Israeli director Yuval Adler and Palestinian co-writer Ali Waked say they have won praise for their film "Bethlehem," which takes a street view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from people on both sides — for them evidence the film succeeded in not pressing an agenda.
"People are going crazy for this film," Adler said in an interview. "A lot of people say to us, even young people, that 'This is the first time I see a movie that doesn't preach to me, that doesn't take sides, that doesn't show us as bad or them as bad.'"
Adler called the reception in media and industry screenings in Israel "amazing." ''Bethlehem" has yet to be released in Israeli theaters, and made its world premiere Friday at the Venice Film Festival.
Despite intense coverage of the ongoing conflict by the world's media, Adler believes they have found a vacuum that has been largely overlooked: how Israel recruits and runs Palestinian informants and more specifically the human relationship that forms between the agents and informants. The filmmakers' axiom, Adler said, was to tell a balanced story.
"I wanted to do a story about the inner workings of what we all see in the news, and we don't really understand. What people on the street live on both sides, people who are living in the extreme center of the conflict, and to show what their lives are about," Adler said.
Waked, a long-time Palestinian affairs correspondent for an Israeli website, had previously refused many directors' offers to collaborate on films about the conflict, but said it was Adler's lack of a political agenda that persuaded him to sign on to the project.
"The agenda of focusing on the simple people in between the big headlines made me want to be part of this project," Waked said.
The movie focuses on the relationship between Razi, an Israeli Secret Service officer, and his teenage Palestinian informant, Sanfur, whose brother is Palestinian militant leader wanted by Israel. Razi both uses and protects the teen, a situation mirrored on the other side of the border in the Palestinian territories by Badawi, the deputy to Sanfur's militant brother.
"That is the heart, the key thing we wanted to explore in this movie, the duality that is so intense," Adler said.
The filmmakers interviewed everyone from Palestinian leaders, Hamas militants, Palestinian informers and Israeli intelligence agents to inform the drama — which depicts the complex relationships between Palestinian organizations and militants, as well as the surrogate father-son relationship that developed between Razi and Sanfur.
"That's what they all say. You can't fake this stuff. You can't run an asset for five years and fake it. These bonds are real," Adler said.
All three of the main roles are played by non-actors. Tsahi Halevy, who plays Ravi, is a musician and singer who has performed around the world. Hitham Omari, who portrays Badawi, has been a news cameraman for more than 12 years. And Shadi Mar'i, who plays Sanfur, took the role at age 17, having some experience in theater groups.
Mar'i said the reception of the film has given him the upper hand in discussions with his parents over his ambition to pursue an acting career.
"We had a lot of discussions about a career, and they said you can't find roles. Now after this film in a leading role, it all changed," he said.