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Bethlehem

Director: Yuval Adler
Cast: Tsahi Halevi, Shadi Mar'i, Hitham Omari, Tarik Kopty, Hisham Suliman

(Adopt Films; US theatrical: 7 Mar 2014 (Limited release); 2013)

Planning Something Big

“Shoot or I’ll kick your ass!” screams 17-year-old Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i). Wearing a flak jacket he’s found, Sanfur has planned this pivotal
moment during shooting practice, forcing another boy to take aim at him with a Kalashnikov rifle. But for all his cocky posturing, it’s plain that Sanfur is also afraid.


While this early scene in Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem might seem like a too typical teenaged pissing match, it’s obvious too that the stakes are raised here, in the territory ostensibly governed by the Palestinian Authority, but also caught between the competing agendas of Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. While Sanfur wants to be tough, he fears he’ll never have the respect showed to his brother Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman). “Your brother is planning something big,” one of the boys suggests, the sort of planning that Sanfur can’t begin to imagine yet.


Ibrahim is a leader of the Martyrs’ Brigade and a local hero, his parents’ “only source of pride.” Sanfur, on the other hand, is only entrusted with sweeping a shop and running money to his brother as needed. Sanfur feels more important when he’s ‘‘Esau,” a Palestinian informant for Ravi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli Secret Service agent working to infiltrate the multiple factions and stay one step ahead of them all. For two years, he’s been giving information to Ravi when asked for it. As a reward, Ravi offers gifts and, importantly, attention.


Though Sanfur originally agreed to help Ravi to get his own father (Tarik Kopty) out of jail, they’ve since developed a complicated intimacy:  Ravi isn’t just a source of new jeans and phones, he’s increasingly a loving father figure. “I’ve spent more time with him than my own kids,” Ravi says of his informant. But if we’re tempted to be sentimental, he goes on to complain about the paperwork he had to fill out to obtain permission to recruit someone under age. It’s a reminder that Sanfur is expendable to the Secret Service. Ravi is aware of this, but he still goes out of his way to help the boy when he can.


Ravi’s motives are as confused and shifting as anyone else’s in Bethlehem. Certainly, no one makes a proposal that is not loaded with implications: one group claims the Palestinian Authority wants a ceasefire so they can save face with foreign powers, particularly the Americans. Another claims Hamas is pulling the strings of al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade to make the Palestinian Authority look weak and out of control. The conflict ratchets up when Ibrahim eventually goes into hiding and all sides want to “claim him”, whether as a favorite son or captured bounty.


As the hunt for him grows more intense, Ravi must decide whether to break rank and protect Sanfur, but is he motivated by his feelings for the boy or reluctant to lose a valuable asset? The film indicates that neither side has only one enemy and that unity, as noble as it may sound, is a very subjective notion.


At the center of all these complexities are people whose value and self-identity are never fully their own to craft, but always subject to forces outside themselves. Ibrahim is just as useful to all parties alive or dead. Badawi (Hitham Omari), Ibrahim’s second in command, may be capable enough, but as a Bedouin, he faces prejudice. “You think we need Bedouins from who knows where to tell us what’s good for Palestine?” taunts Abu Mussa (Karem Shakur), head of the Palestinian Authority. “Your father just learned to wear shoes last week!” 


Frustrated as he’s cast outside his brother’s community, Sanfur never seems to grasp the fact that he is betraying them and his family too when he is Esau. As Sanfur, he is invisible, forgotten. As Esau, he’s needed. Or, maybe it’s the other way around. Even when Ravi calls, Sanfur can’t entirely distance himself from his brother, or the resistance, and so, he plays both sides, proving himself both untrustworthy and unsure of whom he can trust. 


In Jewish history, Bethlehem was the place where sacrificial lambs were raised. Bethlehem evokes that tradition through Sanfur’s dilemma. Whose sins need to be redeemed? Who will be the lamb? And who will be committing the sacrifice?

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6 Mar 2014
Bethlehem succeeds because Adler knows exactly how to construct a scene and build up tension.
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