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In 'Bethlehem', Israeli-Palestinian pair aim for 'neutral' view of conflict


Films addressing the Middle East conflict tend to be fraught with tortured politics. But "Bethlehem", directed by Israeli Yuval Adler and co-written by Muslim Palestinian Ali Waked, tackles the subject with a rather radical ambition: neutrality.


Centering on the complicated relationship between an Israeli secret service agent and his young Palestinian informant, the taut, tightly wound thriller has racked up several awards in Israel and earned accolades at various festivals around the world.

This week, it hits French cinemas before heading to the US March 7.

“Bethlehem” is Adler’s feature-length debut and the first screenplay from Waked, a journalist – and Israeli citizen born and raised in Jaffa -- who has spent most of his career as the West Bank correspondent for the popular Israeli website Ynetnews.

I recently sat down with the two, who have the relaxed rapport of old friends, for a conversation about their partnership, the criticism aimed at them, and their efforts to make an objective film about a situation in which they are, theoretically, on opposite sides.

F24: Where did the idea for “Bethlehem” come from?

Yuval Adler: I had this fascination with how the Israeli secret service recruits and runs Palestinian informants. It’s such a high-stakes game: how do you make people betray their own society? So I wanted to use the story to explore the street level of the conflict, the inner workings -- not the big picture.

I also wanted to tell the story from both sides, so I had to do it with a Palestinian. A friend of mine introduced me to Ali. When I talked to him, we really understood each other. We knew we did not want to make a movie in an obviously political way or with any agenda. We wanted to do a lot of research, listen to Israeli agents and former Palestinians informants -- basically to show this phenomenon, and let the viewer make the judgement, rather than putting the judgement inside the film.

F24: Ali, how did you react when Yuval contacted you?

Ali Waked: I had been covering the conflict for many years as a journalist [in the West Bank], and had already received offers to work on projects with Israeli directors. But I always felt there was an agenda behind the proposal. With “Bethlehem”, Yuval and I both wanted to bring people the story from both perspectives, and to not present one side as all evil and the other side as the pure angel. It was very important that we told this story only after doing interviews with Israelis and Palestinians, far from the symbols and the big headlines. We needed to talk to the people who are both creating the conflict and paying the price.

F24: This kind of very close Israeli-Palestinian movie-making partnership is pretty rare. Were there tensions or disagreements that emerged?

AW: Our disagreements came from the fact that as a journalist, I wanted to include every detail that I thought was important, but as a director, Yuval would say there were certain things he could not film, or that did not fit the “grammar” of the movie. As for politics, we did not have a single argument.

YA: We had artistic disagreements, nothing political. I think that from the beginning, if you decide to show things through the eyes of the people involved -- in this case, the Israeli agent, the Palestinian kid, and the Palestinian militant -- you don’t play the game of “if you show this, you have to balance it with this”. Everything we show in the film is how the characters would see it. For example, we don’t show a suicide bombing; we show reports about it on TV, because that’s how the Israeli agent would see it.

Waked, left, and Adler (AFP)
Waked, left, and Adler (AFP)

F24: Along with a lot of manipulation, there’s a real tenderness in the film between the Israeli agent and the Palestinian informant. Is that realistic?

YA: A secret service guy’s job is to create this intimacy. And all Israeli secret service agents I’ve talked to say they always start to identify a little too much with their source, because they spend so much time with them. A lot of them say they feel like their informant’s shrink, because no one else in the informant’s world listens to him. So they look for people who are weak and are not getting something, and they give it to them. In the film, the Palestinian informant has father issues, and the Israeli agent gets in there and uses and exploits him, but at the same time he really becomes his father. That duality is remarkable. And that’s what they all say. You can’t fake caring for this person. You grow to love them, and then you get everything from them. And then when you need to, you sacrifice them. And you have to live with that. That’s the job.

AW: The tricky point in the film as a viewer is to identify the exploitation beneath the tenderness. Because at certain points, when the Israeli needs to use threats, he does. It’s friendship and intimacy, but there’s exploitation around the friendship. This is the tension that Israeli secret service agents and Palestinian informants deal with.

F24: I know the film hasn’t been shown yet in the Palestinian Territories. How has the reaction been in Israel?

YA: It’s been great. I’ve had Israelis tell me: “The Palestinian character may be a terrorist, but when I see his father crying over him, it breaks my heart and it confuses me.” That’s the kind of thing the film can provoke. I think it can transcend the one-sidedness you can sometimes get on this issue.

AW: We have a dream to show the film in Palestine. Yuval has been trying to get it fully translated into Arabic. And to complete what the Israeli told you [he laughs], my father didn’t like the fact that my mother somehow identified with the Israeli secret service agent. So what’s amazing with this project is that Israeli Jews, Arab Israelis, and Palestinians all can see the film in very different ways. The biggest compliment I’ve heard is that we didn’t have the traditional black and white, the bad and the good. People can like and dislike the same character at different points in the story. Once you move past the symbols of the conflict, people are complex, with different moods and motives. So we tried to present in a balanced way what is a very unbalanced situation, with a strong, organised Israeli side, and a disorganised, almost anarchic Palestinian side during the second Intifada, from 2002 to 2005.

F24: Gideon Levy [prominent left-wing Israeli journalist for Haaretz] had harsh things to say about the film. He wrote that that the message is: “Israelis are the good guys and Arabs the bad guys.”

YA: Everyone talks to us about Levy. We laugh about it, because in Israel his reaction was a drop in the bucket. Aside from him, we were very pleased that people didn’t know where to place the film politically. Usually an Israeli film is very easily tagged as either left or right. The fact that people ask me which side I’m on proves that my politics are not in the film.

AW: Actually, Levy’s piece got several negative reactions from others on the Israeli left, who disagreed with him. Then on the opposite side of Levy, there’s the Israeli right, which says we portray Palestinians as angels and Israelis as the bad guys.

F24: Have you seen “Omar” [the Oscar-nominated Palestinian film, which has a similar plot involving a Palestinian who becomes an informant for an Israeli agent]?

AW: Haven’t seen it.

YA: I did. “Omar” shows things from the Palestinian perspective, it’s very specific in what it tries to accomplish. When people write about the two films, they say “Omar” is the Palestinian version of the story and “Bethlehem” is the Israeli version. I don’t think that’s fair to all the Palestinians who worked on “Bethlehem”.

F24: I interviewed the director of “Omar”, Hany Abu-Assad. He told me he has a very difficult time appreciating or being interested in Israeli cinema, because, as he said, “it’s the art of the occupier”. Ali, what do you think of that?

AW: Well, if we’re going to be honest about it, most Israeli movies that deal with the conflict actually take the Palestinian side. I think the reactions to “Bethlehem” in Israel and around the world show that people want to see something neutral, in which the filmmakers don’t preach at the audience, but just describe a situation. Then they can decide what the message is.

F24: Any plans to work together again?

YA: Never. We’re proof that the peace process will never work. [They look at each other and laugh.]


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