On Friday, I attended the Haifa Film Festival for the Israeli premiere of Bethlehem, an Israfilm directed by Israel’s Yuval Adler and co-written by Adler and Arab journalist Ali Waked.
Bethlehem has already been nominated for 12 Ophir awards in Israel, and recently won the FEEDORA award at the Venice Film Festival. Israel’s excitement over this film was apparent at the premiere, as the cast and crew were introduced to the rapt audience and a standing ovation post-showing.
Bethlehem highlights the relationship between 17-year-old Bethlehem native Sanfur Sanfur (Shadi Mar’l) and Israeli military intelligence officer Razi (Tsahi Halevy, who actually served in an elite unit of the IDF). Sanfur is the younger brother to Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman), who is being furiously pursued by the Israeli army for recent attacks against Israeli civilians. Unbeknownst to Ibrahim, Sanfur is feeding information to Razi while, unbeknownst to Razi, he is also helping finance his brother’s operations.
The Palestinian Authority, in brief appearances, is characterized as corrupt
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The film has been regaled as one that successfully shows the conflicts that both Israelis and Palestinians confront within their respective societies. While Adler and Waked reveal the human qualities in Sanfur and Razi, Bethlehem fails in a matter of scope: It lacks a portrayal of Palestinians as individuals other than violent protestors or worse — terrorists and enemies to the Israeli state. The Palestinian foci of the movie are either Hamas or members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The Palestinian Authority, in brief appearances, is characterized as corrupt through Abu Mussa (Karem Shakur), a politico who plots violence with Hamas to further his agenda.
While the scene of Al-Aqsa leader (and Sanfur’s older brother) Ibrahim’s death reveals a touching show of emotion and expert acting from Tarek Copti, who plays Ibrahim’s father, the feeling that the film ignores the daily reality of the majority of Palestinians is apparent. Sanfur, initially portrayed as an innocuous young man who loves Razi as a father, is transformed into a disloyal assailant by the film’s end. With the exclusion of less extreme individuals from the plot, some viewers may be left to wonder if this is the fate of all Palestinians.
Sanfur’s situation is a sad remark on the pressures and tensions that many Palestinian youth face. Although the capture and assassination of his brother Ibrahim is one of the film’s important climaxes, it is the events unfolding after Ibrahim’s death — the grief of his father to have lost the family’s point of pride, the power vacuum within the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and Razi’s desperate attempts to both protect him and use him as a top informant — that lead to Sanfur’s moral demise.
Overall, Bethlehem feels honest. Bethlehem shows how intentions and motivations can be muddled and reduced over time. The characters often vacillate uncomfortably between the different roles they must assume while straddling life in Israel and Bethlehem, reminding the viewer that the identities of Palestinians and Israelis can similarly be liminal and changing as a result of the ever-evolving circumstances in the region.
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