Middle East showdown: Yuval Adler’s ‘Bethlehem’ explores tense bond between Israeli agent and Palestinian informer
Less is more in Bethlehem, Israeli filmmaker Yuval Adler’s slick debut feature about an Israeli secret service agent and his teen Palestinian informer and the animosities that envelop them.
Streamlining his action thriller, Adler eliminates the backstory and complex politics that usually inform films about the seemingly intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But he scores a victory with a phalanx of style, convincing performances and sustained suspense that should engage quality-minded audiences.
Opening on March 7 via Adopt Films, Bethlehem followed a familiar path through many A-list festivals—most recently Sundance—and won six Israeli Ophir awards (Israel’s Oscars).
Devoid of any political agenda and delivering no solutions, Bethlehem is one of many documentary and narrative features set amidst the Middle East conflict, really a “perfect storm” of intractable conflicts: the ongoing enmity of the two sides over who owns the disputed mass of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the terrorist and Israeli military strikes, Israel’s continued development in lands designated as Palestinian territory, the deep rift between the main Palestinian factions of Fatah and the more militant Hamas, and the conflict within Israel arising from disagreements over the value of a two-state solution.
Recent features and docs seen in the States that have examined the roots and possible resolutions to the problems include Omar, The Gatekeepers, State 194, Lemon Tree, The Syrian Bride, The Other Son, The Attack and A Bottle in the Gaza Sea. Many of these films appear made for export in order to stir either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli sympathies. But Bethlehem is unique because its creator is not interested in his film taking sides.
Adler hasn’t seen most of the other releases, even The Attack, which he says was shooting at the same time as Bethlehem. The made-for-export notion is supported by one ex-pat, American-born film buff we know who has been living in Israel for 30 years; asked about the conflict-themed films, she admits she hasn’t seen any and “they don’t get much attention in Israel.”
Adler qualifies that viewpoint. “People may resist these films, but Bethlehem got a huge amount of attention [in Israel]. It had the highest box office and was the most watched Israeli film in Israel last year.”
Nor did Adler, who studied Mathematics at Tel Aviv University and later received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia University, ever have a strong export product in mind. “I did not think about how Americans might relate to the film. Our concern was how do we best tell this story.”
The “we” includes Adler’s co-writer Ali Waked, an Arab journalist and activist who has reported extensively on Palestinian affairs, most notably on the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and the administrative Palestinian Authority. He worked many years in the West Bank’s Ramallah and in Gaza near Egypt and studied political science in Aix En Provence in France.
Adler is something of a polymath, having also studied acting at the Lee Strasberg School and sculpture and photography at Columbia University. He participated in various high-profile New York art shows before switching full-time to writing and directing film and making Bethlehem his first feature.
The narrative tissue connecting the film’s considerable action and suspense is the fraught, fragile and intense relationship between an Israeli Secret Service officer and his teenage Palestinian informant. Razi (Tsahi Halevy) is the determined Israeli intel officer; Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) his teen informer, and Badawi (Hitham Omari) the angry leader of the rogue al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades (at odds with both Hamas and the ruling Palestinian Authority). It’s Badawi who tries to get Sanfur to help his group kill Razi, as vengeance for Israel’s murder of Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), Sanfur’s terrorist older brother.
Bethlehem has further complications as it depicts aspects of both the Israeli and Palestinian societies, but it’s most concerned with the uneasy alliance of Razi and Sanfur. Some viewers may detect some homoerotic tension between them, and even the film’s press notes refer to “dangerously handsome actors you might have found in a Pasolini or Fassbinder film.” But Adler dismisses any notions of gay bonding with a quick “I don’t see it that way.”
Bethlehem unfolds in both Bethlehem (the Palestinian West Bank) and Jerusalem, capital of Israel. Adler says he chose the two towns because they are close to each other and “this proximity let us have scenes in the valley between.”
His actors are all non-professionals. Says Adler, “We discovered them during the casting process. We looked for people whose lives somehow relate to the characters they’re playing.” Adler calls Mar’I, who plays the teen informant, “remarkable.” “He was only 16-and-a-half when we shot Bethlehem and now at 18 is studying acting and eager to make it a career.”
What sets the story in motion and puts pressure on Razi to get critical information out of his young covert operative is a deadly terrorist attack in Jerusalem orchestrated by Sanfur’s brother Ibrahim. Sanfur, who secretly funnels money to his brother, has split loyalties that lead to further tension regarding where his real fidelity lies. Badawi, another Ibrahim loyalist, becomes a “ticking bomb” to avenge one ally’s murder and another’s betrayal.
Such intrigue for a first feature belies Tel Aviv-based Adler’s previous experience making experimental shorts. His leap from the avant-garde to hyper-realistic action has roots in his service in Israeli army intelligence, where he learned from intel agents that “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money; the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level”—all of which, in Bethlehem, leads to identity and loyalty crises for agent and collaborator alike.
But Adler stays shy of the politically charged aspects of the conflict—the reasons, the solutions, the guilty, and goes granular and diversionary. He delivers a unique look at the Palestinian infighting and tensions amongst the Palestinian Authority, the Brigade and Hamas. He also provides a close-up look at intelligence dynamics, especially psychological aspects, but maintains a distance from specifics about Razi’s branch of intelligence. (Press notes suggest Shabak, the Israeli secret service, and Adler says Razi is meant to be a member of Shin Bet, the unit featured in The Gatekeepers.)
Even questions of ethical behavior on both sides are beside the point, Adler contends. “Our thinking was that usually these [conflict-themed] films a lot of times mean to make a point or say something about right and wrong, and that’s fine.”
But Bethlehem is up to something else. Noting that one critic compared his film to TV’s “The Wire,” he explains his apolitical approach: “We wanted to explore the inner working of this thing [Israeli intelligence, Palestinian factions] and deliver in fine resolution how human intelligence works and what happens inside the Palestinian side. We wanted to show in fine resolution what people at the center of this conflict are thinking and doing. It’s like opening up a body or taking apart a watch.”
Even important details about how Razi had “turned” Sanfur to be his informant get scant attention. Explains Adler, “It would have been a long process to show that. A feature is short, not like a TV show where you have the time.”
Nor does Bethlehem, amidst the betrayals, hatred, lying and deceits that characterize the warring sides, deliver clear-cut heroes or villains. Adler sees his characters as “flawed and vulnerable” and didn’t want to judge them. Beyond their questionable behavior, they all retain their humanity, or at least they’re credibly human in spite of their actions.
Solutions, too, have no role in Bethlehem. as Adler maintains objectivity. Even the film’s powerful ending offers no remedies. The film simply suggests that both sides need correction.
Adler won’t comment on his own political sympathies or ideas for solutions or share feelings about the conflict: “I have many personal opinions, but I don’t talk about them and I don’t want to disclose my political orientation.”
If Bethlehem feeds the senses, it leaves the intellect a little hungry, considering its sociopolitical ambiguities and powder keg of a theme that is left to smoke. Yet Adler’s modus operandi is understandable as a safe harbor from the land mines of animosity on both sides of the conflict. Action and performances are what concerned the director, and because these must be visceral, style gains tremendous importance.
For Bethlehem, Alder and cinematographer Yaron Scharf drew from an arsenal to serve this end: stirring close-ups; innumerable sweeping shots of stony hillsides laced with desiccated roads; a mesmerizing shootout in a Jerusalem market; a flat, crisp video look that brings performers to the fore.
Adler explains, “The stylistic challenge was to, on the one hand, not look too news-ish, or documentary-ish because the subject already has so much of that coverage, and on the other hand, not to seem too stylized—not to seem like a film where you'd feel the camerawork.”
He and Scharf decided to cover scenes traditionally. Adler’s visual strategy was “shot, reverse shot, almost classical, with very little in terms of camera movement, mostly using a tripod rather than going handheld. But we tried to light and frame the shots in a way that will make the film aesthetically pleasing without seeming staged. We constructed high-contrast shots with a lot of backlighting by letting light penetrate at low angles through windows, for example. We also shot at very high f-stops, that is closed iris, which puts everything in focus. Again, we wanted to avoid the shots seeming too stylized—for instance, like having a figure in focus and the background out of focus. When everything is in focus, you feel that you're more in the space, instead of watching a pretty shot.”
Adler didn’t want Bethlehem to look like a doc but be easier on the eyes, like “something that was hopefully lit properly and framed properly so that in the end the cinematography is almost invisible.”
He also wasn’t deliberate about close-ups. “We didn't really have an ideology about it. We felt we have a cast of actors with great faces, and when we felt it was appropriate, we pushed in.”
Asked what making Bethlehem taught him, Adler answers, “Film is so complicated, so you initially try to control everything. I learned that I have to trust people and the process more, that all that goes on is not solely dependent on the director.”
With so appropriate a style and fine performances, Bethlehem reminds that bearing a message can be unnecessary baggage and that ambiguities and tension, unlike Israelis and Palestinians, can live comfortably side by side.