It’s no easy task to turn a man against his family, friends and country, but in Bethlehem, the debut film from director Yuval Adler (opening February 21) that’s precisely what happens. The film—Israel’s entry for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar—follows secret service agent Razi as he develops a Palestinian collaborator (newcomer Shadi Mar’i) and uses him to take out a Hamas agent who just so happens to be the collaborator’s brother.
On the eve of his film’s release, DuJour spoke with Adler about spies, informants and his first experience behind the camera.
This is a pretty heavy movie—there’s violence, betrayal, guilt, bloodshed—how did you come to the idea?
I’m fascinated by human intelligence. I once watched a video, maybe 10 years ago, of the execution of an informant, a Palestinian who collaborated with Israel—they killed him on the street. I thought about how people get in that kind of extreme situation and how the secret service could possibly get people to work with them. I wanted to explore that idea from both sides.
How were you going to be able to do that?
I knew I needed to write with a Palestinian guy, so a friend introduced me to [co-writer] Ali Wakad, who’s a respected journalist and a great writer. We started talking about the idea and three years later we had a script.
Was it difficult to approach the story without taking sides?
No, the film never gets into that. We just thought about what these characters are like and how we could show what they see. Like most people, we didn’t understand how the Israeli secret service recruits people. We thought perhaps they kick the shit out of someone until he becomes a collaborator, but every secret service person we met told us it’s a completely different thing. They look for people who are missing something in their world—the black sheep of a family, somebody on the margins—and they give that person something they’re not already getting. That’s how they make them betray their loved ones. That’s also how we built the film, we built it in the way we wanted people to see it and then we turned it around.
In addition to this being your first film, it was the debut for a number of the actors.
That is something that just happened; we didn’t plan it. After we created the script, we had to raise money and then when we started casting, we didn’t look specifically for unknown actors. The kid we knew would be unknown—we wanted 16 to play 16, not 24 playing 16—so we went into a lot of Palestinian theaters and auditioned a lot of kids. We found Shadi in a theater in Nazareth and he’s really the main character in the film, certainly the most complicated.
The movie’s won a bunch of Israeli awards and was even submitted to the Oscars. How do you think an American audience will take to the movie?
I don’t know! It’s a complex film, a morally ambiguous film. But it’s also an action film, a thriller. I don’t think people feel like they’re seeing an important festival film or doing homework. We tried to make a movie that would keep you at the edge of your seat and would move you, so we hope people will be able to relate to it in that way.
Watch a trailer for Bethlehem here: