Bethlehem: 2013, 99 minutes long, in Hebrew and Arabic.
I resisted seeing this movie at first. I mistakenly believed that it was a polemic against how Israel’s security forces operate with informants in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. I was pleasantly surprised that not only was this not the case, but that Bethlehem also happens to be a very good movie.
Bethlehem tells the story of Israeli security agent Razi, played excellently by first time actor Tsahi Halevy, and his relationship with a seventeen year old Palestinian boy from Bethlehem named Sanfur. Sanfur is played by first time actor Shadi Mari.
If you have ever watched an American cop show or movie about the FBI investigating the mob, then you know that law enforcement officials on all levels cultivate informers amongst the criminals. In the case of the mafia, if someone is caught red handed then he will be coerced into informing on his friends. This is done through the threat of long term imprisonment and confiscation of all of the informer’s property and money, thereby leaving his family destitute. This may seem cruel, but remember the police are trying to stop criminals and murderers.
Now apply this same tactic to fighting terrorism. Whether it is the CIA combating Al Kaida or the Israeli security services fighting Hamas, bribery and intimidation are invaluable tools which are used to gain information about planned acts of terror. Now imagine that the source is someone innocent who happens to be related to a terrorist leader.
Razi works for Israel’s security services and speaks fluent Arabic. He never seems to be off duty and is always looking for a possible source of information. One day, while at the zoo with his wife, Razi strikes up a conversation with an Arab man who is there with his family. The man is at first wary of Razi’s intentions. Perhaps he has correctly assumed that an Israeli who speaks Arabic so well must be working for the security services.
Was Razi just trying to be sociable? Surely the man must live in Israel and probably has no information to offer. Or maybe Razi was thinking that the man might know someone who knows someone.
Sanfur is seventeen years old. He is a kid who just wants to be a kid. We first see him betting his friends that he can take a bullet in the chest while wearing a bullet proof vest that must have been stolen from the Israeli army. He dares them to shoot him at close range with a Kalashnikov rifle. This is the kind of stupid and dangerous activity that kids get hurt doing with cars or fireworks that we hear about on the news all the time. It makes sense that teenagers living in the West Bank would try even more dangerous stunts to amuse themselves.
When the movie opens Sanfur, who’s older brother is a terrorist leader, has already been an informer of Razi’s for some time. We learn more about how their relationship developed later on. Razi has been hunting for Sanfur’s older brother Ibrahim for a year and Ibrahim was behind a terrorist attack on Jerusalem’s King George Street in the first part of the film.
Razi has a brotherly affection for the teenage Sanfur. This leaves him conflicted when he learns that Sanfur has lied to him about the extent of his involvement with Ibrahim’s terrorist activities. Razi’s boss feels that Sanfur is now expendable and is willing to let the boy be killed along with his older brother in a helicopter attack. Razi does not want to see the boy harmed and earns his commander’s ire by protecting Sanfur.
Bethlehem also provides a glimpse inside the complex relationships between the different Palestinian factions. The leaders of the Palestinian Authority are looked upon with disdain by the members of Ibrahim’s group led by Badawi, played by Hitham Omari. Badawi at one point sets up a roadblock to prevent a PA official from even entering the area. We also see the rivalries between Hamas and the other terrorist groups.
Hitham Omari, like most of the cast, is a first time feature film actor. So is George Iskander who plays Badawi’s number two man, Nasser. The two actors’ portrayal of a leader and his right hand man is so flawless that one might think that the two men share this relationship in real life. Iskander knows exactly what expression to put on his face as he stands slightly behind Omari while Omari does all the talking.
I also give credit to first time feature director Yuval Adler who co wrote the movie with Ali Wakad. Many directors get caught up in the style of their films. Whether it is the special effects or elaborate set designs that distract them, they tend to forget about giving their actors proper directions. Few, like Quentin Tarantino who writes his own movies, and Steven Spielberg mange to cover all of the bases. In Bethlehem Yuval Adler proves that he can write a great story and explain to the actors how to bring the characters to life. He also uses the the beautiful scenery of the Judean desert as a backdrop for the film’s events.
The Israeli Hebrew daily Haaretz called Bethlehem “yet another Israeli propaganda film.” I have no idea why. Yes the terrorists are not portrayed sympathetically in any way and are shown to have no mercy for anyone who cooperates with the Israelis. But the Israelis are not portrayed as perfect or as white knights. The Palestinians are shown to be victimized by both the terrorists and the Israeli army. At one point an Israeli army vehicle is shown pointlessly breaking a hole in the wall of Sanfur’s home because it is also the home of his brother Ibrahim. This is somehow supposed to punish the terrorist Ibrahim.
Bethlehem is in Hebrew and Arabic. There are English and Hebrew subtitles throughout the movie, but for some reason there are no Arabic subtitles for the Hebrew parts. It is currently playing in Jerusalem at the Lev Smadar theatre and the Jerusalem Theatre. In Tel Aviv it can be seen at the Lev Mandarin and the Lev Tel Aviv.