// literary & arts //
At 30,000 feet in the air, halfway from Tel Aviv to Paris, a plastic water bottle exploded ungracefully all over my lap. The owner of the bottle was a middle-aged woman dressed in an all black, billowing cotton outfit, black Prada glasses, and with her black hair pulled back tightly from her face. Black shoes, black bracelets, black eyeliner, and the tiniest glimmer of gold from her wedding band. She was typing ferociously in Hebrew on a bulky (yes, it was black) laptop. Moments before the water bottle incident, an Israeli woman approached my neighbor to chat about her trip across Europe to promote the new Israeli movie Bethlehem. Berlin. Biarritz. Barcelona. Eavesdropping is a strong word, but I immediately began to take copious notes in stealthy size six font. Luck was on my side, and her spill drenched me completely. Extremely apologetic and somewhat amused, this lady in black struck up conversation with me. Thus began my interview with Osnat Handelsman-Keren, the producer of Bethlehem, an Israeli film released in the fall of 2013 that arrived in the United States this March.
Set during the Second Intafada (2000-2005), also known as the al-Aqsa Intafada, Bethlehem chronicles the complex relationship between a Shin Bet (Israeli Secret Service) officer, Razi, and his teenage Palestinian informant, Sanfur. Sanfur’s older brother Ibrahim is the local commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and is the Shin Bet’s most wanted target. Recruited at the young age of fifteen, Sanfur has become like a son to Razi, and the two share a close and trusting relationship. But as both al-Aqsa and the Shin Bet increase their demands from Sanfur, the struggle to juggle Razi and Ibrahim overwhelms the boy, who ultimately discards his loyalty to both parties while feigning cooperation with each. The violent and shocking events that ensue in the film paint a picture of unparalleled authenticity of the reality on the ground in Bethlehem, a city of constant, fiery animosity.
The residents of Bethlehem despise their Israeli neighbors for limiting their work permits, imprisoning their relatives–albeit for serious crimes–and for denying them a state of their own. And internally, Bethlehem is splintered by rival terror organizations vying for the support of the wealthiest, strongest, and most idealistic recruits. Disorganized and dangerous, the city that appears in the film mirrors the real Bethlehem. When I saw the film in Jerusalem in January, I felt the tension ripple through the audience as Razi and Sanfur repeatedly betray their families and friends, each facing competing loyalties and impossible moral dilemmas. It is incredibly uncomfortable to watch. But discomfort, said Handelsman-Keren, is the whole point.
Handelsman-Keren stressed to me the narrative nature of the film, its commitment to telling a story rather than taking a political stand. The film’s greatest theatrical moments are all anchored in emotional, not diplomatic, quandaries. In one instance, Razi jeopardizes his job–and Israeli national security–when he lies to his boss about tipping off Sanfur about the Shin Bet’s plan to catch him redhanded transferring money to Al-Aqsa. In another scene, when bullied about his close relationship with Razi, Sanfur takes a bullet to the stomach from kids his own age, buckling under the pressure to speak Bethlehem’s lingua franca for “courage.” For both figures, a confusing commitment to the other triumphs over expectations from their respective communities, creating characters made of more layers than the countries listed on their identity cards.
Neither the film’s production nor its plot is the least bit glamorous. Determined to be as honest and fair as possible, the co-writers and directors Yuval Adler and Ali Waked compiled years of research before making the movie. Yuval Adler, who studied mathematics at Tel Aviv University before coming to New York and earning a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Columbia University, did a stint in Israeli intelligence and has been fascinated ever since by the sensitive topic of intelligence informants. Palestinian journalist Ali Waked has years of experience reporting on the West Bank, and his authentic accounts of al-Aqsa members’ conversations and interactions made the film possible. Not only was Waked capable of revealing corruption, extortion and internal rivalries within the West Bank, but Handelsman-Keren explained that Waked was also so trusted and respected within multiple terror organizations that members gave him vast amounts of information. And unlike most movies, which separate fact-finding from filming, Bethlehem’s casting process was itself a version of finding informants: all the main characters were inexperienced local actors.
Handelsman-Keren referenced Hitham Omari frequently during our conversation, the man who plays Badawi, the second in command of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Omari, a newscaster from Kafr ‘Aqab, who was discovered by the directors by accident, had recently witnessed and documented multiple wakes for al-Aqsa martyrs and was therefore able to provide the writers with the exact information to replicate a scene that would otherwise be incredibly difficult to represent accurately. In fact, admitted Handelsman-Keren, Omari directed that complicated and powerful scene in the film while Adler and Waked took to the sidelines. Neither Shadi Mar’i, who played Sanfur, nor Tsahi Halevy, who played Razi, had any acting background and they were not the actors Adler had originally envisioned. Grinning from ear to ear, Handelsman-Keren said they absolutely exceeded all expectations.
In the same vain that Razi and Sanfur are de-politicized characters, so too was the Bethlehem production team. While my pants were drying, I asked Handelsman-Keren about the operating language for movie production: Was it Hebrew, Arabic, or both? She spread her arms out wide and said, “Everything was in everything!” She continued to explain proudly that the directors gave the actors license to move fluidly between the languages as they wished, veering frequently off script in favor of what felt natural. There were both Palestinian and Israeli crewmembers, different people who knew the lay of the land for different filming sites. Essentially, the Israeli and Palestinian natives were recreating real-life in movie scenes, realizing Adler and Waked’s goal to recount a raw reality.
Unlike the making of the movie, the reality in Bethlehem is vicious, heart-wrenching, and bloody. Razi confesses that he spends more time with Sanfur than with his own children, and when Sanfur is wounded, it is Razi who sits by his hospital bed. Their intimate relationship quickly crumbles after pressures from al-Aqsa and the Shin Bet pit Sanfur and Razi against one another, and the film’s fatal finale is tormenting to watch. However, while the film is undeniably a testament to the cruel and chaotic warzone that is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Razi and Sanfur’s relationship ends tragically, there is optimism in the bridges that Razi and Sanfur began building, the political alliances they discarded in favor of human contact and hope in the fact that the two were able to forge a relationship at all. Progress is not impossible; Bethlehem just hasn’t gotten there yet. Take for example the Palestinians and Israelis who worked side by side on Bethlehem. Handelsman-Keren waved her phone around and giggled that the group remains so close that they still send group messages on WhatsApp. Certainly cinema is a different world than terrorist cells, but perhaps there is a twinkle of gold beneath all the black.
// LILY WILF is a Junior at Barnard College and Managing Editor for The Current. She can be reached at email@example.com. Photo courtesy of www.westendfilms.com.