The theatre was packed to the rims, and the audience eager. The film has already won Venice and Haifa, and while we watched it, also took the Ophir prize (nicknamed the Israeli Oscars) for Best Film. Ninety-nine minutes later, the screen cut to black, the credits rolled, and we all rose, dazed, shocked, enthralled. Cell phones were kept in silent mode, and people were quietly shuffling out, starting muffled conversations about the film. Behind me a young man asked his girlfriend “so what is the conclusion?” She paused for a second, and then replied: “the conclusion is that you cannot trust the Arabs.”
I wasn’t sure if she said is seriously, cynically, or flippantly, and I spent some time trying to sort it out, then realizing that her intention did not really matter. It did not matter since the film’s conclusion is, indeed, that you cannot trust the Arabs.
The plot revolves around the relationship a SHABAK (Israeli Security agent) , Razi, has with one of his Palestinian informants, a seventeen years old nicknamed Sanfur (meaning “Smurf”). The film alternates between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In an expansive Ha’aretz interview, Yuval Adler, the film’s director and co-writer, said that the film “is not political, certainly not didactic. It is an action film that shows what happens to some characters in the [occupied] territories, and it tries to do it as well as it can, and most realistically.” (Ha’aretz Magazine, Sept. 20, 2013. P. 38). And indeed, The Hollywood Reporter writes: “Strip away the Middle East backdrop and Bethlehem is a fairly routine thriller about good cops, corrupt bureaucrats and armed criminal gangs. Framed as a fast-moving police procedural, it offers very little political or cultural context on the background conflict.”
Adler argues that he was interested in the realistic psychological relationship between the operator and his informant, that he wanted to focus on “ a few characters […] people whose lives are extreme because of it [the conflict].“ A tight script, casting of non-professional actors, and the precise cinematography of Yaron Sharf, yield the realism that Adler was after. But realism should not be confused with reality, and the plot, as well as the psychological profiles of the characters, are certainly political.
Throughout the film, we see the paternal affection Razi expresses towards Sanfur. Razi not only cares for him, but confesses that he spends more time with Sanfur than with his own children. When Sanfur is wounded, it is Razi who sits by his hospital bed, presenting an antidote to the ever-scolding Palestinian father. [Needless to say, as an informant, Sanfur receives medical care in Israel, so his West Bank family is not allowed to be with him, even if he wanted them to]. Against the backdrop of this intimate relationship, we find out in the middle of the film that Sanfur has managed –under Razi’s nose — to transfer Hamas funds to his brother Ibrahim, the man Razi is after. Razi is not only betrayed, but humiliated professionally in front of his superiors, and from this point on, he makes a series of judgment mistakes, which eventually lead to the tragic ending.
In contrast, Sanfur has little dramatic agency, and is mostly the victim of his circumstances: under the pressure cooker of Razi, in the shadow of his militant older brother, and finally at the mercy (or not) of Badawi, the new leader of the Al Aqsa Brigades cell. Only in passing do we learn that Sanfur was recruited when he was fifteen. Razi arrested his father, and threatened a long detention, unless Sanfur became an informant, and the child complied. The narrative economy of the film emphasizes the affection Razi feels towards Sanfur, and does not dwell on the fact that Sanfur had no choice but to enter into this dubious relationship . Once discovered by his community, this collaboration becomes Sanfur’s death sentence, and peculiarly, the film ends before its own logical narrative closure. All those filmic choices render Sanfur a support character, and — intentionally or not — place Razi as the tragic protagonist of the film, a new, even ingenious, Israeli crucifix.
Ironically, the film pitches itself as if Sanfur is the main character, and Tsahi Halevi, who plays Razi, won the Ophir prize for Best Supporting Actor. Indeed, one reviewer at TIFF described the film as a film that “delineates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of a Palestinian teen, Sanfur, who at film’s outset is boldly protesting to his peers that he’s got the nerve to take a bullet to the chest (aided by a protective vest presumably looted from Israeli officers). “ But in the Ha’aretz interview, Adler said that “we (himself and Ali Waked, the script co-writer) decided to write the script, to show how the security agent lives, and we will tell the story of the triangle, the SHABAK agent, the Al Aqsa senior, and the child that is caught between them” (my emphasis). Intentionally or not, Adler admits – that, which is plainly clear narratively — that the main character is Razi.
And what is the main conflict our main character experiences? It is an egoistic desire to compete with his superior (Levi), and to contain and control his inferior (Sanfur). Not once do we see Razi contemplate the context of his actions and decisions. In Steven Spielberg’s Munich — which is a one long blood bath of the political action genre — the main character, a Mossad agent named Avner, has a mental breakdown at the films’ end. The psychological and ideological crisis is summed up in his own words as “violence begets violence.” Razi, unfortunately, does not even begin to question his role in the political configuration. If Adler sincerely wanted “to present the story of the triangle” he should have chosen an adult as Razi’s Palestinian counterpart; alternatively, he could have portrayed Badawi as a sophisticated leader. In either case, Razi’s privileged position would have been complicated, and the film would have been much more interesting both psychologically and politically.
In stark contrast to the compassionate and principled Razi, Sanfur’s brother, Ibrahim, is a commander of an Al Aqsa Brigade cell in Bethlehem, and at the film’s opening he organizes and executes a suicide operation in Jerusalem. The Brigade is a secular militant movement, associated with the PLO. However, in the film’s plot, Ibrahim is funded by the Hamas, thus portraying him as politically malleable. Ibrahim is seen in the film only in one scene, with mundane dialogue lines, so his character is structured as a shallow antagonist. In contrast, his deputy, Badawi (literally, a Bedouin), is worth our attention. He is brutally violent, kills his own men when they seem un-loyal, threatens his way out of Palestinian police detention, but lacks the ability to lead politically. Badawi, alongside the corrupt PLO leadership, and most of the Palestinians males on screen (including children), are all violent, irrational, conniving, willing to compromise their values – if they have any — and are unpredictable.
Since much of the film takes place in Bethlehem, with the abundant Palestinian violence — mostly directed towards other Palestinians — we should be reminded of what is missing from the film, namely, the occupation. We do not see checkpoints (although we hear of Sanfur sneaking around them); we do not see the extreme economic deprivation, nor the violence and severe restriction of Palestinian movement, including the eight meter high concrete wall that surrounds Bethlehem, and is seen from anywhere inside it. When we do see the army in action, in an eighteen minute battle scene, it is shot almost entirely from the perspective of the soldiers, while they are being under stone throwing attack. These cinematic choices carry ideological implications, and they encourage audiences to identify – psychologically, cinematically, and ideologically — with Razi, or with Israel’s security apparatus. Rather than shying away from politics, the film makes a blunt political statement, one that aligns with the hegemonic Israeli hawkish perspective.
An action film rarely ends without the death of one of the protagonists. In Bethelehem, the final confrontation could have ended in one of three ways. Not to spoil the ending, but to guide the viewing, I argue that the scenario the film chose cements a political conservatism, if not out and out exposes the film as reactionary. If Adler chose either of the two other possibilities, the film’s final message would have been much more complex politically. But it is precisely this ending that makes the film so palatable to Israelis.
The film is Israel’s official selection to the Academy Awards, and I imagine will be a real contender. Lesley Felperin writes in Variety (at Venice): “the plot sifts through the moral complexities of the situation in such a way as to seem admirably evenhanded, although there are bound to be partisan viewers from both camps who will strive to find offense somewhere.” I would argue that the film would seem even-handed, or Palestinian focused, only to those who are not the victims of Israel’s forty-six years long occupation. Just as with Lebanon, Waltz With Bashir, Walk on Water, and a dozen other recent titles, Israeli cinema managed to turn its security industry personnel into the victims, rather than first, and foremost, the perpetrators of violence. And what a better place than Bethlehem to celebrate this victimhood?