Superlatives can be tricky in journalism. Say someone or something is “the only” or “the first” or “the most” and chances are very good you’re going to be called on it sooner rather than later. Still, it seems a pretty safe bet to declare Israel’s Yuval Adler the only feature-film director who’s also taught a graduate-level seminar on the ferociously abstruse philosophy of Martin Heidegger (which he did last year at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University) and announced his intention to write a book – “a metaphysical interpretation” no less – on the Book of Job.
Of course, the teaching gig and the book stand little chance in making Adler, 44, famous. His feature-film work, however, is another matter entirely. There’s not much of it, just one small-budget picture, in fact, called Bethlehem, that Adler co-wrote and directed just more than two years ago. But in the last seven months, Bethlehem’s assured and arresting depiction of the complicated, finally tragic bond between an Israeli secret-service agent and his teenaged Palestinian informant has garnered big-time attention, favourable critical notices and, as of late last September, six Israeli Oscars, including best picture. Following a North American premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, it’s unspooling commercially this spring on Canadian screens, buoyed by notices calling it “The Wire in the West Bank.”
Making Bethlehem marked the realization of a long-postponed ambition for Adler as well as a solution of sorts to an angst that lasted well into his 30s. Interviewed recently by telephone from his home in Tel Aviv, Adler said that “as a teenager, it was obvious to me that I was going to make films. But I was also into mathematics and philosophy and I just started doing stuff, thinking I’ll do this and then I’ll do that. Life seems infinite when you’re young. … Later on you realize it’s not that infinite, actually.”
Testing those limits led Adler “on a weird trajectory” that included a stint with Israeli army intelligence, studies in sculpture and photography at New York’s Columbia University, acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, a PhD in philosophy, also from Columbia, real estate deals in Brooklyn and mathematical consulting work for a Manhattan hedge-fund magnate. Being a jack of all trades proved singularly unsatisfying, however, and Adler, faced with the sudden realization that he was growing older, crashed, plunging into what he describes as “a stretch of bad, destructive behaviour.”
“I didn’t have anything to hold onto. I said I was going to be a film director, but it was based on nothing. It was all in my head. I could have just as easily said I was going to be an astronaut: It was completely in the air.” Now, married and the father of two children, with an acclaimed film under his belt, “It’s not in the air,” Adler observed with a laugh. “I have an agent. I have meetings. People offer me stuff. People call me. People want to interview me. Today I’m in the world. Before, even my wife didn’t want to talk to me.”
Inspiration for Bethlehem came from Adler watching a video of a Palestinian collaborator being shot in broad daylight by fellow Palestinians. What makes a person become an informant, to live such a risky existence, Adler wondered. What’s his relationship with his community as he betrays it? And with his Israeli handler? Three years of research followed, as well as a writing collaboration with Ali Wakad, a Muslim Palestinian journalist with 10 years’ reporting experience on the West Bank. Another year was taken up with casting non-professionals, assembling a crew, scouting locations and scrounging the $1.5-million that allowed Adler to start principal photography in late November, 2011. A mere 29 days later he was calling it a wrap.
Unsurprisingly, Adler is gearing up to direct another movie, likely in 2015, subject unspecified. “I’m at that fragile stage where I shouldn’t be talking about it,” he said. Given the success of Bethlehem, he acknowledged he could easily till the soil of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one more time, but “I want to go in a different direction.”
“On the one hand, the subject [of Israeli-Palestinian tensions] is attractive,” he agreed.
“On the other, I don’t want to be somebody who does this kind of film all the time. You do something like [Bethlehem], people see less of the film and more of the political situation, and when they interview me, they talk to me about the situation rather than the film. I feel I’ve had enough of that.” Bethlehem also is “very much history” for Adler: Talking it up with film writers, critics and publicists is “like being in college and going on about high school like it’s now,” he said.
Adler is not averse to working again with non-professional actors (“It’s whatever’s right for the project”), but confessed a hankering to do a film with professionals. “Because I studied acting I actually think I know how to talk to actors,” he said. “When you’re working with non-actors, you write more toward what they have naturally; you don’t make them go against what they are. With professionals, like Gene Hackman, theoretically, you can make him be the sheriff in Unforgiven or you can make him the wiretapper in The Conversation.”
Can he ever see himself directing a comedy?
Adler laughed. “Absolutely. I’m trying to tell that to people – that I’m actually a comedy director … a comedy director looking for a comedy. And they say, ‘You? You and your violence and your, your men!’”
Bethlehem opens April 4 in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and in other Canadian cities through the spring.