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Israeli director Yuval Adler talks about the film he co-wrote with a Palestinian

Out of the chaos of war, deep relationships are born that make for riveting movies. “Bethlehem,” co-written by the Israeli director Yuval Adler and Ali Waked, a Palestinian, focuses on the twisted and co-dependent connection between an Israeli Secret Serviceman and his Palestinian informant. It makes no judgments, that’s left to the viewer.

Israel intelligence agent Ravi (Tsahi Halevi) and his informant Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i)
Israel intelligence agent Ravi (Tsahi Halevi) and his informant Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i)Gringo Films

The film has received multiple awards, including Best Film at the 2013 Venice Film Festival and was Israel’s entry for the 2014 Oscars. Interestingly, Palestine’s drama “Omar,” made it to the final five foreign films chosen on Jan. 16.

Examiner Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with Adler on Jan. 17.

Dorri Olds: What inspired the main character, Sanfur, the Palestinian informant?

Yuval Adler: Ali and I talked to the people who recruit informants and tried to understand how this thing works. We spoke to members of the Israeli internal security agency against Hamas and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade. Contrary to the popular belief, informants aren’t forced to talk through violence or threats. Service people use their training to identify the vulnerable. In Hebrew they’re described as people with a hole in their hearts.

The servicemen develop an intimate relationship with them that can last for years. Typically the informant is young and it’s common act as a father figure. It’s the most exploitive relationship you can imagine. The movie is not showing some fantasy about a love that transcends borders. It’s the reality of what these guys are trained to do.

Is it true Tsahi Halevi, the actor who played Israeli serviceman Razi, had never acted before?

After auditioning professional actors and not finding what we needed we started looking for non-actors. The three main characters, Razi [Tsahi Halevi], Sanfur [Shadi Mar'i] and Badawi [Hitham Omari] had never acted. We hadn’t planned it that way but that’s what happened. We felt Sanfur had to be played by a 15- or 16-year-old, not a 22-year-old who’d graduated acting school. We found Shadi.

Hitham, who played Bidawi, lived in the Palestinian territories and we ran into him on a location scout. People introduced us and said, “He has a great face, put him in the movie in the background somewhere.” While talking to him I discovered he was amazing and auditioned him until I was convinced he could do it.

We had two main roles played by non-actors and thought it might look weird to go with a professional actor for the third. Me and Ali went back and talked to people we had done research with. We looked for an Israeli the right age age who spoke Arabic, which isn’t common. We found Tsahi who spoke Arabic and had been in the Israeli army. He knew a lot about the realities in the film. I can’t go into it but…

Why? Is there something top secret?

[Laughs] No, I mean because he is private. I’m just saying he’d served in the territory as a soldier in a unit and knew a lot from the Israeli perspective. We used both Hitham and Tsahi’s experiences in the film.

Did working with Ali make you more sympathetic to Palestinians?

No, actually more antagonistic.

Really?

No. I’m kidding. When you work with someone for so long you think, ‘Before I liked you but now I want to kill you.’ [Laughs] I worked with Ali for four years.

How has the response been?

Israelis came to me and said the most moving point in the film was when the Palestinian father is crying. Other Israelis said, “He was a terrorist, why should we pity him?” I had Palestinians say I made the Israeli Secret Service guy so human. They don’t want to see the army as made of humans.

Do you think the fighting is ever going to stop?

I hope it’s going to stop. Even though many people saw the film as pessimistic I think it is the opposite. I feel the job of a director and a writer is to show the extremity of the situation. Not to put the solution inside the film. We hope it stays with you and you should say, “The price is too high for everybody, this needs to be solved.” The film seems to make a lot of people think and that’s optimistic. There must be a solution.

Did you ever expect this kind of attention with your first film?

No. It’s the most watched film of the year in Israel. That’s remarkable. It’s such a tough film, not a romantic comedy. People connect to it though, like an action thriller where they are at the edge of their seat.