Yuval Adler is a talented director, but he has made an outrageous film. “Bethlehem,” his debut feature, has garnered acclaim and prizes - a critics’ award in Venice, first prize at the Haifa Film Festival, six Ophir Awards (Israel’s national film awards) and high praise from The New York Times.
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Along with his writing partner Ali Wakad, Adler created a very well-made action movie. He also created (another) Israeli propaganda film. Before everyone starts to praise him, they should pay heed to his messages - the overt, but, especially, the covert ones - and not just the direction, acting, editing and impressive attention to detail. But the plethora of details makes it so you can’t see the forest for the trees, and it’s the same poison forest. Or should we say enchanted sea - the Israelis are the good guys, the Arabs the bad guys.
This film, like many before it about the conflict, is guilty of the sins of distortion and concealment: the context is missing, as if it weren’t there. The film is meant to depict complexity – the misery of the collaborator; the humanity of the agent – but in reality, the film paints a picture without context, and without context there is no truth.
“Let’s make a movie that won’t deal with the political conflict,” Adler said to Wakad, according to an interview he gave to Mike Dagan in Haaretz’s magazine. But Adler’s refusal to make a “political movie” is deceit and sleight of hand. It is in itself a political statement unlike any other. Adler did not make a film about the Sicilian Mafia, but rather a film about the intifada, which has a political context that he deliberately ignores. This blurring is the movie’s powerful, outrageous statement.
What is the film about? [Warning: Spoilers] Violent, power-hungry intifada fighters, motivated by greed, and in conflict with one another; cynical, corrupt, lying Palestinian Authority figures; and European donation money going to terror, of course. There is not a single word about what they’re fighting against, what they are dying for. There’s no occupation, no oppression, only a Mafia, which this time speaks Arabic. Against it stands the Shin Bet security service, pure of heart, and its merciful agent with the support of his wife and secretary (which the Palestinians don’t have, of course). The agent always takes care of his pet informant, lying to save his life, until the latter rises up to kill him by shooting him and bashing his skull in, ungrateful wretch that he is. The Israelis will love this. They already do. All of the images they teach about are in this film. Black and white, with 50 shades of gray that just need to be accounted for - the collaborator.
Adler’s avoidance of the issue is abominable. An Israeli who makes an action movie about the intifada without taking a stand is a coward. He knows the subject will attract viewers at film festivals abroad, but at the same time doesn’t want to anger Israeli viewers.
It is impossible to make a movie about the intifada without revealing what motivated it. Adler, educated in philosophy, made an excellent gangster film, a spaghetti Western, but like a true Western movie, to hell with the historical truth. Of course such a film can be enjoyable, but in the 21st century it’s no longer possible to buy a story that paints the cowboys as good and the Indians as bad. That’s “Bethlehem” as well: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Shin Bet agent, the collaborating terrorist, no Clint Eastwood, but with covert propaganda, which is worse than the overt kind.
In Bethlehem, the city, I met many armed and wanted men during the intifada. Some of them perhaps even fit the stereotypes presented in this film, but there were many others as well, who sacrificed their lives during their just struggle for freedom. None of them appear in “Bethlehem,” the film.
I’ve also met Shin Bet agents and heard about their exploits, and they certainly don’t look or sound like Razi from the film. Where’s the evil, torture, blackmail and lies? Adler acknowledges a few Shin Bet agents at the end of the movie; the Shin Bet should be grateful for this free promotional film. Adler chose to paint a one-dimensional picture, which will once again pat the Israelis on the back. Hey, look how right you are. Hey, look how they victimize you. Hey, look how hopeless the situation is. Go see “Bethlehem” and you’ll understand why.