Monday, March 24, 2014


BETHLEHEM       B+                       
Israel  Germany  Belgium  (99 mi)  2013  d:  Yuval Adler 

You think we need Bedouins from who knows where to tell us what’s good for Palestine?  Your father just learned to wear shoes last week! 
—Abu Mussa (Karem Shakur), head of the Palestinian Authority.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the same New York production company, Adopt Films, which previously released standout independent arthouse films like 2013 Top Ten List #4 Tabu (2012) and 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 Sister (L'enfant d'en haut) , had their hand in distributing both Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian film Omar (2013) and also this Israeli film, both dealing with the exact same subject from slightly different perspectives, a stark look at the impact of how the Israeli secret police coerces Palestinian prison inmates into becoming Israeli informers in exchange for their release.  Abu-Assad is a Palestinian born in Israel, making him an Israeli citizen, though he doesn’t consider himself one, as Israel still considers itself a Jewish state.  His previous film PARADISE NOW (2005), a film about childhood friends becoming suicide bombers, was the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.  At the time, the director was quoted in a Tel Aviv newspaper that had he been raised in the Palestinian territories instead of Nazareth, he likely would have become a suicide bomber himself, "Oscar nominee: People hate Israelis for a reason - Israel Culture, Ynetnews".  Yuval Adler, this film’s director and co-writer, served in the Israeli Military Intelligence where he was assigned to what he described as technical tasks, operating drones and maintaining their engines, while co-writer Ali Waked is a Palestinian journalist, with some of the events he covered finding their way into this story.  In the three years it took them to write this film, they interviewed members of the Israeli secret police Shin Bet while also operatives for the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and Hamas, producing a powerful, tightly-wound thriller that looks behind the scenes of these often at-odds organizations and follows the story of a complex developing relationship between an Israeli Secret Service agent and his teenage Palestinian informant.  There’s a meticulous level of detail throughout, especially in the elaborate exposé of military intelligence, both on the Israeli and the Palestinian side, producing a work of intense scrutiny that offers real insight into how the intelligence world operates in the Middle East.  While the film is a balance of Hebrew and Arabic, the end credits also list both, side by side, with a little English thrown in as well.    

While Bethlehem is a Palestinian city located in the West Bank, it’s also one of the largest Christian communities and includes important Jewish shrines, so the town is interestingly patrolled by both Palestinian and Israeli police, though the presence of Israeli police tends to incite instantaneous riots, creating quickly growing mob scenes with groups throwing stones at the occupiers.  This hostile environment is nothing less than a war zone, as it’s a community ravaged by unending cycles of violence, where the fanaticism on both sides only escalates.  This is one of the few films, along with Omar, to show balance while creating an unmistakable picture of what life is like in such war-torn areas, where we see it play out viewed from both sides.  From the director, writers, and actors, almost everyone involved in this production is working in a film for the first time, including a terrific use of non-professionals, where according to the director, a Columbia graduate who has a Ph.D in philosophy, the motivation for the film was watching a video news excerpt from the Palestinian territories of an informant dragged through the streets with a hundred people just standing by as he was shot and executed in cold blood.  This kind of savage violence is at the root of the film, as it continues to play such a prominent role in Arab-Israeli relations, much like the use of drones, becoming the unspoken weapon used in the war on terror.  It is not by accident that the title of the film references the birthplace of Jesus, whose parents supposedly encountered difficulty finding appropriate lodging several thousand years ago, as this is a film that moves between Palestinian and Israeli society, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which are geographically quite close, separated by a valley that to this day remains a no man’s land and figures quite prominently in the film’s finale.  The film’s center is a complicated relationship between Razi (Tsahi Halevy, an Israeli singer-songwriter with a history of combat duty in the Israeli army), a veteran Israeli Shin Bet operative fluent in Arabic who is working in an antiterrorism unit, and one of his informants, Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i), a young 17-year-old Palestinian recruited two years earlier with the sole purpose of helping track down his older brother, Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), considered a major threat to Israeli security, as he’s the leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a man Razi has been targeting for over a year.    

The film opens as Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, leaving behind more than 30 Israeli’s killed, while Ibrahim has gone into hiding.  The Shin Bet agents are on high alert, calling in all their contacts, where Sanfur is seen living in the shadow of his infamous brother, still living at home with his aging father who views his older son as a local hero, his “only source of pride,” while Sanfur can only be trusted with sweeping the floors where he occasionally works as a busboy.  Early on we see Sanfur posturing with his friends, recklessly trying to prove his courage and manhood, and in a male-dominated world, this is high priority, as it reflects one’s image and worth to the community.  Yet at the same time, we see the deference shown to this young man by Razi, who is very careful how he treats him, where he’s something of a father figure, offering advice, helping him get out of jams, claiming “I’ve spent more time with him than my own kids.”  According to one of the Israeli secret agents interviewed before the film, “The key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money, but the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level.  It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties.  The agent, too—and especially the good ones—often experience a blurring of the lines.”  In fact, Razi’s motives are as confused as anyone’s, where the film takes us through a maze of behind-the-scenes turmoil, where Razi wants to protect his operative, showing genuine concern, and even lies to his superiors when pressed on the issue, while there’s backfighting among the Palestinians as well.  While the Palestinian militants all hate Israel, they also dislike one another with equal intensity, something this film is particularly adept at exposing, as the secular Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades are affiliated with Fatah, the largest contingent of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which maintains control of the governing Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank, while they contemptuously refer to the radical Islamic Hamas as “the beards,” believing Hamas is undermining their own authority in order to make the Palestinian Authority look weak and ineffective, as Hamas loathes the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority (seen misdirecting targeted funds and driving gigantic SUV vans) who are attempting to negotiate a ceasefire with Israel to save face with the Western powers, especially the United States. 

As all these forces are swirling around in a state of pandemonium and chaos following the incident, the first half of the film is mostly seen through the eyes of Razi, who has a beautiful wife and family that he rarely sees, as the needs of his job are round the clock, never taking a break, where much of his effort is in providing reassurance to Sanfur, who grows less and less trustful, eventually cutting off ties altogether, where the second half is largely seen through the anguished eyes of Sanfur, who so much wants to prove himself, but the world he lives in is always in a heightened state of paranoia and suspicion.  There’s a brilliant action sequence when Ibrahim is tracked down and chased through a market into someone’s home, cornered into a firefight with an Israeli commando squad, turning into a brutal and bloody siege in the home of an innocent family, where the intense street level fighting is further accentuated by an angry mob that is turning on the presence of Israeli police in their neighborhood, where rocks and bullets have a surprisingly powerful effect, where the sense of havoc and turmoil is everpresent, especially on a top secret assassination mission.  The tempers flare afterwards when both Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claim the corpse of Ibrahim as one of their own, where even in death the conflict continues, where the political insight astutely shows a fractured West Bank that is continually reactive and on the defensive, never developing any coordinated plan of action.  After the death of his brother, Sanfur only grows more angry and militant, reaching out to the leaders of Al Aqsa, the local militia led by Badawi (Hitham Omari), but they’re curious about his relationship to his brother, where certain details cause them concern, especially when they hear Sanfur helped funnel money to Ibrahim from Hamas, a group they’re fiercely at odds with, and the more they press the matter the harder it is for Sanfur, who is just an adolescent kid, to maintain his own sense of identity.  Tugged and pulled, manipulated and coerced on all sides, yet never able to distance himself from his brother, there is no place where Sanjur is safe, nowhere for him to go, ending up all alone in a no man’s zone, finding himself just as trapped as his fanatically committed brother with no way out.  A film about conflicting loyalties, where Razi is equally divided at placing his hard earned informant at risk, but it especially shows just how elusive the enemy becomes when you also have to contend with an enemy from within, where there is no peace and no safe haven, as you can’t trust anyone, and you’re left with no place called home. 

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