Before Bethlehem director Yuval Adler had never made a film, yet this can’t be detected whatsoever judging from his assured command of camera movement, the great performances he gets from his actors and his effective, thrilling storytelling. The film, set in modern day, focuses on the explosive relationship between an Israeli secret agent (Tsahi Halevi) and his young Palestinian informant (played by the mesmerizing Shadi Mar’i) who is asked to betray his country. This is a film where no one seems to trust anyone else, and Adler knows exactly how to balance the right tone between spy film conventions and the larger sociopolitical themes.
As a genre film, Bethlehem succeeds because Adler knows just how to construct a scene and build up tension, and he does this while also providing pithy commentary on the endless conflict between Israel and Palestine. The film is revelatory without being didactical and its greatest achievement might very well be how involved the audience can get while watching it. Watching the film surrounded by people proved to be a unique experience because of the way in which it seemed as if collective reactions were being orchestrated by someone specific. Oohs, gasps and eventual silence prevailed at the screening I attended, which bodes well for the success of a film that might just be the first “must see of 2014”. Most impressive of all was how after the credits ended, people started talking to whoever they had next to each other about how they felt about the film (a lady next to me called it a “Greek tragedy”).
The film was a box office success in Israel, where it won the national Academy Awards and was also selected as Israel’s official submission to compete in the 86th Academy Awards, where it was not nominated. On the eve of the film’s official commercial release in the United States, we spoke to Adler who explained his unique career path, discussed the film’s political subtext and even shared a funny anecdote which involved his crew fighting the actual army.
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How does someone go from a math degree to a PHD in philosophy to filmmaking?
I don’t know… When I was 16 or 17 I did short films on Super 8 and when I was in college I did some photography and sculpture, but I always knew I was going to make films, I just can’t tell you that there’s a straight path I followed. Making a film was much harder than I thought but I discovered there is something similar with making films and philosophy…
You co-wrote the film with Ali Waked, who’s Palestinian, so in a way we can say the creative process of the film emulated the central story, minus the tragic consequences of course. Do you think this element of collaborating in creating art instead of national security issues should be perhaps what people take from the film as opposed to just focusing on the plot?
Think of the cast, we had Tsahi Halevi, the Israeli guy who served in the military, he was a soldier. We also had Shadi Mar’i who is Palestinian and who lives on the other side of the fence and therefore experiences something from the other side. They all brought knowledge and experience.There was also me and Ali, and the actors, it’s a film that had people coming from both sides to make it. I agree with you, it’s something remarkable. This is a film about the most explosive issues in the country.
When you were writing the film and doing research, I’m sure you found topics to make dozens of different films. Was the intention to always show the dynamic between a young informer and an older Secret Service officer?
We were interested in the world of informants, we didn’t understand it exactly. We said let’s see how they work, how they get the informants. When we researched it we found that the Secret Service works so fast and different from what people think, people in America, even the intelligence guy who worked in the film said that this was something different. You get close to them, get them to betray their environment, they need to develop intimacy. It’s fascinating, what happens in the film is not some exception, it’s how things happen. This duality is so explosive and at the same time so intimate and all of this came from the research.
You have established that the Secret Service approaches potential informers based on something they call “having a hole in their hearts”, a concept that sounds almost spiritual in a way. What are some of the key factors they take into account in order to find these people?
The relationships are completely based on their ability to create intimacy. It’s the basic of the whole thing. These people are not allowed to talk, but we talked to lots of people who were informers themselves. We also talked to Palestinian authorities, Hamas, everyone we could talk to who wanted to contribute and they all agreed on the concept of intimacy.
You’ve said that you didn’t set out to make a political film, but as you are aware, most art coming from Israel tends to become political almost by default, especially when analyzed in the Western world. Does this bother you? Do you feel it takes away from what you intended to do with your work?
It’s not a political film, it’s a very Israeli context. From the beginning when Ali and I started working, we said let’s not have an agenda, let’s explore this phenomenon and show the people how this works, let’s let people make them out. In some ways it’s political, because everything is political. But what I mean is we did not try to be an obvious left wing or right wing, pro this or pro that…
I understand that the valley between Bethlehem and Jerusalem was essential to convey the sense that these battles are happening practically next door to each other. Did you run into any problems of logistics when shooting on location?
No, we shot the film in 2010-2011 and it was very calm. We had one incident though, now looking back at it, it’s funny, it’s the scene when the guys intercept a minister on the road. The camera was inside the car, so for that shot they had to wait on the road alone with weapons waiting for a Mercedes Benz to show up. So there was no camera around, the Mercedes was coming from far away and this is an area where you need special permits. Someone drove by and saw the actors with the weapons waiting by the road and they called the army and the army came! We told them we had permissions and we started screaming at each other.
I found it fascinating how visually you also blur the lines that divide these people, for instance Sanfur and Razi almost look like they could be father and son in real life. Was it easy to find actors who looked so alike or was this unintentional?
It just happened, there’s a misconception that Israelis are lighter and Palestinians will be darker and it’s not true. We got people who were good to the job, the Israeli is dark and the Palestinian is dark. There is no way an European or an American will know “who’s who” unless they speak Arabic or Hebrew, because everybody looks the same. We thought it was funny.
During one scene we see Sanfur changing his clothes and there’s a Real Madrid t-shirt lying around. A few scenes later we see him wearing a Barcelona hoodie. Was this a symbol aiming to represent the internal conflict at the center of his character or am I looking too much into interpreting the film?
I didn’t notice that. That’s brilliant. I never do this kind of stuff, I never work in symbolic terms, this is something completely outside my job. It’s like a dream, the interpretation of the dream is outside the director of the film, I do the film and what you interpret it is correct or not correct. I find symbolic interpretation is very interesting, but it doesn’t mean I did it on purpose.
Many people will be surprised when they realize that not only is this your first film but that you were also working with non-professional actors? Can you talk about the process? Did you study other films or directing techniques to decide what you wanted visually and also to rehearse with the actors?
We wanted the film not to look like an art film, there are films with shots that are extremely complicated, you really feel the camera (focus shots)so we decided not to do stylized shots not to do aggressive camera moves, not to make you feel like you’re watching a great art work, but that you’re there, that you’re watching the news. We found ways by framing, using contrasts, using light from windows, make it look beautiful but not in an obvious way. Almost don’t feel the camera, we wanted it to feel easy, it feels easy to be there. With the actors iI worked with non professionals and wanted them to act like they would behave naturally. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman for example, rest in peace, you could tell him “do this, do that” and as a professional actor he would know how to do it. I’m the opposite of that, I think you should try to first figure out what the actors can do naturally and then work from that.
When I saw the film the last scene provoked a collective gasp in the theater followed by complete silence. So far what’s been the most surprising reaction from audience members?
A lot of people in Germany had the same reaction, people were just sitting there. We get this reaction a lot, we struggled a lot with the ending…but I think it’s the right ending for the film.
The film missed out on the Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination this year but upon its release in the US is now eligible for every other category. I know you’ve said you’re superstitious about things like these, but are you excited about the possibility of figuring more prominently in the awards discussion now that the film will be seen by more people?
It’s great to to be in the conversation, we’ll have a pretty wide release so I’d love to see what people say about it. It’s an intense emotional drama, it’s also a thriller, it’s an issue film that’s also important, it’s an intense emotional experience to see it and I think people will enjoy it. I lived many years in the US, so after Israel, America is the other place where I most anticipate the release of the film. We open March 7.