Bethlehem, which won seven awards and nominated for seven more, was produced in Israel, Germany and Belgium. It was Israel’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. The powerful film is incisive and gripping. It asks hard questions about the price of peace as it focuses on a complicated relationship between Razi (Tsahi Halevi) an Israeli secret service agent and Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) a teenage Palestinian informant. In this realistic action-thriller, director Yuval Adler poignantly shows the tragedy of how both characters become casualties of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
Sanfur, code named “Esau” amongst Israeli security agents (an ironic and symbolic name if you check its meaning), has been turned over to become an informant for Razi an agent who is working to stop terrorism and suicide bombings in Bethlehem and the surrounding occupied territories. Bethlehem, as the capital of the Bethlehem Governorate of the Palestinian Authority, is a hotbed of intrigue with factions in disagreement. These factions have declared allegiance either to Hamas or to other spin off groups that also disagree with the Palestinian Authority but do so sub rosa, unlike Hamas. They act on their own creating random acts of terror without authorization of the PA. The PA is in the difficult position of counterpuncher and compromiser. It must attempt to keep the peace without bringing down the wrath of Israel on its head. It must negotiate and be laid back, yet not antagonize the various factions to the point they will turn on the PA and destroy its members.
Filmmaker Yuval Adler beautifully shows the fraught complexity of the intricate circumstances for both sides: the Israelis commissioned to keep the peace in the occupied territories and the Palestinian Authority who must attempt to work with them yet not sacrifice their own intentioned cause of restoration for the long haul. The untenable situation is filled with the desperation of violence which causes both sides to be placed on a torturous rack of loss, misery, tension and destruction. Peace becomes a lost, improbable word floating in the nether regions of outer space in this divided city where random acts of chaos and terror continually squeeze the citizens and rob them of the larger joys of contentment in a relaxed every day existence.
How does such a backdrop govern and influence the young, especially relatives of those who are resistance fighters against the Israelis? How does this tightrope influence Israeli agents who must resort to questionable tactics, preying upon youth to engage them against the “terrorists” as they perceive them to be on their side of the divide? The filmmaker shows the effects, the rottenness, the human suffering, the predation of all the groups as the situation drives everyone to the brink and no one wins, least of all those like Razi and Sanfur who dare to compromise and help each other cross the divide to maintain a tenuous relationship to benefit the city’s citizens.
The principle storyline shows how Razi attempts to discover what Sanfur’s brother’s next act of resistance will be by engaging Sanfur’s help. Razi has become like a father figure to Sanfur. He counsels him about going to work and school. He encourages him not to engage in macho acts of bravado (being shot with a Kalashnikov while wearing a bullet proof vest) to impress his “friends.” And we know that Razi means it. But at times we see his duplicity bothers him and his predation lowers his own self-esteem. Clearly, this agent has a conscience and he cares about Sanfur beyond his role’s demands. For his part, Sanfur appreciates the mentoring and returns the emotional care back. Yet, he is also confused and upset. Where do his loyalties truly lie? He is as divided as the city of Bethlehem and what good can come of the tremendous risks he is taking?
The filmmaker along with Ali Wakad with whom he co-wrote the script have provided a logical backdrop for the action. The characterizations are revelatory and real. They show what elements of Sanfur’s home life have made him hunger for love and the emotional concern of a male figure, despite the fact that it is from an Israeli. His impulse is for peace and emotional sustenance. With his brother not home to provide guidance and his father (Tarik Kopty) a hard task master who provokes Sanfur to anger, and alienation, Sanfur finds Razi’s kindness and care alluring and with the payoff of other items, Sanfur helps Razi as best he can.
However, the situation worsens for Razi and Sanfur, after his brother Ibrahim is captured and killed. Israeli soldiers are wounded, a faction led by Badawi (a scary Hithman Omari) strikes out against supporters of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas claims the body of Ibrahim as theirs for he worked with them and is their martyr and no one else’s. The Palestinian Authority and the Israelis clearly have messed up in their inability to control the situation to effect a peaceful standoff amongst their members. For Razi and Sanfur, the stakes are raised exponentially. Razi may be released from his position as he is viewed as incompetent by his cold-hearted handler, and Sanfur may be found to be a traitor to his own family and his people because he has colluded with the enemy and may indeed have caused his own brother’s death.
Yuval Adler with equal measure of humanity for all, indicates that the handlers behind the scenes on the opposing sides of authority are the ones who avoid the real dangers. Meanwhile, the ones caught in the middle, those who are in the trenches and pinned on every side are driven beyond all hope toward the untenable with no way out. Once again, it is the little people, the citizens on both sides who sacrifice their lives and shed their blood. It is those with overarching power who “represent” the masses that offer a questionable sacrifice and little bloodshed. The filmmaker asks for how long before people’s eyes are opened to the injustice and a new way comes about? Could it most likely be effected not by those with power, but by others?
The filmmaker’s questions are shaped by reality. At the time of writing the screenplay, Ali Waked was a correspondent for Ynet covering Palestinian affairs. Incidents described in the movie were taken from actual events from the period. The director cast non professionals in roles of Razi, Sanfur and Badawi. Omari who plays Badawi is a Palestinian and was discovered accidentally during a location shoot. Many of the extras and bit players (both Palestinians and Israelis) were reenacting scenes in the film that they had experienced. The casting which received an award is superb and one cannot help but note the physical similarities between the cast of Israelis and Palestinians. The filmmaker in his politically correct presentation is making an important statement about our humanity as the “family of mankind and womankind.” Nevertheless, as the film shows, the political divide is present. As the film credits roll titles are delivered in Arabic and Hebrew, side by side. The film’s inspiration for peace says it all.