Teenagers riddle a trilingual road sign for a town with bullets. They stop only when they challenge each other to aim at a higher stakes shooting target—one of the kids themselves in a tattered bulletproof vest.
The town gives its name to the thriller “Bethlehem,” directed and co-written by Yuval Adler, GSAS ’99. The film’s violent opening sets the stage for a story filled with high stakes, centered on the fraught relationship between Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) and Razi (Tsahi Halevy), an Israeli intelligence agent. Sanfur’s older brother Ibrahim is a high-profile Palestinian militant, and Razi recruits Sanfur, who is only 15, as an informant in a quest to capture or kill Ibrahim.
Adler, who worked in Israeli military intelligence, spent three and a half intense years researching and writing the film, the product which is displayed in the film’s portrayal of the psyche and strategy of intelligence agents. Adler also enlisted Arab journalist Ali Waked as his co-writer to balance the story’s perspective. Though set against the violent background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for Adler, “Bethlehem” is more about an exploration of intelligence agencies’ very particular world.
“I wanted to see the mechanics of it, the working of it,” Adler said in a January interview with Spectator.
To explore these mechanics, Adler relied, among other things, on his training at Columbia as a doctoral student of philosophy.
“Filmmaking and philosophy are different expressions of the same thing,” Adler said. “In philosophy, you come at an issue without a methodology. Likewise, in film, you can’t come with agenda or point of view.”
Through this approach of open questioning, Adler discovered some surprising features of successful intelligence agents. Though “Bethlehem” examines players operating within a live conflict, and thus contains violence, the recruitment of and relationship with Palestinian informers has an entirely different tenor.
“It’s extreme exploitation, but it is also intimate,” Adler said of the agent-informant relationship that anchors the film.
This precarious duality made the casting of the 17-year-old Sanfur paramount.
“We wanted a touching and sensitive, but also violent and complex, character,” Adler said of Mar’i, who won the part over hundreds of others. For Sanfur’s intelligence officer counterpart Razi, the casting process went somewhat differently.
“Something happened there in the casting that went beyond the script,” Adler said. While Adler had written the character as “a talker,” Halevy plays Razi as a warm but quiet listener who builds confidence in his vulnerable informants.
“I trust him like my own son. Leave him alone,” Razi says of Sanfur as he pushes away a more aggressive agent. These subtler tactics, however, sometimes seem so understanding as to blur the lines between Ravi’s job and his actual emotional investment in Sanfur. The movie’s highest moments come when those lines are fuzziest.
“The people we hang out with, that’s who we are,” Razi says at one point. The very people Razi hangs out with—primarily Sanfur—are the same people he is paid to use and betray. According to his own logic, in betraying Sanfur he must betray himself, and the manifestation of this dilemma is what pushes “Bethlehem” beyond the politically controversial confines of its setting into broader examinations of human morality.