Friday, April 11, 2014

Art vs. Propaganda: Bethlehem and Omar

Tsahi Halevi and Shadi Mar’i in Bethlehem

It’s always been highly illuminating to compare Israeli and Palestinian films about their intractable conflict. While I’ve never seen an Israeli film – from Cup Final (1991) to The Bubble (2006), The Syrian Bride (2004) to The Band's Visit (2007) – that has failed to humanize the Palestinians, Israel’s Arab neighbours or its own Arab citizens (and I’ve seen many Israeli films, as a film critic and chief programmer for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival), the Palestinian record is much spottier in that regard. Rashid Masharawi’s Palestinian film Ticket to Jerusalem (2002), a documentary-fictional hybrid, presented a fair, even sympathetic view of young Israeli soldiers, as did Michel Khleifi’s acclaimed Wedding in Galilee (1987), at least until its 360-degree turn into a strident vilification of the same. (It’s as if someone told the filmmaker that he was being too kind to his Israeli characters and needed to adjust the picture.) But otherwise, the norm is more along the lines of Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian film Paradise Now (2005), about a pair of would-be suicide bombers setting out to wreak havoc in Tel Aviv. At best, Abu-Assad could only bring himself to condemn suicide bombings as counterproductive and harmful to the Palestinian cause and not as the moral failings or criminal acts they actually are, and he showed not the slightest interest in the possible Israeli victims of the film’s planned terror attack. (The most notable exception to this traditionally myopic view of Israel is Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack (2012) wherein an Arab-Israeli surgeon discovers that his wife committed a suicide bombing and must come to terms with the truely heinous actions of his spouse. Startlingly, Doueiri, a Lebanese filmmaker, spent almost a year living in Israel in order to better understand his country’s “enemy”.) Abu-Assad’s latest film, the 2013 Oscar-nominated Omar, about a young man coerced into becoming an informant for Israel’s security services, is likewise spun out of that one note. Fortunately, we also have Yuval Adler’s similarly-themed Israeli cinematic counterpart Bethlehem (2013) as a provocative point of comparison. It’s a superior film in every way: nuanced, complex and empathic to both sides of the political and human equation in a way Omar doesn’t even attempt to be.

Bethlehem, which swept the Ophirs, Israels' film awards, and won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, opens as Israel’s Shin Bet (the country's security service) hunts a terrorist leader named Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman) who is, reportedly, planning a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. When they fail to nab him, and the terrorist action occurs, causing many fatalities, pressure is put on Shin Bet agent Razi (Tsahi Halevi), to lean on his main Palestinian informant, a 17-year-old nicknamed Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i ), smurf in Arabic, to find out where Ibrahim is hiding so he can be stopped before the next planned attack. That Sanfur happens to be Ibrahim’s younger brother supposedly means that the Israelis have a better shot at nabbing the terrorist mastermind but things are not that easy as an increasingly agitated Sanfur, feeling trapped by his circumstances, is secretly helping his brother by carrying funds to the people tapped to plan the terror missions. But even though Rafi, who has a deep affection and concern for Sanfur, begins to suspect that his “asset’ may be betraying him, he continues to try to help the teenager, even endangering his job in the process.

Leem Lubany and Adam Bakri in Omar
Right from the outset, Adler and his co-screenwriter, former Palestinian journalist Ali Wakad who has a cameo in the film as (what else) a journalist, depict the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a situation cast in shades of grey. Rafi may be pushing the vulnerable Sanfur – who is an ordinary teenager in so many ways, and subject to the anger, angst and insecurities of so many young men – too far but it’s also clear that using and coercing informants like Sanfur is a necessary evil in fighting terror, just like the checkpoints which sometimes restrict Palestinian movement. Yet the Israeli Shin Bet agents, including Rafi, are castigated for often being oblivious of the price that Palestinians can pay for collaborating with Israel: it’s usually a death sentence if they are found out. Omar, by contrast, simply has Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) torture and threaten Omar (Adam Bakri) in order to get him to do his bidding. That’s a lot simpler and easier a plot point if your main goal is to make Israel into the sole villain of the piece. (Somehow I doubt Israel would get very far effectively using informants if they routinely engaged in such methods of torture to get ‘results’.) Even the fact that Omar is implicated in the death of an Israeli soldier doesn’t matter to Abu-Aassad; he still won’t give Rami or the other Israeli agents any dramatic quarter.

The relationship between Rafi and Sanfur is thus a compelling one, but, oddly enough, despite being the core of the movie, it doesn’t really parse dramatically. We know that Rafi sees Sanfur as a son and the boy certainly reminds him of himself in many ways, but it doesn’t make dramatic or emotional sense that, after suspecting that Sanfur is not being on the up and up with him, Rafi still continues to risk everything – including his credibility and the respect of his peers – to continue giving Sanfur the benefit of the doubt. And though we’re told that Sanfur has been working with the Israelis for two years now (for believable reasons, not involving torture), we only ever see the boy displaying an angry, sullen demeanour towards Rafi, who is ostensibly like a father to him, (Sanfur doesn’t get along with his real father, who is indifferent to his son’s emotional needs and favours Ibrahim, despite his terrorism.) It’s difficult to completely understand or buy Rafi and Sanfur’s conjoined connection, a failed psychological plot point which could have been remedied if we’d seen their push-pull relationship develop and presumably deepen from the beginning.

Much better and more interesting are Bethlehem’s sub-plots, such as the hate on that Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (Ibrahim's group) – the two leading Palestinian terror groups: one based in Gaza, the other in the West Bank – have for each other, likely because the former is a fundamentalist counterpoint to the latter’s secularist outlook, despite both sharing common cause in rejecting peace with Israel. (A certain macho component is also apparent here, with the Hamas operatives favouring masks and acting even more thuggish in the process.) The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand which insists as being seen as the ‘civilized, democratic’’ embodiment of the West Bank's Palestinian self-government, is portrayed in the film as corrupt, living in the fanciest houses, complacent to its people’s needs (they never fix the damage that the Israeli military does to the home of Ibrahim’s family when they break in looking for him, despite promising to do so) and more than a little contemptuous of the Western countries’ (na├»ve) involvement and presence in the area and the peace process. The PA wants to make nice with the Israelis when the Americans are in town but they’re just as apt to take donated Belgian monies, earmarked for the advancement of Palestinian women, for themselves, a group comprised, of course, of males in the organization. (I doubt it’s a coincidence that the leading PA figure in Bethlehem (played by Tarik Kopty) looks quite a bit like Mahmoud Abbas, the real life President of the Palestinian Authority.) There’s even a whiff of Palestinian racism directed towards one of their own, Badawi (Hitham Omari), a Bedouin who is regularly reminded that he is not a ‘proper’ Arab. And while the Palestinians in the movie almost all either accept, endorse or tolerate the terrorists among them, it doesn’t recluse them from accepting, or the Israelis from offering, cancer treatments to Palestinians who need medical help in Israel, as a brief aside in the movie makes clear. Omar makes exactly the same point about the Palestinian populace’s complacent attitudes towards terror; there’s even an identical scene in both films where an ordinary Palestinian family tries to help a terror suspect escape from the Israelis who are chasing him – but somehow in Abu-Assad's movie it’s the Israelis’ fault that it’s come to this. Adler’s take on it is not to blame anyone for that state of affairs but merely present it as a sad, disquieting and disturbing truth. It’s the difference between propaganda, which Omar largely is, and Bethlehem’s genuine, artistic filmmaking and risk taking.

A scene from Bethlehem
The acting in Bethlehem (impressively, mostly by non-professionals) is also more consistent than in Omar, and the latter’s plotting – other than the touching and forbidden love affair between Omar and his friend Tarek’s lovely sister Nadia (a fine performance by Leem Lubany) – is often ridiculous, even risible. (I can only conclude that the fact that Omar was picked as one of the five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and Bethlehem was not had more to do with sympathy for the Palestinian cause or a sense that some balance had to be restored since four Israeli films in almost as many years had made the final cut. Artistic merit could not have entered into the choice.) And of the two movies, it’s Bethlehem that packs the visceral punch. (Abu-Assad's pacing in Omar is largely sluggish and his direction pedestrian.) Ultimately, what one takes away from the often, hackneyed and unconvincing Omar is the sense of a director venting his anger and disregard towards ‘the other’, without offering any revelations or valid reasons to look at this continuing conflict in a new light. Bethlehem has been compared to a West Bank version of TV's The Wire but it's more akin to The Defiant Ones, with two 'enemies" yoked together by circumstances they can't escape. Bethlehem reminds us that the gulf between the two sides is quite large (as the current impasse in the peace process makes abundantly clear) and that even if individuals, such as Rafi and Sanfur, make a connection, however tenuous, it’s not enough to overcome the fear, even hatred emanating from both sides. But by showcasing a humane outlook and willingness to see both sides in a sympathetic and understanding light, without endorsing their worst impulses or actions, it’s Bethlehem and only Bethlehem which makes the indelible impression.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on iconic cinema.

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