Anna Karenina on a Roller Coaster

Volume 4, Issue 2, Summer 2014

By Robert Ast

Two men saw something on the top of a hill.
The first one said: “It’s a bird.”
The second one said: “No. It’s a goat.”
They argued—bird, goat, bird, goat—until the first one threw a stone at it, and it flew away.
The second one said: “That’s a goat, even if it flies!”

Half language game, half parable, this monologue that appears near the climax of the film Bethlehem is perhaps the only clue that the spare psychological thriller was directed by a philosopher—Yuval Adler, Ph.D. ’99, Philosophy.

After a varied career that, in addition to his time in academia, featured stints in real estate and as a quant for a hedge fund, Adler turned to filmmaking and made his directorial debut with Bethlehem, which traces the complicated relationship between a Palestinian informant and his Israeli handler during the second Intifada. Adler, a native of Israel who currently resides in Tel Aviv and worked in military intelligence during his service in the Israel Defense Forces, cowrote the film with Ali Waked, a Palestinian. The two worked for years to collect materials and craft a script that would have the correct tone.

“We worked together for three and a half, almost four years. It’s a very complex thing,” Adler recalls. “We wanted something that’s both authentic and a genre movie. To get that balance was the difficult part. We spoke with everyone: Israeli secret services, Israeli army guys on the ground, Hamas militants, Palestinian authorities, Christians in Bethlehem. The details in the film are based on something real.”

The film begins in medias res, with the protagonist Sanfur torn between his loyalty to his brother, a Palestinian militant, and the closer relationship he has with Razi, his handler.

“We thought about showing the recruitment, but we couldn’t have a 12-hour film,” Adler remarks. “It’s a long process; it can take a year before they start to use an asset. The handler’s job is to create intimacy. It’s about slowly developing a relationship with someone, seeing what’s missing in their world and giving it to them.”

Sanfur’s position between two worlds becomes increasingly untenable as the story progresses, and indeed much of the film’s power stems from the escalating tension of the narrative. But there are also small moments that go against the plot-driven conventions of the thriller genre—a character vomiting in the middle of a chase sequence, for example—that give Bethlehem a verisimilitude absent from most films of its type. This attention to detail is the result not only of Adler and Waked’s thorough research but also of Adler’s philosophical training.

“Both philosophy and film come from a deeper root,” Adler says. “You’re trying to understand the world by being open to it. There’s something similar in the way that philosophy and film offer a way to explore the world after observing it.”

Adler combined his studies in analytic philosophy with instruction in sculpture under the artist Judy Pfaff, then a professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts and now at Bard College. In fact, the two come together in his dissertation, which examines metaphysics and indexicality (the condition of always being situated somewhere within the world and seeing from a certain viewpoint) and, as an example, discusses the ability to differentiate a statue from a chunk of clay. Pfaff remarks that, although it was somewhat unusual for a Ph.D. candidate to request to study with her, admitting Adler was “a no-brainer.”

“He was just so unusual for me in his intelligence and his approach to art, and he took it on really, really easily,” she recalls. “He was very knowledgeable of aesthetics and the current art world. I’ve never seen anyone as confident and as bright.

“Unlike most scholars or academicians, he’s very physical. He’s an imposing man. It wasn’t just fun working with him—he tested me, and I was forced to kind of ask questions of him and of the work.”

Pfaff also remarked upon another quality that would serve Adler well in preparing for Bethlehem.

“He doesn’t hang around with trendy art people or egghead academics. He really likes the street—real people with real lives, and some of those lives are dangerous. He had kind of an instinct about the underbelly of things.”

Ultimately, though, the experience of making a film was quite different from either his art or his scholarship.

“After being in art and academia, where you’re so alone and so in control of what you’re doing, film is the most opposite place you can be,” Adler says. “You are constantly dealing with people and trying to be creative and fight with people and answer questions. It’s very difficult to deal with so many people in such an intense environment in such a short amount of time. There’s a famous director, I forget who, who said it’s like trying to write Anna Karenina on a roller coaster.”

Bethlehem was named Best Film in the Venice Days section of the 2013 Venice Film Festival and received six Ophirs (the Israeli Oscar), including Best Screenplay for Adler and Waked, Best Director for Adler, and Best Film. The film was released in the United States this spring and earned positive reviews: Manohla Dargis of The New York Times praised its complexity; in Variety Leslie Felperin remarked on Adler’s “confident grasp of pace, place and thesp[ian] handling.”

Much of the praise for the film, however, has focused on its nuanced treatment of Israeli- Palestinian relations—not on its cinematic qualities. “In Israel reactions were remarkably positive, both on the left and the right,” Adler says. “Outside Israel, it’s been branded as right wing or left wing; this wasn’t the case here. When the film opened in France and Germany, they liked the film, but they just talk about the politics. They don’t talk about the film as a film at all—it’s completely about the politics. “We tried with each of the three main characters to make them as authentic, interesting, and three-dimensional as possible: each is great in his own way. We didn’t idolize, didn’t judge, and we didn’t think about making some grand political statement. I think when you see something like this, you should be open to just looking at the people and not looking for symbols. Let them be people.”

The success of Bethlehem, which featured largely unprofessional actors and was produced on a small budget, has presented new opportunities in the film industry, and Adler has already begun working on his next project. But, ever the polymath, Adler continues to work in philosophy, teaching a graduate seminar on Martin Heidegger at Bar-Ilan University, and also plans to write a book on the Book of Job. He notes, however, that cinema offers something unique.

“When you sit at home alone in your underwear and have an idea that no one cares about, and then later there’s a film in the world, it’s amazing. There’s nothing like it.”