Yuval Adler is interested in the liminal space: the porous nature of borders both physical and interpersonal, the shifting nature of relationships that slide from friend to foe, from spy to confidant. The director’s “Bethlehem,” Israel’s Oscar entry (which did not make the Oscar shortlist Friday), is a taut, troubling reflection on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the multifarious connections between the two opposed and yet intimately neighbored nations.
“Bethlehem,” Adler’s first feature, follows Razi, a spy in Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, and his informant Sanfur, a young Palestinian man living in the film’s eponymous town and the brother of the wanted militant Ibrahim. Razi and Sanfur’s relationship is a professional one, but it is almost familial as well — Razi advises Sanfur to steer clear of potentially problematic friendships and gives him money to buy new jeans.
“It’s a relationship,” as Adler puts it, “that develops over years — an intimate and close bond. What you see in “Bethlehem,” it’s not some kind of outlier, some kind of love that transcends the situation. It’s what these guys constantly generate. It’s their job to create this bond.”
There is intimacy in this relationship, and danger, too. While it’s apparent that Razi cares for Sanfur, he also uses the young man to get to his brother. The twisty plot of “Bethlehem” begs not to be unraveled prematurely. Suffice to say that the film is a tale of two-way manipulation with an unsettling conclusion that is anything but conclusive.
Adler has been working on “Bethlehem” since 2007, when he met Palestinian journalist Ali Waked and his nebulous idea for a story centering on the relationship between an intelligence agent and his informant began to come into shape. “The film was going to constantly change perspective and move from side to side,” Adler says, “and of course I knew that I had to write with a Palestinian: somebody who knows that reality, who speaks the language, who knows the culture.”
Waked, who has reported from inside the Palestinian for over a decade, was a perfect choice for what Adler describes as perhaps the most important part of the film’s pre-production phase — a four-year research process interviewing individuals who had worked on both sides of the conflict as spies, collaborators, and informants.
What they learned, Yuval says, is that it’s very difficult to know the true motives of such security operatives. “You can fake that you love somebody for two weeks, but some of these relationships last for three years. You can’t fake that you love them then; you really love them. And then at the same time you use them. This relationship, there’s really something incomprehensible about it.”
Once they had the story in place — with the help of producer Talia Kleinhendler, who helped get the screenplay into the 2010 Berlinale production market — money came together quickly, first from Belgium, then Germany, and finally Israel in 2011. The film shot in Israel and the Palestinian territories later that year.
One of the most impressive elements of Adler’s directorial debut is that his three leading actors all make their first big-screen appearances in the film. The standout, undoubtedly, is Shadi Mar’i, who plays Sanfur. Mar’i turned 17 during filming and carries a monstrously difficult part with ease and authenticity belying his greenness. “I was most afraid about this part,” Adler says, but when he saw the young man audition, he knew. “He was the first cast in the movie, and he was so dependable and smart. You’d give him eight pages of script and he would read it once and and say, ‘I know it.’ I’d say, ‘Do it in Arabic’ and he’d translate it in his head. He’s a phenomenon.”
Not surprisingly, shooting a film in the West Bank wasn’t easy. Adler went in with a skeleton crew of about 10, mostly to film exterior shots. For the most part, things went smoothly. But Adler recalls one tense day filming a scene on a secluded, winding road in which a group of Al-Aqsa militants scare away a Palestinian Authority minister driving to Bethlehem. The shoot was located in an unclear border area between Israeli and Palestinian territory, and during one take, an observer passing by didn’t notice the camera located inside the Mercedes used for the shot and saw only a car driving straight at a group of armed men. The army was called in, and Adler and his producers had to explain that nobody was in any actual danger.
“You really become crazy when you’re a director.” Adler says. “You don’t care about anything except getting the shot. People start yelling, ‘they almost shot you,’ and you go, ‘yeah, OK, so they almost shot us, but we got a good shot!’ You really lose proportion.”
Watch the first trailer for “Bethlehem,” which Adopt Films opens in the U.S. on February 21, below.