Often compared to Omar, the Palestinian Oscar nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Bethlehem was a prizewinner at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, and landed prestigious premieres in the U.S. at Telluride and Canada at TIFF. This thriller-with-a-difference won six Ophir Awards in Israel, where it was that country’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award.
Shin Bet agent Razi has turned Sanfur, a disaffected Palestinian teen living in Bethlehem, into an Israeli spy. No one respects Sanfur, not even his parents, but he has a small amount of prestige because his older brother Ibrahim is a leader of the Al-Asqua Martyrs’ Brigade, an outlawed organisation that is denounced by the Israelis as terrorist. To many Palestinians, especially his old friend and comrade Badawi, Ibrahim is a nationalist hero—although the more famous liberationists Hamas also oppose Al-Asqua.
Sanfur is one of the few people Ibrahim trusts, which makes him important to both Badawi, who treats him decently, and Razi, who buys him jeans and cell phones. When Sanfur receives a message to bring money to Ibrahim, Razi convinces the boy to leave Bethlehem to see an old aunt. Razi wants to trap and kill Ibrahim without implicating his younger brother—and in a bloody and somewhat botched mission, he has Shin Bet do exactly that.
Angry and upset over his brother’s death, Sanfur tries to join Al-Asqua but Badawi quickly figures out that the teen-ager is involved with the Israelis. Shin Bet are also unhappy with Razi, who they suspect sent Sanfur away from Bethlehem, endangering more of their agents when they decided to risk a public attack in order to kill Ibrahim.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are forcing Razi and Sanfur into a confrontation. Where will it end?
Like Omar, Bethlehem uses the espionage thriller genre to explore the moral consequences of the Israeli/Palestine conflict. The films offer two antagonist protagonists: an Israeli agent and a Palestinian who has been turned into a spy against his own people. In each drama, the two come close to each other at times but ultimately they are enemies. As viewers, we’re left to decide who is right and who is wrong—or if, in fact, neither has a truly ethical position.
Of the two films, Omar is clearly the stronger drama. Both of the main characters are delineated dramatically and we understand the forces that are driving them to be spies—or counter-spies. In Bethlehem, neither Ravi nor Sanfur are particularly likeable people, which can, of course, be a good thing in a story about a morally uncertain situation. But we don’t care much about them—and that is a problem. Dramas only work when there are consequences and although terrible things occur in both films, only in Omar is there much room for the audience to feel outrage.
What is good about Bethlehem is the skillful movement of the plot and a bravura sequence when the Shin Bet and Israeli army trap and ultimately kill Ibrahim. One gets the sense of what the violence and brutality of the Middle East is all about—and it is unsettling.
Is Bethlehem worth seeing? Yes, particularly if you’ve seen Omar. The two are important “killing cousins,” designed to make us question what is going on in Israel and the Occupied Territories. And they succeed in doing just that.