Defending 'Bethlehem': Filmmaker Ali Waked on Betrayal in the West Bank

The cowriter of the award-winning Israeli film 'Bethlehem' on why he painted such a dark portrait of Palestinian society.

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Ali Waked spent 10 years reporting on the lives and deaths of Palestinians in the territories, hanging out with wanted terrorists in refugee camps, dodging bullets during 2002's Operation Defensive Shield, and being rebuked by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his coverage of PA corruption. But Waked says nothing he reported during his decade as a correspondent for the popular Israeli website Ynet comes close to giving as accurate a picture of the Palestinian reality as does the fictional screenplay he cowrote for “Bethlehem,” the dark thriller that is Israel’s candidate for an Oscar.

“As a reporter, I was limited to writing about events as they affected Israelis, but there was little interest in what was going on behind the scenes in Palestinian society,” says 40-year-old Waked, a Muslim Palestinian from Jaffa.

In that sense, Waked says, working on “Bethlehem” - his first screenplay, which he cowrote with Israeli director Yuval Adler - was a “corrective experience” that gave him a chance to present a close-up portrait of Palestinian life in the West Bank - warts and all. Corruption, extortion, betrayal and internecine rivalries are rife in the film, set in Bethlehem as the second intifada waned around 2004-2005.

The filmmakers’ raw approach did not win kudos from everyone. One of the most scathing criticisms leveled at the film – which tells the story of the complex relationship between an Israeli Shin Bet security service agent and his informant, a Palestinian teenager whose older brother is a wanted terrorist - was that of Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy. In a Haaretz op-ed, Levy – who has himself been covering Palestinian life for years - called “Bethlehem” an outrageous Israeli propaganda film, in which the Palestinians are portrayed uniformly as “the bad guys.” He also blasted the filmmakers for being “cowards” who failed to take a political stand in the film.

Waked sounds unfazed by the attack of a colleague whom he deeply admires. “In my years as a reporter, I regarded Levy as a kind of spiritual teacher, whose work inspired me,” says the screenwriter, who left Ynet in January 2011. “But he totally misread the film.

“I don’t think it portrays one side or the other as all bad. As a Palestinian, I would not be capable of demonizing my own people,” says Waked, who defends one of the film’s most disturbing characters, Badawe - the second-in-command of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militia - as being “a man of integrity, an uncompromising patriot” whose sometimes vicious acts are motivated not by greed or lust for power, but by his total devotion to the struggle against Israel.

“The viewpoint of the film is that of the Palestinians themselves, whom we spent months interviewing in-depth, in order to write the screenplay. It is a very precise reflection of reality,” he insists. “So if Gideon Levy doesn’t like what he saw in the film, maybe it’s because he doesn’t like the reality.”

In fact, Waked regards the “failure to take an overt political stand” as one of the film’s attributes.

“Our goal was to show the situation, not tell viewers what to think. There have been many films on the conflict that tried to educate or preach, and they are usually seen by a handful of intellectuals and end up having very little impact.

“Changing reality was not our goal," he continues. "But the film has been viewed widely and is generating a debate in Israel. If it enables people to grasp that we are embroiled in a lose-lose situation that must change, then I would consider that an achievement.”

Prior to working on “Bethlehem,” Waked was approached by several filmmakers who wanted to recruit him to write a screenplay. He turned them all down.

“I didn’t like the ideas and the way Palestinians were portrayed – either as décor, as complete assholes or as objects of pity.”

Ironically, Israel’s Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film will be competing against "Omar," a Palestinian movie on exactly the same subject: the ties between a Palestinian collaborator and his Israeli operator. Waked says he is not surprised. “The subject of collaborators is very painful in Palestinian society. You don’t know if you can speak freely to someone you meet in a café, in school or even in your own family, because they might report what you say to Israeli authorities. So it’s a natural theme for a film depicting the day-to-day lives of Palestinians.”

Waked, who speaks fluent Arabic, Hebrew, French, English and some Spanish, grew up in Jaffa, where he attended a private French school. He lives there with his wife, a Jaffa-born lawyer, and their three children, who attend a private English-language school. Members of the family had small parts in the film, with the heavy-set, clean-shaven Waked playing himself, a journalist covering the West Bank, and his wife appearing as a broadcaster. “It seemed like a family project at times,” he grins.

Waked has received several offers to be involved in other films, but says he is not in a hurry to change career tracks.

Since leaving Ynet – in part, he says, because he was “tired of writing only the dry facts” – he has become an analyst for various media outlets, is pursuing a Master’s degree (his second) in Middle Eastern history and is deputy director of an Israeli nonprofit, Merchavim.

He calls his Merchavim work - trying to build understanding between diverse groups in Israeli society, especially Jews and Arabs - something he does for his soul. “It’s my very modest contribution to making the place we live a little better.”

But he admits that ”what goes on there, in Bethlehem and in the entire West Bank, is a barrier to advancing our work here – in Israel.”

Asked if he can envision a change in that reality – say, an agreement signed between the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders - Waked lets out a very long, very deep sigh, the kind that seems to permeate much of the award-winning but ever-bleak script of “Bethlehem.”

Ali Waked. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
From the movie 'Bethlehem.'Credit: Vered Adir

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