There’s never a shortage of heart-wrenching, angst-ridden movies about the Israeli-Palestinian divide. What stands out from Yuval Adler’s “Bethlehem,” winner of six Ophir Awards and now in the running for best foreign film in the Oscars, is not its success as a disturbing parable about the conflict, but the fact that three of the leading actors are all first-timers.
Tsahi Halevy, who plays Razi, the sensitive, troubled Shin Bet officer; Haitham Omari, as the wiry, terrifying Palestinian al-Aqsa Brigades deputy commander; and Shadi Mar’i, the actor playing the young Palestinian collaborator, were not professional actors when they were chosen for the film, although they weren’t entirely new to the world of the stage and screen.
Halevy, 38, is a long-time musician who performs regularly with the dance and percussion troupe Mayumana but had never acted before his “Bethlehem” audition. Omari, a cameraman for Al Arabiya, was wrangled into auditioning by his boss, who produced the film as well, and Mar’i, a 19-year-old from a village outside Nazareth, was just a high school student who auditioned after being seen in a local production.
“I didn’t know anything,” said Mar’i, who first got interested in acting through an after-school theater class. “I didn’t know about salaries or auditions, and when I was picked, I said to myself, ‘Oy va voy, what have I done.’ You feel so responsible, it’s hard to be in a new role, in a big role, and I had no idea what I was doing.”
What happened, however, on the set of “Bethlehem” — besides the gripping storyline of a young collaborator and his Shin Bet handler caught in a web of lies — was that three stellar performances were cajoled out of these novices, which was something of a surprise to everyone involved.
Mar’i grabs the viewers from the very start when he’s seen taunting his friends on a hill outside their village, his soft lips belying a tough attitude. Omari, whose character is nicknamed Badawi for his mocked Bedouin heritage, is the uncompromising fighter who has a soft spot for family and loyalty but shows no compunction when he needs to make violent decisions. And Razi, the curly-haired operative who chats up fellow Arab speakers whenever he has the chance, shows how anyone, even well-trained agents, can get tripped up by the wrong allegiances.
“There were a lot of connections made between all of us,” said Halevy, who learned his fluent Arabic — one of five languages he speaks — during a childhood spent abroad with his diplomat father and family. “We spent a lot of time together at first, learning the script and talking to Yuval [the director], and talking about the gray area that’s told by this story.”
“It’s a thriller,” he said, continuing. “Yuval always says that Hollywood searches for these kinds of stories and we have them right under our nose.”
Much has already been written about Adler, a philosopher and mathematician with a PhD from Columbia University who came up with the concept of the film while living in New York, and then wrote the script with Ali Waked, a Palestinian journalist who lives in Jaffa. It’s clear that Adler, who was recently signed by talent agency WME, knows how to coax out good material from a script as well as raw emotions and dialogue from actors. He also wasn’t afraid to delve into the unknown when it came to auditioning the cast.
It was around two and a half years ago and Omari was out scouting locations in Wadi Joz when his producer asked him to come to the set to meet Waked and Adler. He knew his boss was working on the film, but didn’t know why they were calling him.
“Yuval was holding his camera and looking at me, and I’m thinking, ‘Why is he looking at me?” he related.
They asked Omari to try speaking a few lines, telling him to just be himself, and to ad-lib if necessary.
“I start speaking and shouting, and I’m starting to laugh,” he said, “and they’re just looking at me,” he added, their mouths hanging open. “They ask me to do another line, and I said, ‘C’mon, you’re kidding. And then Yuval says, ‘I want you to come to Tel Aviv to do auditions,’ and I said, “I’m not an actor!”
When Omari got to the audition, he said he heard Yuval behind a closed door asking an actor to repeat the lines several times and thought to himself, “This is not for me.”
But the friend who was accompanying him told him to see it through, to see it as an opportunity. So did his wife, who thought it would be a great break from the intensity of his camera work.
“I thought, okay, at the end, I’ll have a DVD for the family,” he said, chuckling, referring to his wife and four kids.
Mar’i said he didn’t know anything about the script before heading to the audition, but figured he had nothing to lose.
“I knew I loved acting because I never missed one of my acting classes,” he said. “Then, when I auditioned for ‘Bethlehem,’ I realized it was a really strong film, and that it would be really good for me.”
Adler told Omari that he was being pressured by the producers to hire a more known actor to carry the film, even though he wanted Omari’s raw, untainted energy.
When they did begin filming, Omari, more accustomed to being behind than in front of the camera, would yell “Cut!” after a good take. Adler, he said, would repeatedly, patiently remind him, “Haitham, you don’t say cut.”
Mar’i commented he was so new to the process, he didn’t know what went into making a film.
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a sound man,” he said, laughing.
All three, however, said they realized the script offered an unusual opportunity to represent the conflict in a different light.
“It’s very balanced,” said Omari. “Nothing is black or white. It’s very close to the reality, and because of that, I thought the movie would become something. It’s the first time that viewers see these kinds of people.”
After winning awards at the Venice Film Festival (where it premiered) and from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television (the Ophir) and being named best Israeli feature film at the recent Haifa International Film Festival, “Bethlehem” represents Israel’s bid for a best foreign film Oscar this year.
For the actors — who are still getting accustomed to seeing themselves on the big screen — it’s something of a shock to be thrust into this kind of limelight.
“When I saw the first screening, I kept on watching for myself, and I didn’t know if it was good or bad. I could only criticize myself,” said Mar’i, who has since already snagged another acting spot, in “Arabani,” an Israeli short about a Druze family that was shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer.
Ditto for Halevy, who will playing a recurring role on “Betulot,” a new Israeli TV series. “I never imagined that after twenty years of performing music, I’d start to act,” he said.
And Omari, who smirks self-consciously when he mentions his agent and rustles the new scripts by his side, said his wife told him to go smile for the cameras while she waited on the sidelines during the Ophir Awards ceremony.
“I’m trying to go with it,” said Omari. “I’m trying not to have a complete meltdown.”