The film Bethlehem by Yuval Adler just won six Israeli Ophir Awards including the two most important for best direction and best feature film. The film was also the big winner at last week's Haifa Film Festival and a prize winner at the Venice Film festival last month (winner in the "Venice Days" section of the festival). Certainly the best Israeli film of the year!
Adler is a very talented filmmaker. He spent many years studying art, physics, math and then moved over to philosophy -- many of those years in New York City. Now he has turned his attention to filmmaking and his debut film, Bethlehem, is a suspense-packed thriller.
The narrative is about a Palestinian teenager named Sanfur, whose older brother, Ibrahim, is the leader of a militant/terrorist/freedom fighting organization. Sanfur is a collaborator, providing information to the Israelis, and the film is mostly about his intimate and complex relationship with Razi, his Israeli Secret Service (Shin Bet) handler.
You are probably asking yourself -- is this another Israeli film about the conflict and the evils of the occupation? This is something else entirely, something out of a Nelson De Mille or John Le Carré novel -- an extraordinary espionage thriller about the intimate and mutually dependent relationship between an informant and his handler. The script -- by Adler and Ali Waked -- is superbly crafted, offering great tension and drama, and lending enormous insight into the complexity of the issues surrounding so much of what goes on in the world of spying and counter-terrorism. There is a wonderful array of characters -- certainly not stereotypes -- realistically portrayed with depth and emotion -- a tribute to both the script and the casting. The pacing is superb -- never a dull moment. The locations are realistic and authentic.
Not portrayed as victims, the Palestinians in this film are seen as complex and varied -- there is the corruption of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, the back-stabbing between different gangs of militants, and the string of collaborators who are recruited by Israeli Security Service handlers. The handlers create a fascinating relationship with their informants. I was completely wrong in my assumptions that this relationship would include a lot of verbal abuse, some violence, and extreme exploitation. As the director explained in a talk with the audience at a local Jerusalem screening last night (at the Lev Smadar cinema), the handler and the informant grow to be mutually dependent and to have a relationship of extreme intimacy. They talk on their mobile phones very often, are available for each other at all hours of the day and night and we see how both are obsessed with this relationship.
After the screening, people asked questions about Adler's politics. He refused to answer, stating that the film spoke for itself. Honestly, the film is not over-the-top in its political perspective. Rather, it tries to give an authentic glimpse at what was going on (during the years of the Second Intifada) at the level of the street, how individuals were suffering and struggling to get through on a daily basis.
According to Adler, who I also heard speak on Israeli radio (as part of the publicity surrounding the opening of the film in Israeli movie theaters), the film portrays a complex reality that is also a cinematic experience. This is a thriller, an action film, but at the same time, it gives you a glimpse into a world that takes place internationally, the world of spying and intelligence. He described his research, meeting with Palestinians and Israelis. Even though the filmmakers strived for authenticity and the film is based on reality to a great extent, Adler admits that "we had to create a balance with the action and dramatic elements."
Bethlehem has already been purchased for distribution in many countries around the world including USA, Japan, and many countries in Europe. Put this film on your "must" list!