learn how to develop a methodology for research, determine quality sources, and deliver a polished paper that is concise, clear, and of high, publishable quality. Methodologies set many writers and researchers apart. Think of it as comparing Geraldo Rivera and Malcolm Gladwell. One is a sensationalist, the other, a social scientist.
The methodological differences between Uriel and Eliezer are described rather early in the film as a narrated list a la Jean Pierre Jeunet. Uriel is a respected and enthusiastic instructor and researcher, while Eliezer is much more structured and methodological. Later in the film, we see each of the father and son’s studies match their personalities. Eliezer’s study is organized, neat; every book is cared for and fits perfectly on the shelves. Uriel’s on the other hand has a much more eclectic bookshelf (looks something from Ikea) that does not fit each book on the shelf, in fact, he begins to stack books randomly on top of each other.
One of the key words of the film is “fortress”. Similar to how one key word is the catalyst for films such as Atonement, in Footnote, the word is both a clue and a lifestyle. When Eliezer works in his study, he wears noise-canceling ear-phones, a fortress of solitude while he focuses on work. They are a bright yellow color that sticks out from the quaint and traditional furniture and saturated book spines. His research methodologies and daily routines are also a fortress that isolates him from even the slightest change. It is also a word that Uriel tends to use often in his diction, both written and spoken, enough that it becomes a pivotal clue later in the film. Like how the two differ in their research methodologies, they both have created their own fortresses to seclude and protect them from unfavorable conditions that could shake their careers.
Before Eliezer wins the Israel Prize, his one and only empirical acknowledgment comes from being mentioned in a footnote in a book by his mentor, a respected Talmud professor. The film’s main conflict will add another footnote to Eliezer’s list of recognitions, almost like a asterisk added to the baseball players who hit record-breaking home while using steroids. Footnote is a clever dark comedy that contains some lovely visual gags and some riveting drama. While the film centers on conflicts between methodologies in Talmud studies, the film is accessible because this form of conflict exists in all scientific and scholarly circles around the world. It is scholarly Darwinism; we just do not expect it to get nasty when it exists within the family.