Adler co-wrote the Bethlehem screenplay with Ali Waked, an Arab journalist once based in the West Bank, and the two did the bulk of their research and collaboration on Skype while Adler was finishing up a PhD in mathematics at Columbia University. Adler took to Skype again to talk about the pressures of directing his first feature, the joys of research and the pressure of being fact-checked by Palestinian militants.
SHEERLY AVNI: How did you first become inspired to write about informants and assets?
YUVAL ADLER: In Israel—actually not only in Israel but everywhere—the power of the military is in some ways secondary to the importance of human intelligence and the cultivation of assets. What I find so fascinating about this idea of human intelligence has to do with how dense the whole region is. Everyone lives so close to each other—how do you ever accomplish any kind of intelligence gathering or secrecy?
I became fascinated with this notion, doing research and eventually talking to intelligence people, and found that the relationship between asset and informant is very complex. If there is no trust and no bond, then the whole thing blows up. You become genuinely intimate.
Sanfur also has to cope with the competing interests of the Palestinian Authority, the Al-Aqsa Brigade and Hamas, whose mutual enmity seems as strong as that between Israelis and Arabs.
Waked is in touch with combatants on all sides, and we had help with the scripts from various militants. I would visit them in refugee camps, and he’d often be fielding various calls from them while we were collaborating on Skype. These men, they don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to free Palestine.” They say, “This guy promised me a favor, or this group owes me.” The conflicts are much more immediate.
What has been the Palestinian response to the film?
We haven’t been able to screen it in the territories yet, for technical reasons. But the Palestinian and Arab cast and crew all brought friends to see it in Israel, and the response so far has been very positive. One thing that we heard that made us very happy was “it’s the first film that is not patronizing to Palestinians.” But also we’ve been told by militants that we described their experiences accurately.
The beauty of the landscape emerges quite clearly, even though your protagonists are too preoccupied to seem to notice it.
I wanted it to be beautiful. We made it with very precise framing, clean angles and blank walls. We wanted to make sure it didn’t just look like the news.
One leaves the theater without an inkling of where you stand politically.
Yes, that’s part of why I made the film! There are so many films with messages coming out of Israel, and usually they are explicit. Either we are beating ourselves up or we are beating them up, and you always know exactly where the director is coming from. And I don’t think that’s the job of a filmmaker.
And yet you’ve received a good deal of praise for Bethlehem’s realism and authenticity.
Which is funny, because I wrote it in New York! But you know, there is something to be said for distance. For a lot of Israelis from Tel Aviv and other parts of the country, Jerusalem is this annoying place you have to visit on school field trips. But after spending a few years in New York, I think I can finally see Jerusalem...this crazy insane place, with its old rocks and its landscapes and its beauty. If I were in Israel, maybe I wouldn’t have the perspective.
BETHLEHEM | Israel, 2013, 99m | Director: Yuval Adler | Writers: Yuval Adler and Ali Waked